Historical Sites In Ethiopia

The diversity of culture and geography, which so overwhelms the visitor to Ethiopia, is no accident of place: it is indicative of a quite extraordinary past. This is a past, which has left its mark on the land, the people and their monuments, which begins not with the origin of a nation, but with the origin of mankind itself, and which pursues a unique course through the centuries.

Sof Omar caves

The caves are located in a valley of sand-coloured buttresses covered with feathery dark green acacia trees, 450km southeast of Addis Ababa, beyond the Rift Valley's flamingo-lined crater lakes. Sof Omar lies beside the Web's murky waters, where a crevice opens onto caverns and vaults that defy human expectations of Nature as the river plunges underground for 1.5km.
The caves themselves are a labyrinth of mystical tunnels and chambers, carved from limestone and chalk by the Web River.

Local legend holds that, Sof Omar was playing nearby when Allah opened the cave mouth for him. He used the chambers as the mosque all his life, and they remained sacred to Muslims as a place of pilgrimage and worship. Inside, a perfect dome 20m high has been fashioned by water. River-borne pebbles have chiseled pale reddish walls. The route skirts the water's edge, or deviates down long sandy tunnels.


Ethiopia has yielded the oldest evidence of human origins yet discovered - the fossilized skeleton of a female hominid. Nicknamed Lucy by her discoverer, Oinkinesh as the Ethiopians prefer to call her (the name means 'Thou art Wonderful'), predates all other hominid remains (none of which are older than 2.5 million years) for she was alive more than 3 million years ago. This creature was perhaps the progenitor of both ourselves and another form of hominid, now extinct, and it is likely that the soils of Ethiopia will in turn lead us to the discovery of Dinkinesh's own ancestors.

Stone Age Culture

Ethiopia, as with the rest of Africa, was the site of the first breakthroughs in human civilization in the use of fire, simple cultivation and pastoralism. Ethiopia has some fine examples of a Stone Age and pre-Stone Age culture: stone tools have been found in river beds and delicate paintings on the walls of caves, such as those at Porc Epic near Dire Dawa, estimated to be some 400,000 years old. But the history unique to Ethiopia

begins to pick up a little later, with the movement and interactions of peoples and their cultures from southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. In this poorly illuminated period historians have detected Semitic and Hamitic groups. Originally each of these groups was culturally distinct-but about 1000 BC, a new, dynamic and wholly distinct culture began to emerge. It had as its port Adulis and the city of Axum as its political centre, from where immense trading networks radiated to Egypt, Arabia and India.


The Axumites constructed within Ethiopia a new religion, a new script, Ce'ez, and a new political cohesion. Theirs was a sophisticated and wealthy culture: one can only imagine what their laws, administration, irrigation and agriculture must have been like. But they have left us with a few quite remarkable artifacts; amongst them colossal stelae, hacked from single pieces of rock, and sculpted into tall imaginary dwellings. They imply not only considerable manpower and artistic ability, but also a high level of architectural, technical and mathematical skill.

The Axumites developed more than just a powerful civilization: during the reign of the great King Ezana they became Christians. This Christianity not only created a fabulously rich ecclesiastical tradition but it also endowed the nation with a sense of unique destiny. At the heart of this lies the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, first elaborated in 1000 AD and proudly reproduced in written and oral form thereafter. The story anchored the Ethiopian people firmly in antiquity for the great queen had lived a thousand years before Christ and, through Solomon's blessing of Sheba's son, Menelik I; it legitimized king and people as David's race. To this was added the testament of scripture to provide a blueprint for a Christian society remarkable for both its creativity and its tolerance of the other great faiths of the Ethiopian people, Islam and Judaism.

Some of the most stunning manifestations of such religious energy date from the medieval period.

Churches of Lalibela

The churches at Lalibela, typical of many throughout the country, have been physically prised from Ethiopia's rock. Exquisitely decorated on the outside, they house wonderful paintings within. They are perfect examples of the close relationship of power and religion for they are the endowment of a king. Lalibela (1205-1225) of the Zagwe dynasty, who, some historians argue, was building for his people a new Jerusalem.
The churches are named after many places in that Holy city: Calvary, Golgotha, and the Tomb of Adam. The 14th and 15th centuries saw a flourishing of intellectual culture with more translations of the Scriptures into Ge'ez, royal chronicles and superb illuminated manuscripts


Imperial splendour grew also and gravitated south to the city of Gondar, founded in 1636 by the great Emperor Fasiladas. Gondar contains fantastic castles, palaces and churches built by Fasiladas and his illustrious, Progeny, Yohannes I and Iyasu the Great.


Throughout this time the mercantile Islamic culture that is another important facet of Ethiopian history and life also grew in stature: the town of Harar is a fine example of this alternative strand of Ethiopia's past. Within the self-contained and self-perpetuating structure of church and empire that existed largely unchanged from the 12th to the 19th century, another aspect of Ethiopia's past also flourished: the art and culture of the ordinary people, evidence of which is still visible in dress and festivals.


Many of the smaller fragments and artifacts of Ethiopia's history are now collected in the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, at Sidist Kilo in Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa's National Museum houses more archaeological material, while it must be remembered that there are good museums in all the local centres of historical interest such as Axum or Gondar.

For Ethiopia's more recent past, a period in which modernization evolved quite independently of foreign colonial interference, there are two first rate museums. The Addis Ababa Museum covers the one hundred years of the city's development, while the Menelik Museum at Entoto pays tribute to a leader who, assisted by his people, set Ethiopia firmly on her path towards modernity.

Last Updated on Tuesday 8th December 2009