Debre Damo houses some of the most ancient Christian scripture in Africa. Gentlemen: you’ll have to describe it to the ladies.
Just off the main road between Lalibela and Aksum lies Debre Damo, a monastery that can be reached only by scrambling up a 15-meter-high cliff face.
There is, however, a discriminatory door policy: only men are permitted to make the perilous ascent to the monastery.
That rule doesn’t apply just to female humans — even livestock of the fairer sex apparently risk distracting the monks from holy contemplation.
Gents who brave the climb can enjoy stunning vistas, as well as a chance to eye some of the most ancient Christian scripture in Africa.
Be warned that unofficial “guides” will try to extort inflated fees for their services before letting you back down the cliff — negotiate the charge beforehand.
It’s practical to visit Debre Damo en route to Aksum.
The monastery lies just outside the small town of Bizet, 12 hours’ drive north of Addis and about 50 kilometers west of Adigrat, the last stop on Route 1 before turning west on to Route 15.
Follow the road to Bizet and keep a keen eye out for the turn to Debre Damo on the right.
8. The Ark of the Covenant
Is Ethiopia the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant?
The Lost Ark? In Ethiopia?
Someone should have told Indiana Jones that before he set off for Cairo.
According to enthusiastic local sources, the historic town of Aksum — focal point of the Aksumite Empire (AD 100-940) — is the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
The catch? No one’s actually allowed to see it.
The closest you can get is by paying a few dollars to one of the tracksuit-clad men posturing as guards outside the temple where the ark is purportedly kept.
Luckily, Aksum is home to plenty of ancient tombs and other monuments, which makes the drive to one of Ethiopia’s northernmost towns worthwhile — ark or not.
Though Aksum can be reached by a small road west of Mek’ele, people wanting to visit Debre Damo monastery as well should take Route 1, turning west on to Route 15 at Adigrat, and join Route 3 at Adwa.
9. Roadside Rastafarians
The Rastafari movement is most often associated with Jamaica, but it was Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie who inspired the religion.
Ethiopians are proud of their former ruler’s supposed status as Jesus incarnate and some have adopted the dress and lifestyle habits of their Jamaican counterparts — which makes meeting them in the Simien Mountains all the more bizarre.
The roadside Rastas you’re likely to meet are a friendly bunch, who’ll happily talk you through points of interest in the area (often relating to high cliffs off which Italian soldiers were thrown), as well as hawking red, green and yellow hats and accessories.
10. A fairy tale kingdom
British and Dutch colonial buildings attract the most architectural attention in east Africa, but Ethiopia again stands out as the only country on the continent with its own fairy tale castles.
Aside from a few eye-catching art deco buildings left over from the Italian occupation, the castles of Fasilides, Iyasu and Mentwab, in the former imperial capital of Gondar, are the structures that stay in the mind.
Gondar is a five-hour drive southwest of Aksum. Follow Route 3 through the Simien Mountains.
A good stopping point is Debark, with its mountain vistas.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2013. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.