Ethiopia 2019 Photographs by terry a. Mcdonald

Dawn, Erta Ale Crater, Afar Depression, Ethiopia. Like the ripped seams on a baseball, the Afar region is where Earth’s crust is splitting apart. The 700m volcano is one of the most active in the world and helps mark the continually changing geology of the Great Rift Valley. Erta Ale is not only in the most inhospitable place on Earth, it is also one of the most remote inhabited places on the planet. To get there is a journey in itself: a two-hour, bone-jarring Land Cruiser drive over an extensive lava field is followed by a three-hour hike up to the crater rim, at night, to avoid the 40°C+ day time temperatures. My hiking buddy for part of the way up and down was the back end of a camel, plus a very pleasant German couple, two young women from Japan, and a former reporter from Guildford, UK.
Dusk, Lake Asale, Danakil Depression, Afar, Ethiopia. At 123m below sea level, this 1200-square-kilometre salt pan is the world’s second largest. The lake itself is only a centimetre or two deep and shifts around at the whim of the winds, depositing salt over a wide area.
Dallol Hydrothermal Field, Danakil Depression, Afar, Ethiopia. In stark contrast to the bleak surroundings of the volcanoes, lava fields, and salt pan, hot sulphurous, acidic water rises to the surface in springs and fumaroles producing colourful salt patterns. The green pools reach a pH value of just 1, making them extremely corrosive. At 130m below sea level, Dallol also has the distinction of having the hottest average temperature for an inhabited location on Earth: 34.6°C.
Asale Salt Pan, Afar Depression, Ethiopia. At 1200 square km, this is the world’s second-largest salt pan, after the one in Bolivia. The salt is as thick as 800m in places and in others, there are layers of salty water between layers of salt. As well, there are salt ‘mountains’ 10s of metres high. However, a flat, almost featureless plain, baking under extreme desert conditions, is the norm.
Afari Salt Miners, Lake Asale, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia. A 2500-year-old tradition, the salt is cut and shaped into blocks using hand-tools, then transported six days and 2400m uphill via camel train to markets in Mekele. Despite offers of modernization, the Afaris have chosen to continue using traditional methods of extraction and transportation in the 40°C+ daily heat.
Great Temple of the Moon, Yeha, Tigray, Ethiopia. Built in the 7th century BCE, by the pre-Aksumite Damaat Empire, this is Ethiopia’s oldest standing structure. Sandstone blocks weighing many tonnes were transported over 150km from the quarry to be precision dressed and assembled without mortar. They remain in perfect alignment 2700 years later. The logistics and co-ordination of such an undertaking go well beyond the engineering of the structure. Another structure nearby, Grat Be’al Guebri, possibly a palace, dates from at least a century earlier and is still being excavated.
Aksum, the birthplace of Ethiopia. Clockwise from top right: 1. Queen of Sheba’s Palace: In the 10th century BCE, the Solomon Dynasty began with Menelik I, the son of the union between King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba, who was from Aksum (palace ruins shown). This dynasty continued into modern times, ending with Haile Selassie being unconstitutionally deposed by the Communist Derg in 1974. 2. Ark of the Covenant: Menelik I is also purported to have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from his father, King Solomon. It now resides in the heavily fortified Chapel of the Ark beside Church of St. Mary of Zion. 3. Balthazar’s Tomb: Another claim to fame for Aksum is the tomb of one of the three magi, Balthazar. The Ethiopian Church teaches that King Bezár who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth was the magi that brought frankincense, most likely from a grove near to the tomb. 4. Aksumite monolithic stelae: In the 4th c. CE, the Aksumite emperors built monolithic stelea as tomb markers. The Aksumite Empire was one of the four great empires of the time, alongside Roman, Persia and the Indus Valley. 5. Ezana Stone: In the 4th century CE, King Ezana converted his empire to Christianity as written on the Ezana Stone in three languages: Old Greek, Ge’ez (still used today in churches) and the ancient language of Sabaean from southern Yemen.
An old woman negotiates the extensive rock-hewn tunnels between the churches of Lalibela.
Sunrise Worship, Bete St. Giyorges, Lalibela, Ethiopia. As sung mass drifts upwards from the rock-hewn vaults below, worshippers begin to gather at the top of the Church of St. George, one of the finest examples of this mediaeval engineering triumph of rock-hewn churches.The 11 churches of Lalibela date from the reign of King Lalibela in the 12th century and comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After living in Jerusalem for 13 years, King Lalibela was commanded by God to build a second Jerusalem, which he did by carving each of the churches (and many more in other parts of Ethiopia) down into the solid rock, then hollowing out each unique cube or cruciform, complete with artistic pillars and vaulted ceilings.
Worship at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
Ethiopian Orthodox Priest, Yemrehana Krestos Church, Amhara Region, Ethiopia. Located 42km from Lalibela, this 11th- or 12th-century church, built in the Aksumite style using stone and olive wood, is 100 years older than the churches of Lalibela. Part of its uniqueness is that it is built inside a cave large enough to also house the Royal tomb of King Yemrehana Krestos, another building that served as his palace, and a boneyard containing the piled-up skeletons of over 400 holy people who have died there, dating back to the original construction.
Yemrehana Krestos Church
Procession, Debre Damo Monestary, Tigray, Ethiopia. Built in the 6th century atop a large mesa in the far north of Ethiopia, Debre Damo is the self-sufficient home of 150 monks and acolytes. Only men and boys are permitted entrance and it is only accessible using ropes and a make-shift harness to climb a 15m sheer cliff of sandstone, after ascending 335 hand-carved stone steps from the village below.
Abuna Aregawi Memorial Church, Debra Damo, Tigray, Ethiopia. Commissioned in the 12th century by Gebre Meskel (King Lalibela) this church commemorates Abba Aregawi, the 6th century builder of Debra Damo and one of the original Nine Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They came to Ethiopia from various parts of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century to escape persecution after their rejection of the Council of Chalcedon, the first major schism in Christianity, splitting the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic and Ethiopian) from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. For the first time in history, Christians persecuted other Christians.
The 5th- and 6th-century churches of Tigray in the dramatic Gher’Alta Mountains are difficult to access for good reason: they allow monks, nuns and priests to devote their lives to God without the distractions of day-to-day life. The rock-hewn churches of Miriam Korkor and Daniel Korkor are two such places with decorated interiors dating back to their founding.
5th- to 8th-century Frescoes, Abuna Yemata Church, Tigray, Ethiopia. Abuna Yemata is considered the most inaccessible church in the world. Climbing the 300m (1000-foot) near vertical mountain is difficult enough, but two-thirds of the way up is a 7m sandstone cliff that must be scaled. Then, near the top is a narrow natural rock bridge with a 250m drop on either side, followed by a 50cm wide ledge, with a 300m sheer drop, leading to the church entrance. But the physical effort and mental anguish are worth it, with beautiful, original frescoes adorning the walls and ceiling in utterly peaceful surroundings next to Heaven itself.
Tigray Region, northern Ethiopia. Piles of hay help to feed farm animals through the long dry season. It is March and the rains are still three to four months away, leaving the landscape utterly parched.
Thriving Addis Ababa. With the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, The UN Economic Commission for Africa, plus many other international organizations, Addis Ababa is often considered Africa’s capital. It is a busy, dynamic, burgeoning city of contrasts, with a healthy and growing middle class.
What’s a trip to Ethiopia without visiting the National Museum and 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis ‘Lucy’ (above) from the Afar region, her older cousins Salem (3.3mya) and Ardi (4.4mya), and our oldest direct ancestor, Idaltu at 160,000ya (not pictured). Traditional Ethiopian coffee, was also on my mind, served here with an herb called rue (different from North American rue).
Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Stretching over many city blocks and neighbourhoods, Africa’s largest outdoor market boasts wholesale merchants of virtually every commodity from plastic household items, iron works and recycling, and clothing to fruits and vegetables, exotic spices, and coffee, for which Ethiopia is the origin.
Evening Worship, Medhane-Alem Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Africa’s second-largest cathedral serves a large and devotedly religious population of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo congregants, whose traditions go back to the 5th century.
Ethiopians are an hospitable people, a quality brought into sharp focus when a family invited me to join them for a communal, shared lunch of injera and stewed vegetables on our way down from Abuna Yemata Church (top left). With a population of over 100 million, and growing, Ethiopia’s future is its people. Over 70% are still earning their largely subsistence living from the land, making them highly vulnerable to any disruption to sufficient rains for their crops. Yet, there is a growing middle class, affluent and forward-thinking. What will the next few decades bring to Africa’s oldest country?


All photographs are ©️Terry A. McDonald and were made with an iPhone 8 Plus, many as Adobe Lightroom Mobile raw and hdr-raw captures, processed through Lightroom. Panoramas and other photos were made and processed using the Apple Photos app.