At last! The biggest state in the Horn of Africa can blow its own trumpet

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Trail-blazing guidebook publisher Hilary Bradt first came here 34 years ago when Marxists held sway and tourists were few. All that has changed

"Mr Obama, very good man!" Solomon pattered beside me, school books under his arm. "Michelle Obama, very very good woman!" He told me that he was 11 years old and that he wanted to be a teacher.

I reflected upon how much had changed in the 34 years since I was last in Ethiopia, backpacking the length of the country with my husband, George. Then, we were harassed daily by children, at best verbally, at worst with stones. A teacher told us that the Marxist government, the Derg, had closed the secondary schools so that pupils could "disperse among the broad masses dispensing political indoctrination" and that most children (or their parents) had been boycotting the school anyway because of their "high level of political consciousness". The result was bands of feral children demonstrating their political consciousness with dedication and enthusiasm, including sticking a piece of paper to our bus window stating: "Exploter. Yankey Emperiolist go home."

The Derg, originally a collaboration between the police and army, came to power after the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 and chose socialism as the way forward. "I supported them at the beginning," my guide, Bedassa, told me. "There were so many injustices under Haile Selassie. And the army was a good career. We were taught that foreigners were on the side of imperialism. Yes, I hated Americans. And the British!" I asked if he had changed his mind, but I knew the answer. Bedassa has his own company now and tourists are discovering Ethiopia in increasing numbers. But in 1976 we not only represented the enemy but there was a civil war as Eritrea fought for its independence.

Axum is a bullet's range from the Eritrean border and in 1976 George and I were forbidden to travel there. It's where Ethiopian history began, and it was my first stop in 2010. Two thousand years ago, the Axumite empire was an important trading centre, and by the mid fourth century Christianity was the official religion. Axum is also the legendary resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, so its religious history spans both Old and New Testaments. It's a fascinating place, reminiscent of Egypt with its pre-Christian obelisks. More than 24m high and carved from huge blocks of granite, transported, perhaps by elephants, from a quarry almost four miles away, these monuments are an extraordinary feat, rendered even more impressive by the fact that they serve no purpose – except to impress. They seem to have been erected by a series of rulers to symbolise power, and are decorated with fake doors and windows. Below them are burial chambers whose perfect masonry is reminiscent of the Incas, though predating them by 1,000 years.

The ancient Ethiopians were unparalleled in their mastery of stone cutting. Throughout the north of the country are rock-hewn churches, the most famous of which are in Lalibela, built on hills surrounded by flat, fertile plains. Fertility leads to wealth, and as the great churches and cathedrals of the Christian world testify, wealthy states have turned to God to maintain their fortunes.

So it was in Lalibela. But I prefer the Ethiopian version of how the town's churches came to be created in the 12th century by the eponymous king. A swarm of bees prophesied that Lalibela would replace his brother, the rightful heir. The brother was understandably peeved, particularly because he was king at the time. His attempt to poison his brother was a conspicuous failure, however, since while Lalibela was in a coma, an angel took his soul to heaven and showed him designs for the churches he must build in and around the little settlement of Roha. At the same time, another angel visited the king and persuaded him to abdicate in favour of Lalibela.

So, the scene was set for the construction of perhaps the most extraordinary ancient site in sub-Saharan Africa. The angels had no interest in building churches the easy way, from the ground up. No, they must be carved out of the rock underfoot, cutting downwards until a free-standing church was created at the bottom of a deep pit with a labyrinth of tunnels and trenches providing subterranean access. The 14 churches were completed in 24 years, so they say, with angels taking over the night shift.

In 1976, I wrote: "Lalibela is quite a town. It has a hospital, a tourist hotel with another being built ... and lots of impoverished people." Now, it has 20 hotels, and fewer impoverished people. The tourists who arrive daily have left their mark in a positive way. I met Hugh Sharp, a doctor who has twinned Lalibela with Glastonbury, and over five years has raised £90,000 for community projects in the town. I also ran across the founders of Ethiopia Education Aid who, like Hugh, originally came as tourists. This time they were in Ethiopia for the graduation of their first successful student. Mulugeta started school at 15; now he'd finished a three-year course in tourist management and everyone was proud.

Angels are big in Ethiopia. Their round, benevolent faces, framed by Afro hair, cover the ceiling of Debre Birhan Selassie in Gondar, a short flight from Lalibela. The 19th-century paintings in this church are extraordinarily graphic in their images of Christian martyrdom. I have to admit to a morbid fascination in the church's depictions. There are beheadings, hangings and upside-down crucifixions, with a huge, gloating, flame-licked devil supervising.

But, if you are looking for seriously gruesome murals, head south to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, and take a boat trip to the monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret, on the Zege Peninsula. Almost hidden in the forest, where parrots screech and monkeys scamper, this place excels itself in imaginative depictions of prolonged killings. Added to the usual beheadings, there's a flaying and a roasting. Where the saint has managed to keep his head he looks no more than mildly perturbed at what's being done, with the exception of St Sebastian who looks very cross indeed at the 18 arrows that were shot into his torso.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has added its own holy books to the Bible and has access to some saints who led splendidly unusual lives. I have a particular affection for St Tekla Haymanot who spent seven years standing on one leg, surviving on one seed a year fed to him by a bird, which in return drank from the saint's tears. Then there's Belayeseb, who was tempted by the devil to turn cannibal and enjoyed quite a bit of human flesh, judging by his obesity and the stray limbs about his person, and yet he managed to get to heaven due to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Samuel has done even better, riding on a furious-looking lion which is paying penance for eating the saint's mule.

Lions may be a thing of the past in this part of Ethiopia, but there's something leonine about the gelada "baboons" that inhabit the Simien Mountains. I can't bring myself to call them monkeys, despite their new classification. They were "bleeding-heart baboons" when I was last there, so that's how I think of them. Not that it matters: they tick all the boxes for a top-notch wildlife experience. The males sport luxuriant flaxen hair which almost hides their peanut-shaped black faces. On their chest is a heart-shaped patch of pink skin which turns red at times of passion. The adults compete with the local livestock for their favourite food, grass, while the youngsters tumble and frolic around them. Add a background of chiselled mountain peaks, a dramatic escarpment and a glimpse of one of the rarest animals in Africa, the massive-horned walia ibex, and you wonder how long it will be before this place is "discovered".

In the old days, a trip here involved an arduous day's mule trek just to reach the escarpment, and then three or four days of trekking to see the best of the scenery. Now the Simien Lodge provides comfortable accommodation right in the national park – and a hot-water bottle to ward off the chill night air – so visitors can walk as much or as little as they want. The lodge is not cheap but it is unique in Ethiopia in the outreach of its community projects, funded by 2.5 per cent of their income and topped up by donations from generous visitors. So much has been achieved this way: school benches so the children no longer sit on the floor for their lessons and the local carpenter has an income, and fuel-efficient cement stoves for the neediest families, who in return must plant trees. Deforestation is a desperate problem in the region but it's inevitable where most families still cook on open fires. The result: 7,000 young trees and 1,000 families whose lives have been made a little easier.

This, surely, is the future of tourism in places such as Ethiopia that can tap into visitors' desire to give something tangible back. And it's not only wealthy tourists who can contribute. In Debarek, where backpackers begin their Simiens trek, the Peace Corps has opened an internet café run by girls orphaned by Aids, so just emailing your blog helps the community.

Although Ethiopia is not yet free from demanding children, it was noticeable how polite and friendly they were in the popular tourist areas. The Derg would have despaired to see what form their political consciousness has taken these days.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers this 11-day trip to Ethiopia, titled The Historical Circuit, from £2,662 per person based on two sharing. It includes return international and domestic flights with Ethiopian Airlines, ground transport and a mix of full board and B&B.

Further information

The Bradt Guide to Ethiopia, by Philip Briggs (price £16.99).

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