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Hailed as the "cradle of humanity," Ethiopia boasts a human history that dates back millions of years. At its heart lie the Ethiopian Highlands.

Home to 80 percent of Africa's tallest mountains, the highlands have helped shelter Ethiopia from foreign conquest and preserve one of the world's most distinct cultures. Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been colonized. It is also the second country after Armenia to have adopted Christianity as its official religion. The setting for this pivotal event was the northeastern highland city of Aksum, a leading civilization of the ancient world and, reportedly, the resting place for the Ark of theCovenant. To the east, Lalibela, a former capital, contains one of Christianity's most important sites -- a series of 13th century churches carved out of rock with the help of angels, according to legend.

Few spiritual heritages can lay claim to a more awe-inspiring setting. The Blue Nile courses through this region, the Great Rift Valley sprawls in its center, and the Simien and Bale Mountains enclose it on either side.

But the Ethiopian Highlands are a place of problems, as well as mystery. After 7,000 years of agriculture, the land is tiring out. Plagued by recurring drought, the area saw the worst of Ethiopia's 1985 famine. Soil erosion from clearing lands for the cultivation of coffee, Ethiopia's main export, and teff, an endemic grain, remains unchecked. Famine, long the scourge of Ethiopia, is an ever-present threat.

Still, the optimism of highlanders shines through. One Ethiopian proverb declares that when a spider's web forms, it can trap a lion. The people of the Ethiopian Highlands have managed to trap one of the world's richest cultural treasure chests.


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