Addis Ababa: a rich mosaic of history, culture and art
There is more than a fleet of aircraft that will greet you at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the capital of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
After clearing customs at the airport, you will be greeted by friendly people who will do their best to speak to you in English, in a city where almost all the inhabitants speak their native Amharic.
A city amid the hills, souvenirs and archaeologically inspired outfits mingle with the faces of historical figures, in particular Emperor Haile Selassie, Plenipotentiary Regent of Ethiopia for Empress Zewditu.
Just like its name, the city is hallowed with flowers in the streets. Each official visitor and diplomat is welcomed with a petal. The city with a rich history, was named Addis Ababa, which literally means new flower.
Nicknamed Mekane Selam meaning the city of peace, the seven days I spent in Addis Ababa was a treat for culture, history and art, which is manifested in magnificent infrastructure, monuments and people.
My first day in Addis Ababa begins in Meskel Square in the heart of the city. Ethiopia is blessed with several parks and plazas, but Meskel is worth a visit.
A hotbed of arts and entertainment, the Ugandan team attending East Africa’s first arts and culture festival matched Meskels’ goal by putting on an electrifying performance, courtesy of the artists Phina Mugerwa Masanyalaze and Afropop artist CJ Champion.
This eventful day gives me the opportunity to discover Ethiopian culture and art. Kejela Merdassa, Minister of Culture and Sports, tells us that there is more to Ethiopia than the festival, encouraging people to visit and enjoy the country.
Meskel Square hosts the Meskel-Demera religious festival every year, an event listed by UNESCO as a World Intangible Heritage Site. The name of the square “Meskel” is derived from the Amharic word holy cross.
The square is the site where locals celebrate Meskel, the founding of the true cross of Jesus Christ each year on September 27.
Located near the graduate school of Addis Ababa University, the National Museum of Ethiopia houses a rich history and data that explains the origin of mankind.
The museum exhibits prehistoric fossils of historical faces of mankind, including the famous early hominid Lucy and the famous zinjanthropus skull, a fossil hominid based on a skull found in East Africa.
The inscription on Lucy’s remains suggests that her discovery in 1974 in the Afar region of northwestern Ethiopia forever changed the understanding of human origin. Most of the remains are clearly labeled in English so that no Amharic reader will understand the stories behind the fossils on display.
On the first floor, there is a living display of Ethiopian art ranging from the early days of the Kingdom of Aksum and the art of the Ethiopian Empire from the 14th and 20th centuries.
The museum is not that big but with an entry of only 10 Birr; it offers a wide collection of artistic, historical and archaeological exhibits around the world.
It is very difficult to talk about Ethiopia without mentioning Emperor Haile Selassie, who reigned between 1892 and 1975. In the Museum of Ethiopia, it is not only his portrait hanging on the wall. Emperor Selassie’s throne is one of the famous features you will find in the museum.
Given to Emperor Selassie by the people of India, the throne is well preserved and placed right next to the famous zinjanthrope’s skull.
Inside the compound, you’ll be treated to a historic sculpture of Emperor Selassie giving instructions to his students in 1974, the sculpture of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, which was donated to the city of Addis Ababa in 2002.
Just as the world associates the Rastafarian movement with Emperor Selassie after he visited Jamaica in the 1930s, at the museum guides reveal that the Rastafarian messianic figure was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian throughout his life.
Considered the rooftop of Addis Ababa, Entoto Park is another iconic place to visit away from the city center. At 3,200m above sea level, Entoto offers the option of getting up the steep road via the US Embassy to other iconic sites including historic churches and great infrastructure.
It is at the top of Entoto, where Menelik II built his house and used it as his headquarters when founding the capital below. Along with the iconic St. Mary’s Church which hosted Menelik’s coronation, Entoto is home to a new, state-of-the-art center recently inaugurated. Downtown Addis is a large marketplace and home to Ethiopian produce. Away from the magnificent City Hall, the country’s tallest bank and the railway line, don’t miss the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa, which was established in 2010 in memory of those who died during the Red Terror under the Derg government
Run by the Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau, the Oromo Cultural Center is another beautiful place that offers insight into culture, research, history, language and art of Oromo.
Miss Tourism for Oromo Culture, Halimaa Abdulshukur, explains that the center has four main divisions, including the Oromo Research Center, which is responsible for research on history, language, culture and art.
“The department has a sector for the linguistic research division, which deals with Afaan Oromoo folklore and oral literature, the study of Afaan Oromoo grammar, the codification and standardization of the Afaan Oromoo language and of the Afaan Oromoo Dictionary Creation Department,” she adds.
The cultural center has a lot to say about Oromo folk life and leadership based on the common understanding of people presented with symbols, norms and the famous Gada system.
Center elders reveal that the Gada system is a high-level socio-economic and democratic political system of Oromo society. The Gada system was recently registered by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage of the people. It includes social, political, economic and religious institutions.
Composed of different functional departmental units, the center which has a museum, a theater, a public library, an artistic and musical training center, houses rich historical facts, in particular used during the Second World War Italo-Ethiopian War, also called Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Abyssinian War of 1935.
While in Addis Ababa, you should use the country’s currency rather than the dollar. Before landing at Bole Airport, you will need to declare money that exceeds $3,000 and an official form will be provided to you.
It is understood that there are regulated institutions which include hotels and banks which are legally permitted to exchange money and customers are advised to request a receipt. Any transaction on the black market is illegal and punishable by law.
In Addis Ababa, the mode of transport is both public and private. Apart from traditional taxis commonly known as Radha, you can use digital taxis known as Ride which charge per kilometer.
For every ride you take, have an interpreter with you, as most drivers use native Amharic and a few can speak a word or two of English, especially those attached to the Ride app.
Nightlife is not a booming business as most clubs and bars are busy on weekends. But foreign revelers are advised to go with a national to avoid trouble.
For nightlife lovers, you can use Surrender Nightclub on Ghana Street, Ethiopian Lounge, Melo-Chichinya Bar, Elevate Bar, and Lounge on Ethio China Street, among others.
To facilitate communication, you will need to purchase an Ethio Telecom SIM card, which can be acquired at Bole International Airport or any Ethio Telecom outlet in Addis Ababa.
Like in every other African city, in Addis Ababa you have to watch your phone and other gadgets. From raw meat to spicy chili foods, be ready to be served with shiro stew, whose main ingredient is bean powder, combined with special herbs and spices.
Shiro is usually served with injera, a large sourdough flatbread, which is produced with teff, the local gluten-free millet.
But the history of Addis Ababa is not complete without coffee. A home of the world’s top quality Arabica coffee Discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder in the foothills of the Kaffa region around the 6th century, coffee is on every corner of town and you can use Kaldi’s, a chain inspired by Starbucks.
Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menilek II, who ruled Ethiopia between 1889 and 1913, persuaded the emperor to build a house near the hot springs at the foot of the plateau and grant land in the area to members of the nobility.
The city was thus founded in 1887 and named Addis Ababa (“New Flower”) by the Empress. With an area of 527 km², Addis Ababa which was founded in 1886, located in the highlands bordering the Great Rift Valley, is the commercial and cultural center of the country.