Addis Ababa is not an ancient city - it's little more than a century old. Why, then, should history-lovers pay it a visit? Phillip Briggs reveals some of the unexpected attractions of the Ethiopian capital
Ironic, isn’t it, that in Ethiopia, a nation whose tangible history embraces three millennia and whose tourist circuit revolves around the magnificent antiquities of Biblical-era Aksum and medieval Lalibela, the capital should be a relatively modern city. Addis Ababa celebrated its first centenary in 1988, making it comparable in vintage to such historical nonentities as Harare, say, or Nairobi – and a year younger than Johannesburg!
So, a historical tour of Addis Ababa?
Are you serious?
Well, for short-stay visitors or those with a day to spare before they head further afield, the city provides an genuinely illuminating introduction to sub-Saharan Africa’s most historically wealthy – and culturally quirky – nation.
Is it true that the biggest local celebrity is well over three million years old?
You mean Lucy? Start at the National Museum of Ethiopia, near Siddist Kilo, where you’ll find a replica of her fossil remains. American anthropologists named her Lucy after the Beatles song, but she’s known to Ethiopians as Dinquinesh (Wonderful One). The discovery of this hominid specimen in the Ethiopian Rift Valley in 1974 forced a complete rethink of human genealogy – it demonstrated that human bipedalism is 2.5 million years older than was formerly supposed. The museum also contains some fascinating Axumite statues, including a Medusa-like dreadlocked woman and an Egyptian-style sphinx uncovered at the 2,600-year-old temple of Yeha, evidence of strong ancient links between pre-Judaic Ethiopia and the Mediterranean.
And that I can visit the former home of an emperor?
Yes – five minutes walk away from the museum, the palatial Institute of Ethiopian Studies Museum, formerly the home of Emperor Haile Selassie, displays artefacts relating to most local ethnic groups, from the Christians and Muslims of the highlands to the pagan pastoralists of the south. Its most impressive artefact is a relocated medieval obelisk from Tiya, one of thousands of mysterious engraved stelae that run through the south of Ethiopia.
Can you really hear lions roar in Addis?
Back at Siddist Kilo, the Yekatit 12 Monument is dedicated to the Ethiopians massacred by the Blackshirts in retaliation for the attempted assassination of Viceroy Graziani during the Italian occupation of 1936-41. Should the lion that tops this columnar monument break into a heartfelt roar, you’re not hearing things – an adjacent park hosts the caged descendents of the black-maned Abyssinian lions once kept by Haile Selassie.
And what of the Conquering Lion himself?
Haile Selassie’s six-decade reign spans half of Addis Ababa’s tenure as capital, so little wonder that Ethiopia’s last emperor left a strong mark on the architectural landscape. One such landmark is the Holy Trinity Cathedral, whose Arabic façade, 2km south of Siddist Kilo, hides a lavishly decorated interior of ecclesiastical paintings in the modern and medieval style. Haile Selassie himself was reburied here in November 2000, at a ceremony attended by Rita Marley, held some 25 years after he was killed in a coup and buried below a toilet building.
Any other royal remains I should look out for?
The nearby Church of Maryam (Mary) houses an eerie mausoleum enclosing the marble tomb of Emperor Menelik II, founder of Addis Ababa, together with his wife Taitu and their daughter Zawditu. Prior to the foundation of Addis Ababa, Menelik II maintained a modest capital in the Entoto Hills, within (steep) walking distance of Siddist Kilo. Here, the compound of the traditionally-painted Entoto Maryam Church houses a museum displaying religious items and ceremonial clothing owned by Menelik II and Taitu.
What about buildings dating back to the city’s earliest days?
The backroads running west from Siddist Kilo towards the Piazza host a residential quarter associated with the community of Orthodox Armenians who were offered refuge by Menelik II to protect them against persecution by Turkish Muslims. An important influence on Addis Ababa’s booming music scene during the late imperial era, Armenian settlers also built several of the city’s more interesting pre-WWII buildings. The oldest extant house in Addis Ababa, dating back to 1887, is a thatched one-storey residence built by Krikorios Bogossion on Welete Yohannis Street, still owned by the Bogossion family.
The legendary Piazza, though dominated by post-Italian Occupation constructions, is also studded with relics of the Menelik era. These include St George’s Cathedral, founded in commemoration of Menelik’s landmark defeat of Italy at Adwa in 1896. All subsequent emperors of Ethiopia were crowned in this, the oldest of Addis Ababa’s churches, and the walls are graced by some fine paintings and murals by the celebrated local artist Afewerk Tekle.
So is Addis Ababa all dusty museums and churches?
Far from it! The Piazza is the city’s ritziest shopping area, somewhat tamer than the wonderfully downmarket Mercato that lies to its northwest, but less staid than the nominal city centre to the south. It’s an enjoyable place to hang out, whether you sample cakes and espresso coffees at one of the capital’s trademark pastry shops, shop for local music CDs and cassettes, or just watch the parade pass you by. As evening descends, no visit to Addis Ababa would be complete without sampling the distinctively Ethiopian food of pancake-like injera bread and fiery red wat sauce – and where better to do so though than at the city’s oldest hostelry, the Taitu Hotel, practically unchanged in appearance since it was built on the Piazza by the namesake empress in 1907?