Lucy in the sky? No, Ad Addis
However, Addis Ababa has much more to offer than just its institutions and its frenetic chaos typical of an African metropolis. Visiting its main attractions means reliving some of the most important moments in both world and local history.
Splendid buildings like St. George’s Cathedral and Holy Trinity Cathedral recall the troubled relationship between Ethiopia and Italy: the former, octagonal in shape, was built according to the plans of prisoner Sebastiano Castagna to celebrate the Ethiopians’ victory over Italy in 1896, while the latter was completed in 1944 and designed to commemorate the country’s independence from Italy, obtained in 1941.
Housed inside Guenete Leul Palace, the former residence of Emperor Hailé Selassié, with its displays of everyday objects, musical instruments and religious art the Ethnological Museum is the best place to get a complete overview of the culture of the local populations.
But it is the National Museum that preserves a key artefact relating to the history of humankind as a whole: as well as the country’s principal artworks, the museum contains the majority of the most important archaeological finds in Ethiopia, including a copy of the remains of Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis that lived 3.2 million years ago and which has become crucial in reconstructing the evolution of the human species. An interesting fact? She was named after the Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds, which was played continuously by the archaeologists at the dig in the Afar region that November in 1974.
You haven’t experienced Addis Ababa in full unless you spend a few hours at its merkato, the biggest in all of Africa. Covering over 10 square kilometres it is a genuine city within a city and is divided up into micro districts according to product type, its streets an uninterrupted sequence of shops and travelling salesmen.
It certainly isn’t suitable for those that dislike crowds and it is a good idea to keep an eye on your personal belongings, but visiting this market is an intense experience like no other.
The coffee ceremony
In Ethiopian cooking everything revolves around the injera, a kind of flatbread made with a teff (a local cereal) that also takes the place of plates and cutlery in the classic Ethiopian recipe, which is served with different kinds of wot, the typical flavoursome stew prepared with vegetables and mutton, beef or goat depending on the area.
Slightly more refined is kitfo, consisting of lean beef marinated in butter, thyme and mitmita, a spicy condiment.
At the end of the meal a coffee is a must: in fact, in Ethiopia, it is a genuine ceremony, prepared by the women and split into three rounds during which the drink gradually weakens in strength.
Indeed it was in the region of Kafa that the plant which keeps the entire world awake when necessary was first discovered over 2000 years ago: as such, it is no surprise that it is still so important in both society and for the local economy.
The sacred city of Rastafarianism
Forever linked in popular culture with Jamaica and notable figures like singer Bob Marley (to whom a large statue in the centre of Addis Ababa is dedicated), perhaps not everyone knows that the roots of Rastafarianism are in Ethiopia.
Not because the movement was particularly successful in the Horn of Africa but because of the prophecy of Jamaican writer Marcus Garvey in 1920s who predicted that a black king would be crowned in Africa and end colonialism, allowing the African people to return to the continent.
And so when Ras Tafari Maconnèn was named Emperor of Ethiopia (under the name Hailé Selassié) in 1930, many recognised him not only as the long-awaited emancipating king but as Jesus himself.
Today Hailé Selassié is buried in Holy Trinity Cathedral, making Addis Ababa the sacred city for Rastafarians all over the world.
Art beyond tradition
Addis Ababa is, without doubt, the most cosmopolitan city in Ethiopia, home to 80 different nationalities and ethnic groups and increasingly open to the outside world. It is probably also for this reason that the art scene has been enjoying a period of great ferment in recent years, experimenting with modern and contemporary art but without forgetting its traditions.
So, for those that have time to spare after visiting the museums mentioned earlier, a trip to Zoma Contemporary Art Centre won’t disappoint. In fact, the zero impact building, constructed with mud and straw and curiously shaped like a large traditional African sculpture, is a work of art in itself.
As for the galleries, the Asni Art Gallery (one of the city’s first, opened in 1996) and LeLa Art Gallery are well worth a look.
To enter Ethiopia you need to have a passport with validity of six months from the end of your trip to be issued with a tourist visa. You can apply for the latter in advance from the Ethiopian Embassy or upon your arrival in the country, although this second option is only open to citizens from “tourist generating” countries which include Italy and the majority of EU states.
Addis Ababa has a temperate and humid climate: its proximity to the Equator means that temperatures are stable all year round while its altitude brings them down considerably with highs between 20 and 25°C and lows of between 8 and 12°C.
The summer months, between June and September, are characterised by heavy rain and so the best period to discover Addis Ababa is between November and January, i.e. the dry season, in which rain in any case remains a possibility.
Those planning to visit Addis Ababa in late September should definitely watch the grandiose celebrations for Meskel, the “festival of the cross”, on 27 September. It is one of the most important festivals on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar and it is no coincide that the city’s huge main square is named after it: here, every year, a huge pyre is erected on which a cross covered with daisies is burnt to signal the start of a mass celebration involving dancing and singing.
For three consecutive days, from 19 January, another event brings the streets of the city to life with singing and dancing: Timkat, the Ethiopian epiphany, which begins with the parade of a copy of the Ark of the Covenant (the Tabot) and then continues with dancing and singing in the streets against the wonderful backdrop of a city cloaked in green, red and yellow, the colours of the Ethiopian flag.
Located at the foot of Mount Entoto, at an altitude of 2355 metres above sea level Addis Ababa is one of the highest capital cities in the world. It was from here that Menelik II, who founded it in 1889 giving it the name “New Flower”, wanted to govern his kingdom, but today the strategic power of Ad Addis (as the locals call it) is felt well beyond the borders of Ethiopia. In fact, Addis Ababa is home to the headquarters of the African Union as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and other international organisations, making it one of the most important cities in the entire continent.