#WKNDTravel: The magic of Addis Ababa

Sandip Hor
Filed on April 15, 2021

Traditions and modernity come together to give the Ethiopian capital a distinct character

Besides stunning landscapes, remains of ancient civilisations and a maze of rock-hewn churches, a major drawcard of Ethiopia is its age-old culture and traditions. It’s best experienced when travelling there during festival time.

I sense this when exploring its capital city Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is one of the planet’s oldest countries, Addis Ababa meaning ‘New Flower’ in local dialect is relatively new. It was established in the late 19th century by Emperor Menelik II as the nation’s new capital. Today, this thriving settlement is the continent’s fourth-largest and the gateway to an ancient and mystical world.

Love at first sight is a misfit for this city; a creepy mix of old and new shrouded by a dusty environment welcomes when I step out to share street-space with seven million people. The surrounding crowd, chaos and cacophony initially makes me feel uncanny but once I set my bearings right with the city’s character and style, charm oozes from the locals and their traditions. Despite lots of surrounding impoverishes, I discover a kind of joyous life in full bloom hiding underneath the city’s skin.

Traditions are an integral part of Ethiopian life, so celebrating New Year’s Day on September 12 means following longstanding rituals with friends and family, like wearing white costumes woven with borders, sipping specially brewed coffee while sitting on a makeshift mattress made with dried grass and yellow bush flowers that blossom only in September and eating stewed chicken or lamb, the animals slaughtered earlier in the morning by the eldest of the family.

The preparations for the most coveted occasion of the year becomes absolute madness on the New Year’s Eve when almost everyone seems to be out in the streets for last-minute shopping and some socialising as well.

While cafes, restaurants and bars are overcrowded, live chooks and sheep are being sold in every nook and corner of the city. At a crowded stall, I interestingly watch how a guy, after buying a sheep, ties the poor animal to the roof of his dilapidated Lada, some of these old Russian cars still on road as memoirs of Ethiopia’s brief empathy with the Red-Flag culture. While footpaths are spilling over with temporary stalls selling fruits, vegetables, food items and stacks of that long grass and yellow flowers, long queues are noticeable outside shops selling clothes, shoes, toys and other household items. Music, laughter, cries and loud calls from the vendors make the atmosphere lively.

“Even in the 21st century, we still have a strong attachment to most of our old cultures and traditions,” says my chauffeur and guide, while taking a break from our exploration at a café near the heavily crowded Addis Merkato — Africa’s biggest marketplace where it’s possible to find everything — from electronics, furniture clothing, spices, food items and groceries to an array of second-hand goods. Plaiting in multi directions for kilometres, it’s surely a site to explore but require nerves of steel to wade through the sea of human bodies, particularly during a major festival time. So, I choose to watch the high energy activities from the sidelines and gather knowledge from Bele about their culture, calendar and history — with Ethiopia being the only country in Africa to escape European colonialism.

Bele and I move around to see some churches, royal enclaves and museums, which classify as ‘must-see’ tourist attractions of Addis. First come the churches and there are several of them, pronouncing Ethiopia’s strong affinity towards Christianity. Two most important ones are the colourful St Mary’s Church, said to be the city’s founding parish located at the top of Mount Entoto at 3200m above sea level, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, considered the city’s landmark. Next to the St Mary’s Church, a former royal palace built in typical Ethiopian style with mud is worth a visit.

“There are many ceremonies that haven’t changed since Christianity came to our country 1000 years ago,” tells me a priest at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, drawing my attention to a group of white-robed worshippers chanting religious verses in a very melodious node exactly the same way it was practised centuries ago.

Not to be ignored from the sightseeing schedule are the two city museums — the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum.

The National Museum is proof of the fact of Africa being considered as the cradle of mankind. It houses the partial skeleton of a female body, estimated by archaeologists to be 3.2 million years old. Following its discovery in 1974, they named her Lucy and she became famous as the world’s earliest human. The Ethnological Museum, which is set within the former palace complex of Emperor Haile Selassie — regarded as father of modern Ethiopia — is the best venue to know more about the nation’s history, including the episodes when Italian fascist Mussolini held power in the country for few years in the 1930s.

I conclude my Addis odyssey with more culture dips. At the hotel on the New Year’s Eve, I join some of the staff and local guests dancing and singing around a nicely lit pyramid of fire. “It’s our custom to burn the past and move forward,” tells the receptionist girl.

When the fire dies, everyone jumps three times over the pit to leave the old year behind and welcome the new one. I do the same not minding at all to greet another ‘mid-term’ new year. I am then invited to take part in a coffee-making ceremony, an integral part of Ethiopian social and cultural life – the nation being the birthplace of coffee. While sipping the beverage freshly prepared in front of us from roasted beans, I thank myself to be in Ethiopia during this carnival period and get soaked by its many cultural traits.