Set at an elevation of 2355m in Ethiopia’s fertile central highlands, ADDIS ABABA is both the nation’s capital and its largest city. As the main point of arrival for international travellers, it’s also the hub from which the overwhelming majority of visitors explore the rest of the country, whether by road or air.
Fortunately, in most respects, Addis Ababa – often shortened to Addis – forms an pleasant enough introduction to Ethiopia: the climate is agreeably temperate, hotels and restaurants are plentiful, areas such as the Mercato and Piazza boast a compelling urban vibrancy, and there are enough worthwhile museums and other landmarks to keep new arrivals busy for a day or two.
Less positively, while violent crime is not a serious cause for concern, Addis is the one place in Ethiopia where pickpocketing and other petty crime are rife, and since the city ultimately lacks the historical pedigree of Aksum, Harar or Gondar or the scenic appeal of Bahir Dar or Hawassa, most visitors to Ethiopia limit their time in the capital to a night or two at the start or end of their trip. If you do end up spending longer here, however, it is worth knowing that the surrounding countryside is rich in sightseeing opportunities, from the crater lakes of Bishoftu and wildlife-rich Menagesha State Forest to the historic monastery of Debre Libanos and engraved stelae at UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tiya Archeological Site.
Many of Addis Ababa’s older buildings run along Churchill Avenue, starting in the south with the grandiose railway station, opened in 1929. In front of this, the Lion of Judah Statue – one of the key symbols of the Ethiopian imperial dynasty – was built a year later to mark the coronation of Haile Selassie. It was relocated to Rome during the Italian occupation, and returned to Ethiopia in the 1960s.
East of Churchill Avenue, on Ras Mekonnen Street, is Addis Ababa Stadium, which has hosted many international football matches, including a famous home tournament victory in the 1962 edition of the African Nations Cup.
Two of the best known landmarks north of the city centre are the roundabouts officially called Meyazia 27 Square and Yekatit 12 Square, but universally known as Arat Kilo and Siddist Kilo (literally four and six kilometres). Several historical churches lie in this part of town, as do the National Museum and main campus of Addis Ababa University.
A striking futuristic complex, the vast new African Union headquarters – officially the prosaically titled AU Conference Center and Office Complex–was built on the site of a former high security prison between 2009 and 2012. A $200 million gift from the Chinese government, the complex consists of an elliptical domed assembly hall and a 99.9m-tall tower block, one of the city’s tallest landmarks. The latter’s height recalls the date of the AU’s foundation on September 9, 1999.
Situated on the west side of the road between Arat and Siddist Kilo, the National Museum of Ethiopia is one of Addis Ababa’s genuine must-see attractions. The basement paleontological exhibition traces the evolutionary path linking the many important hominid fossils that have been unearthed in Ethiopia, with pride of place going to a replica of the 3.5-million-year-old skull of “Lucy”, the 1974 discovery of which forced a complete rethink of human prehistory . Equally fascinating is a collection of 2600-year-old pre-Aksumite fertility statues unearthed in Tigrai, a sphinx from Yeha, and cast of one of the medieval stelae from Tiya.
Situated in the main campus of the University of Addis Ababa, 500m north of Siddist Kilo, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) is of greatest interest to travellers for the ethnographic museum housed on the first and second floors of what was once one of Haile Selassie’s many palaces. The second-floor exhibition on Ethiopian musical instruments and visual art through the ages is particularly worth seeing, but the museum also displays cultural artefacts relating to most of the country’s ethnic groups, including the animists of South Omo. The attached gift shop is very good and reasonably priced.
Meskel Square is perhaps the most important navigational landmark in the city centre. All luxury coach services leave from here in the morning, and at the time of writing it had become an important (possibly temporary) terminus for minibuses and taxis among the traffic chaos created by the construction of the new light rail system. Just a large open area, semi-enclosed by a concrete amphitheatre, it has contained a (more or less de facto permanent) memorial to former prime minister Meles Zenawi since his death in 2012. Meskel Square is overlooked by Kidus Istafanos Church, whose gardens host thousands of white-robed worshippers on church festival days.
A popular focal point for backpackers, the Piazza neighbourhood was the economic heart of the city in its earliest days, when present-day De Gaulle Square hosted the main Saturday market. Today, it is a relatively upmarket shopping area studded with budget hotels and affordable places to eat. It also hosts many run-down landmarks built in the first half of the twentieth century by the Italian occupiers or by Armenian refugees (whose brand of Christianity is very close to Ethiopia’s), among them the Itegue Taitu Hotel, the stone Bank of Abyssinia building from 1905 (opposite De Gaulle Square), and a Greek Orthodox church on Adwa Avenue.
About 1km west of Piazza, the Mercato was established during the Italian occupation. Now reputedly the largest market anywhere in Africa, it is a fascinating place to explore, though it might be wise to do so in the company of a guide, as pickpockets are a real problem. The Mercato is not at all touristy: most kiosks and shops deal in foodstuffs and other household goods, but you’ll also find sections dedicated to khat, coffee, jewellery, local CDs and traditional Ethiopian crosses.
Legend has it that it was at Addis Ababa (or more accurately in the Entoto Hills on its northern outskirts) that the rulers of Aksum took refuge from the violent reign of Queen Yodit towards the end of the tenth century. The foundation of the modern city, however, is accredited to the future Emperor Menelik II, then King of Shewa, who relocated his capital to the Entoto Hills in the early 1880s, fulfilling a prophecy made by his grandfather Sahle Selassie. During the chilly rainy season of 1886, Menelik II descended from Entoto to a new encampment at the lower-lying and warmer Filwoha Hot Springs, and was soon encouraged to build a permanent house there by his wife Taitu Betul, who is credited with naming the site Addis Ababa – literally, “New Flower”. The capital shifted seasonally between Entoto and Addis Ababa until 1889, the year in which Menelik was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and started building a palace near Filwoha.
Violent crime is a rarity in Addis Ababa, but the city does have a bad reputation among travellers for pickpocketing, casual theft and con tricks. These activities are most prevalent in the Mercato and the city centre around Churchill Avenue, but incidents sometimes occur along Bole Road and around Piazza. A common trick is for one person to distract you on one side – bumping into you “accidentally”, trying to sell you cigarettes or other goods or sometimes grabbing your arms or legs – leaving the way open for an accomplice to dip into the opposite pocket or snatch your bag. The fewer valuables you carry, the less this is a cause for concern.
More insidious are the con men who make a living by manipulating the sympathies of freshly arrived tourists and overnight transit passengers given a hotel room in town. Often these guys will pretend to work at the hotel where you’re staying, claim to be a student or guide, or approach you like a long lost friend and ask whether you remember them. Approaches of this sort almost invariably lead to a request for money or a costly invitation to a traditional coffee ceremony or tej bar – the trick here is that after a couple of drinks, you’ll be presented with an outrageous bill and embarrassed or intimidated into paying up.
Ethiopia’s capital is well placed for a range of day- and overnight trips. For history buffs, a good day’s excursion can be had to the south of Addis Ababa, taking in the Melka Kunture Prehistoric Site, Adadi Maryam rock-hewn church and the UNESCO-listed stelae at Tiya Archeological Site. To the west of the capital, Menegasha National Forest and Mount Wenchi offer great walking, horseriding and birdwatching, while to the southeast of the city the crater lakes and waterside resorts of Bishoftu are perfect for chilling out in scenic surrounds. Debre Libanos, north of Addis Ababa, is a historic monastery set in fantastic highland scenery, and the closest place to the capital for reliable sightings of the endemic gelada monkey and lammergeyer.
The burgeoning resort town of BISHOFTU, 40km southeast of Addis Ababa, is often referred to by its former name Debre Zeyit (“Mount of Olives”). It is strongly associated with the Ethiopian air force, which relocated here from Bole in 1946, but for tourists its principal sources of interest are the four pretty crater lakes strung around the town, and the hotels and resorts that overlook them. Most central is Lake Bishoftu, which lies immediately south of the town centre, its shore accessible from the crater rim along a steep cattle path.
About 1km to the north, Lake Hora is the largest of the lakes, and arguably the most beautiful, thanks to the limited development on the forested cliffs that enclose it. Boats (with captains) can be rented for 40–60 birr per excursion, depending on how long you go out for. Another 1.5km further north, the smaller lakes of Kuriftu and Babogaya used to feel more isolated, though the gradual expansion of the town, and blossoming of new resorts around their shores, has done little to enhance their natural beauty.
Although Bishoftu’s crater lakes, Hora in particular, support a varied avifauna, the most rewarding venue for birders is usually the non-volcanic Lake Chelekleka, which borders the town centre to the northwest. Shallow and prone to seasonal fluctuation, Chelekleka often hosts impressive aggregations of flamingos, together with a wide variety of resident and migrant waterfowl and shorebirds.
The historic monastery of Debra Libanos lies in the magnificent 700-metre deep Wusha Gadel (“Dog Valley”), 4km off the Bahir Dar road 100km north of Addis Ababa. Originally known as Debre Asbo, it was founded in 1284 by Tekle Haymanot and given its present name in 1445 by Emperor Zara Yaqob. It was here that Emperor Lebna Dengel received the first official Portuguese mission to Ethiopia in 1520, by which time it had usurped Hayk Istafanos as the political centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It would retain this role until May 1937, when the Italian occupiers attached and razed the monastery during a service dedicated to Tekle Haymanot. An estimated 400 civilians, 297 monks and 100 young deacons were captured and executed by the Fascist army.
The focal point of Debre Libanos today is a handsome church built over Tekle Haymanot’s grave in the 1950s to replace the one destroyed by the Italians. It has three large stained-glass windows showing biblical scenes at the front, with further windows depicting various saints inset into the tall domed roof. The church can feel a little stark when empty of worshippers, but takes on a very devout and spiritual character on Sundays and special religious holidays. About 1km from the new church, accessible only along a steep footpath that can be quite slippery after rain, is an atmospheric cave shrine – complete with holy water dripping inside and out – where Tekle Haymanot once used to pray.
Perhaps the most revered of Ethiopian Orthodox saints, Tekle Haymanot (c.1215–c.1313), the founder of Debre Libanos, is also the only such personage to be recognized further afield (a church dedicated to him in Alexandria was consecrated in 1969). Reputedly of Tigraian ancestry, Tekle Haymanot (literally “Plant of Faith”) was instrumental not only in the spread of Christianity through northern Ethiopia but also in the reinstatement of the so-called Solomonic dynasty after centuries of Zagwe rule.
Portraits of Tekle Haymanot usually depict him with one leg and six wings, attributes that reflect the many bizarre myths attached to him. It is said he spent seven years standing praying on the one leg – causing the other to fall off – all the while subsisting on a single seed a year, which was fed to him by a bird. The wings were a divine gift, granted to him by God after the devil murderously cut a rope the saint was using to ascend a cliff. Tradition states that on his death, aged 98, Tekle Haymanot was buried in the cliff-side cave where he had practised his hermitic ways, though his body was reinterred at Debre Libanos in the late fourteenth century.
Roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), which was founded c.340 AD by Emperor Ezana of Aksum following his conversion by Syrian monks. The EOC is classified as an Oriental Orthodox church, a category that also comprises the Armenian and Syrian churches, the Malankara Church of India, and the Coptic Church of Alexandria. What all these relatively obscure – to Westerners at least – churches have in common is a centuries-long adherence to the miaphysite doctrine (known as Tewahedo in Ethiopia), which asserts the united divine and human nature of Christ, and was outlawed as heretical by Rome and Constantinople back in the fifth century.
Because the EOC developed in virtual isolation prior to the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuits in the fifteenth century, its rituals are infused with all manner of singularities. The EOC has long maintained that the original Ark of the Covenant rests in Ethiopia, and the consecration of any church depends on a tabot – a small replica of the Ark – being placed in its Holy of Holies. Other archaic customs, many with Old Testament roots, include the separation of sexes during church services, strict menstruation taboos, and a ban on wearing shoes inside a church. Also unique to the EOC is the use of an otherwise obsolete proto-Amharic language called Ge’ez in the liturgy and other spoken or chanted texts.
The closest tract of significant indigenous forest to Addis Ababa, 20km west of the capital, Menagesha incorporates 25 square kilometres of juniper, African redwood and yellowwood trees, as well as Mount Wechecha, an extinct volcano that rises to 3385m. The forest can be explored along a network of hiking and 4x4 trails (ranging from a few hundred metres to almost 10km in length) that fan out from the forestry headquarters 15km from the small town of Sebeta. Wildlife includes the striking guereza monkey, endemic Menelik’s bushbuck and bold Anubis baboon, all frequently seen by hikers, and predators include leopard and serval cat. Menagesha is also a particularly important site for endemic forest birds such as the yellow-fronted parrot, Abyssinian woodpecker and Abyssinian catbird, as well as the colourful Narina trogon and white-cheeked turaco, which are also likely to be seen.
The forest has been accorded some sort of protection since the fifteenth century, initially by imperial decree, more recently through formal legislation. It was established by Emperor Zara Yaqob, who ordered seedlings to be planted on Wechecha’s denuded southwestern slopes.
Ranging between 50km and 90km south of Addis Ababa, flanking the road to the town of Butajira, is a trio of contrasting historic and archeological sites that make for a diverse and rewarding day-trip from the capital.
Some 50km south of Addis Ababa, Melka Kunture Prehistoric Site is the most important among a sequence of paleontological sites associated with sedimentary strata exposed by the Awash River. Spanning 1.7 million years of human habitation, these sites have thrown up some of the world’s oldest known human fossils, as well as the remains of extinct giant gelada and other mammal species. An informative site museum lies to the west of the Butajira road, about 300m past the village of Awash Melka after you cross a bridge over the river.
Adadi Maryam is the most southerly extant rock-hewn church in Ethiopia, and worth a visit for those who can’t make it to Lalibela or Tigrai. Said locally to have been excavated by Emperor Lalibela when he visited nearby Mount Zikwala, the moss-covered church is carved into a subterranean chamber and freestanding on three sides. It lies in the small village of Adadi, 13km west of the junction village of Mute, which straddles the Butajira road 5km south of Awash Melka.
Probably the oldest functional building in the vicinity of Addis Ababa, Entoto Maryam is an octagonal church constructed by Menelik II c.1882 at what was then his capital. The lovely interior, covered in traditional church paintings, can be seen only immediately after morning services, which usually end at 9am. A site museum housing a collection of religious items and ceremonial clothing from the Menelik era keeps erratic times.
On the east side of the Butajira road 40km south of Awash Melka, Tiya Archeological Site is the best known of the mysterious medieval stelae fields that stud southern Ethiopia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it comprises around 45 stone obelisks, erected perhaps 700 years ago, to mark the mass graves of what were evidently soldiers killed in combat. Most of the stelae stand about 2m high, and are engraved with a combination of circles, swords and leaf-like symbols. Local traditions associate the stones with the sixteenth-century Muslim leader Ahmed Gragn, which seems implausible given their greater antiquity and the non-Islamic nature of the engravings. However, the identity of the society that did erect them is completely unknown.
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