City life: Addis Ababa

Lofty and leafy, with ancient sprawling markets and shiny modern skyscrapers, Ethiopia's capital is a surprise package with a curious past

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:05 BST
The sprawl of ephemera-filled Mercato. Image: AWL

Four men are approaching at speed, consuming with ease the gradient under their feet offered by Mount Entoto. They're all wearing the same uniform, the same expression of concentration and focus, and for a second, I wonder if they're coming for me. But they continue upwards, fluorescent trainers padding the tarmac, exercise tops stretched tight over limbs and torsos. I follow them with my eyes, until they glide around a corner and the eucalyptus treeline claims them, never once slowing their pace as they race towards their futures.

A quartet of slight teenagers, they're a symbol of Ethiopian aspiration. And they have every reason to be pushing themselves on this 10,500ft peak, which frames Addis Ababa. Long-distance running is firmly established as a route to better things in Ethiopia. The proof lies two miles up the road amid shady paths and tasteful accommodation. Yaya Village opened in 2011 as a mixture of four-star hotel and training camp for athletes seeking to hone their fitness at altitude. It's partly owned by superstar runner Haile Gebrselassie, the (now retired) Ethiopian master of the marathon, who won two Olympic gold medals and set 27 world records. The young men who overtook me will be dreaming of achieving even a fraction of the glory amassed by a legend who's considered one of the greatest ever sportsmen, and of taking the tape in New York, Dubai, Sydney and the other major cities where he won.

Just the thought of their relentless stride pattern is enough to snare my breath — although the discernible thinness of the oxygen at this elevation doesn't help. Two steps behind, my guide Yohannes Assefa giggles. "Come on," he says. "Just by getting off the plane, you're seven years younger than you were yesterday. This little hill really shouldn't be an issue."

He's referring to the Ethiopian Calendar, which, by dint of the Orthodox Christian tradition in the country, lags three quarters of a decade behind conventional diaries — 11 September, the next New Year's Day, will usher in Ethiopia's version of 2010.

But, this quirk of the clock is not the only unusual thing about Addis Ababa. For one, it's Africa's highest capital, floating at 7,700ft in the Ethiopian Highlands (to put this in context, Kathmandu in Himalayan Nepal goes about its day at 'just' 4,600ft). This makes for a greenness and coolness of climate at odds with the still prevailing though inaccurate image of Ethiopia, bequeathed by Live Aid and the famine of 1983-1985, as a place of dust and desolation. In fact, the sun keeps its fiercest rays holstered throughout the year, rarely shifting from its groove of 21-23C, and the wet season of June to September contributes to the leafiness by treating Addis to four months of deluge.

Then there's its age. Addis Ababa is a child, disgorged onto the map as recently as 1886 by the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II, who wanted a capital befitting his status as a ruler of a rapidly expanding domain. Gazing down from Mount Entoto, I can see that this youthfulness translates into another expression of Ethiopian aspiration. Modern structures thrust upper storeys into the sky, sunlight glinting on their windows. At their feet, people mill about — the city's official population figure is 3.4 million, but the real head count is likely to be much closer to seven million. These residents spill out into the different districts — the central area of Piazza, where museums and churches supply a distinct grandeur; the Downtown core of Urael, with its bars, hotels and clubs; upwardly-mobile Bole, with its priapic towers of desirable apartments; and Merkato, a near-endless sprawl of alleyways where some 13,000 merchants make up Africa's biggest city market.

This urban jam has been sugared of late by the opening of the Addis Ababa Light Rail. Although funded by Chinese money, the first rapid-transit system in sub-Saharan Africa sings a song of a 21st-century Ethiopia. Its two lines were launched in 2015, dissecting the city east-to-west and north-to-south via 39 stations and 20 miles of track. It has prised 200,000 people a day from the traffic queues — although Bole International Airport, on the south-east edge of the centre, is becoming increasingly equipped to bring in more people. When I pass through its arrivals hall, I'm impressed not just by the size of the new terminal currently taking shape, but by the feast of possible destinations listed on the departures board. London and New York are there. So are Dubai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Cape Town. Addis Ababa is becoming a hub, and it wants you to know it.

All this makes it a city where you might be tempted to linger, perhaps even for a long weekend. Plenty of travellers visit Ethiopia every year, but few take a good look at its capital, preferring to head out to the rock churches of Lalibela and the UNESCO-listed ancient obelisks of Axum. While this may be understandable, I decide to drag my heels.

Now, there's every chance that I'm lost. Yohannes and I have delved into the labyrinth of Merkato, and, sure-footed on home soil, he has briefly marched out of sight, leaving me with two feasible turnings and the thought that I'm Alice in a wonderland maze not of clipped hedges, but of many traders and stallholders. These twin paths seem to be stacked with every piece of ephemera you could imagine. There are discarded car batteries and remote controls divorced from their televisions. There are yellow plastic cans, which once contained cooking oil. There are various screws, bolts, nuts and second-hand padlocks. There are sheets of salvaged corrugated metal, fearsomely sharp at the edges, carried on tops of heads, forcing passers-by to duck unless they want to lose theirs.

Then comes the voice. "You're British, yes?" There's an irony to the fact that the man making the enquiry is wearing a fake Arsenal football shirt, but I nod in response. "I think there's nothing for you here," he says. It's not a hostile comment; it's even delivered with a smile. It's more an acknowledgement that this four square mile tribute to the idea of one person's trash being his neighbour's treasure isn't meant for tourists. He clinks together two of the empty glass soda bottles he sells as water carriers, and grins again. "This is not Marrakech," he says. "You'll not buy pricey bracelets and carpets here."

He's correct. There's nothing for tourists in Merkato. And yet, in another sense, there's everything: a glimpse of how Addis Ababa's economy has worked for decades — nothing is without value — is as worthy as any souvenir. I ask him, in curiosity, how much his bottles cost. He smiles again, still friendly, but the meaning is clear: 'Don't waste my time.'

Local specialities

If Merkato is Addis Ababa at any moment since 1886, Urael is rather more tied to 2017. There's an upbeat vibe to both Mickey Leland Street and Namibia Street, watering holes anticipating the evening. A crowd is forming outside cocktail haven Shebeta Lounge as I amble the former — but I'm aiming for the latter, specifically 2000 Habesha Cultural Restaurant, a whirling dervish of a place. Inside, an international clientele — local diners, European expats, a set of Somali businessmen — is seated around tables, listening to the house band plucking rhythms and harmonies from their one-string, bass-like masinko and five-stringed kirar instruments. The menu offers an array of Ethiopian dishes, including gomen besiga (cubes of beef and spinach, baked in a clay pot) and bozena shiro (yellow peas slow-cooked with beef and onions). The atmosphere is fuelled by carafes of tej, Ethiopian honey wine, its bittersweet taste serving to disguise its potency. By the time I dash to the Ghion Hotel, seeking a performance by Mulatu Astatke, the 73-year-old musician who's seen as the father of 'Ethio-Jazz', the night has taken on a woozy quality. The music that emerges from this darkened room— echoes of New Orleans, but with a rumbling beat that's entirely African — enhances the mood, and the air seems to thicken with each key change.

In such a context, it's hard to imagine Addis Ababa as a city squashed under jackboots. But its happy mood conceals a 20th century pockmarked by despair. The famine that sent rock stars scurrying to Wembley Stadium in 1985 was caused, in part, by the brutality and administrative incompetence of the Derg — the Soviet Union-backed military dictatorship which 'ran' Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. This oppression was but a delayed second course to a vicious starter: the six years (1935-1941) when Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) was occupied by fascist Italy, and Addis Ababa, as the centrepoint of resistance, suffered the brunt of Mussolini's anger.

Both epochs can be revisited here. The former is detailed at the Red Terror Martyrs' Memorial Museum in central Kirkos, which replays the nightmare with grim precision via the torture instruments, dusty coffins and photos of some of the regime's half-a-million victims. The latter is kept alive via two memorials: Yekatit 12 Square is host to a column which salutes the estimated 30,000 Ethiopians who were massacred by their conquerors on 19 February 1937, in response to a failed assassination attempt on the Italian leader Rodolfo Graziani; while, just over a mile away on the edge of Piazza — on a roundabout on Fitawrari Gebeyebu Street — a giant statue remembers the sacrifice of Abune Petros, a bishop who was executed by the occupiers in 1936 for publicly and repeatedly denouncing their presence.

Yet, if you wish to step back into Addis Ababa's story, you cannot do so without encountering one particular character. Emperor Haile Selassie defined Ethiopia's 20th century, governing from 1930 to 1974 (with the exception of a five-year exile during the Italian fascist period). While he was arguably no saint, he was charismatic to the point of inspiring religious devotion — the Rastafari movement in Jamaica still considers him a messiah. And he left his imprint on the city. His palace (in Piazza) is now marooned on the campus of Addis Ababa University and has been refitted as the Ethnographic Museum. But amid some intriguing artefacts, including art depicting Ethiopia's first fight with Italian colonialism, the victorious Battle of Adwa in 1896, you can detect the grandeur. Selassie's bedroom is preserved as a statement of majesty, even if the size of the bed betrays his lack of stature.

He also haunts the National Museum, just to the south — his colossal throne another emblem of royal power. It's mighty enough to almost eclipse the prime exhibit, the skeletal remains of 'Lucy', a woman who strode the Ethiopian landscape 3.2 million years ago, as one of the mothers of mankind. She was discovered in a lake bed in 1974, a great year for humanity's knowledge of its roots, but a bad one for Selassie, who was deposed by the Derg amid soaring inflation and unrest. His demise was unseemly. He was imprisoned, then reportedly died of 'respiratory failure' in August 1975, according to state media of the day. It wasn't until 1992 that his bones were found below a concrete slab in the palace grounds.

Still, Selassie had the last laugh: he was re-buried with much pomp in November 2000 at Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Orthodox bastion he founded in 1931. Athletes stream past the gates as I near it; again, all sweat and application, oblivious to the magnificence of the building behind the fence. But, Ethiopia's imperialists, you can be certain, are not. Their fallen champion slumbers in style within; his mausoleum an enormous exercise in cold marble.

Before I cross the threshold, I'm drawn to one particular grave outside. Here's another Addis Ababa idiosyncrasy. The headstone serenades the soul of Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette and friend of Selassie's, who moved to the city in 1956 and died there four years later. Clearly, my interest in her once again denotes me as British, for I'm approached by an elderly worshipper. We swap strands of conversation, until he drops the pertinent question: "So, Brexit — is it fine for you, or not?" When the UK's current political affairs are a topic for discussion in a country once the subject of world concern, you know times have changed.


Getting there & around
Ethiopian Airlines offers a daily direct service from Heathrow to Addis Ababa.
Average flight time: 7h 30m.

The Light Rail system offers the quickest movement around the city. St Urael station on Line 1 provides access to Urael; Menelik II Square station on Line 2 is the best choice for sights such as the National Museum and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Tickets from ETB2 (7p).

When to go
Temperatures are a fairly constant 21-23C throughout the year, although the wet season of June-September contributes four months of heavy rainfall.

More info

How to do it
Cox & Kings offers three-night mini-breaks in Addis Ababa for £1,245 per person, including flights from London, private transfers, accommodation with breakfast and city tour. They also sell a 14-day Ethiopian Odyssey tour that visits Axum and Lalibela. From £2,745 per person as a group trip, or from £3,625 as a private holiday (with flights from London).

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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