Ethiopia – ‘The Cradle of Mankind’

Once again Ffestiniog Travel is delighted to feature more travel tales from guest bloggers Robert and Christina Woodroffe, on whose behalf we have arranged transport and accommodation, as they continue their worldwide wanderings. They have returned to Ethiopia and in this blog share their experience of its capital Addis Ababa and its interesting history.

Addis Ababa - © Mr & Mrs Woodroffe
Addis Ababa street seller - © Mr & Mrs Woodroffe
Holy Trinity Cathedral, stained glass window - © Mr & Mrs Woodroffe
Lucy - © Mr & Mrs Woodroffe
St George's Cathedral - © Mr & Mrs Woodroffe

We step outside and in an instant, even after an overnight 7 hour flight, feel invigorated and younger. As if by magic we are 8 years younger. Why you ask? Simples! We are in Ethiopia and it is now 2006! The Ethiopian calendar is not based on the Gregorian calendar like Europe but on the Coptic calendar and before that the Egyptian calendar, which is similar to the Julian. The year comprises of 12 equal months of 30 days plus a shorter month of 6 days added on, which are always holidays. An extra day is added every four years. The New Year starts fittingly on September 11, our Wedding Anniversary.

The modern city of Addis Ababa or "New Flower" was founded by Emperor Menelik II in 1886. Mount Entoto , which towers above Addis, was an army base and Menelik's wife Empress Taytu Betul built a church there. Unfortunately there was little water or firewood to support a city so they had to look elsewhere and luckily hot springs were found in the valley below Entoto and the "NewFlower" was built there. Addis is a bustling, chaotic, friendly African city with clapped out old cars, large pot holes in the road and pavements and all life and business is conducted on the streets. Fruit and veg in wheelbarrows jostle with car mechanics, welding, furniture making, tailors and food outlets. There are people everywhere. It is even more chaotic than when we were here 3 years ago because they are now building a metro. Ethiopia's first railway. Roads closed, rows of shops previously to be found near our hotel gone in the name of modernisation.

A wash and brush up and off to visit Lucy and her predecessors at the National Museum. Ethiopia is well described as the 'cradle of mankind' because of the rich haul of archeological specimens found in the Great Rift Valley as it passes through the country. The earliest specimen on a direct evolutionary line to Homo Sapiens is Chlororapithecus at 10 Million years old. This has been deduced from a few teeth! Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis to give her the correct name) and named after the song" Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" which was playing in the camp the night her bones were discovered, signs in at 3.2 million years. From 40% of skeletal parts a reconstruction has been made which shows her to have a small ape like head but she could walk upright, bipedally like present day humans. She was 3' 7" tall - rather like a chimpanzee. The museum also had some interesting artefacts from Axum , dating from approx 600 BC to 600 AD.

Next stop Holy Trinity Cathedral. The second most important place of worship in Ethiopia after the Church of Our Lady of Mary of Zion in Axum. A modern church built in the 1930's and dedicated after completion to those who had fallen in the war of Liberation from Italian occupation. The Cathedral now houses the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife Empress Menen and the royal children. We went to the ticket office at the gate, paid 100 Birr each (approx £3.00) and returned to the church, only to find the door locked. This is low tourist season and the priest had just not opened up. He was persuaded to do so and we had the cathedral to ourselves for half an hour as we wandered around admiring its delights, including the beautiful stained glass windows which emblazoned each wall. The tombs of Selassie and his wife were imposing as they rested side by side. Constructed of dark red marble, imported from Italy, they were vast. In the high season the church is open often through the night as pilgrims come to pray. In the Church yard is the final resting place of Sylvia Pankhurst.

Next morning we visited the museum commemorating the Red Terror. The famines and drought of 1974, as highlighted by Jonathan Dimbleby's film "Drought" caused general unrest amongst the population. This disruption was seized upon by the military to perform a coup against Selasse and the Derg was formed starting 17 years of Red Terror from 1974 to 1991. Mengistu took command in 1977 after a bloodbath in which he killed 58 fellow Derg commanders in a hour long shoot out. He then held a rally in which he said "Death to The EPRP" (the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party - the opposition). At the same time he smashed 3 bottles of red blood like liquid on the ground. Mengistu embraced Communism and received Russian arms. It is estimated that 500,000 were killed plus 1000 children by his death squads and buried in mass graves which are still being excavated. Counter groups fought back and eventually the Derg was defeated and Mengistu managed to escape and sought asylum in Zimbabwe with his friend Mugabe and where he still lives today. Attempts at extradition have so far failed. Most of his fellow commanders were caught and brought to trial. We were shown around the museum by the owner and a former prisoner of the Derg. As a member of the EPRP he was imprisoned for 8 years and repeatedly tortured. The museum displayed photographs, leaflets, instruments of torture, excavated bones and lists of those killed. An uncomfortable morning yet again bringing into focus man's inhumanity against his fellow men.

Next stop was St George's Cathedral where the Archdeacon showed us around the museum containing Coronation Robes, ceremonial parasols, crowns and other artefacts. We could not go into the Cathedral as it was lunchtime but if we returned later he agreed to be our guide again so we returned and the Cathedral was opened especially for us. An imposing octagonal building built by Italian prisoners of war defeated at the battle of Adwa in 1896. Set on fire by the invading Italians in 1936 it was rebuilt by Selassie after they were driven out with the help of the British in 1941. The names Sandford, Wingate and Churchill are still revered here. Haile Selassie was crowned here and the coronation chair was on view. Not as fine as the chair he sat on in StokeChurch when he visited Hartland during his exile. Inside at the centre is a square building, the Holy of Holies, where replica tablets from the Ark of the Covenant are kept. This is surrounded by two octagonal circles where the services are held - the outer for the singing and praying and the inner for taking Communion. The Archdeacon demonstrated the drums, the sistrum and prayer stick and explained their religious symbolism. The wall of the Holy of Holies was covered with artwork and also stained glass mosaics by the Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle.

When we came to Ethiopia three years ago we met Werkye during a visit to Lalibela and decided to sponsor her during her nurses training so we were delighted to share her graduation celebrations during our stay in Addis Ababa. We met her lovely brother Kassa who agreed to be our guide when we again return to Lalibela – 700km away!

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Comments 1

Guest - R.G.Courtney on Saturday, 22 November 2014 23:04

For those with an interest in railways, there are still relics of the metre gauge Chemin de fer Djibouto-Ethiopien (CDE) in Addis Ababa. The main station complex still exists, and the old line can be seen in a number of places from the road to Debre Zeit (as can works for the new standard gauge line being built with Chinese help). When we visited, we got to see coaches from the Imperial Train, which are stored under cover adjacent to the station. As mentioned, the LRT works have caused the already bad traffic congestion in Addis to get much worse.

For those with an interest in railways, there are still relics of the metre gauge Chemin de fer Djibouto-Ethiopien (CDE) in Addis Ababa. The main station complex still exists, and the old line can be seen in a number of places from the road to Debre Zeit (as can works for the new standard gauge line being built with Chinese help). When we visited, we got to see coaches from the Imperial Train, which are stored under cover adjacent to the station. As mentioned, the LRT works have caused the already bad traffic congestion in Addis to get much worse.
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