New flower

On the banks of the Blue Nile, verdant Addis Ababa is the astonishingly beautiful capital city of Ethiopia, land of mysteries.

I f we overlook the well-known countries on its Mediterranean coast, the African continent is a land fraught with mysteries. But when we put aside our prejudices and delve more deeply into it, Africa suddenly hits us in the face with its abundance of riches. And among all the African countries that offer documentary-type images for nature buffs and wildlife enthusiasts, Ethiopia, whose cultural and archaeological riches put it in a different league altogether, is a privileged country indeed. If we make an exception of the ancient Roman and Egyptian civilizations in the countries of North Africa, Ethiopia ranks first on the African continent for its historic past, its mythology, its vibrant religious ceremonies and festivals, and its natural riches. For all these reasons it is on the way to becoming a number one destination for cultural tourism.  

By its ancient name Habesha, or its present-day name, Ethiopia proves that it is a far cry today from its image in the world media of the 1980s. As you tour the country, the lush greenery of the capital and the emerald green flora dominated by palms and enormous banana trees will astonish you. Consequently, the best way to discover Addis Ababa is to walk, because traveling by car you might just miss a lot of the local flavor. We recommend that you join one of the day-tours from the city to the nearby crater lakes. Mt. Zuqualla Lake, Lake Wonchi and the crater lakes near Debre Zeit are just some of the points on these tours. The hot mineral springs at Sodere, Ambo or Weliso can also offer you a different African experience. And day-tours have programs that can give you an idea about ancient Ethiopian culture as well. Lalibela with its many churches or Tiya with its prehistoric ruins are two possible important itineraries.Verdant capital of this unusual African land through which the Blue Nile, one of the great river’s two  major tributaries, flows, Addis Ababa is an important crossroads on a north-south axis that stretches from the continent’s southernmost city of Cape Town to Cairo in the far north, and along an east-west axis from Djibouti on the shores of the Red Sea to the landlocked countries of the Sahara.

At 2500 meters above sea level, Addis Ababa is the world’s second highest city after the Bolivian capital of La Paz. The story of the city’s founding is of interest as well: adorned with eucalyptus trees, it was chosen in 1886 as the new seat of a new dynasty by the Empress Taitu Betul, wife of Emperor Menelik II, a descendent of the Queen  of Sheba, and was named Addis Ababa, or ‘new flower', in the local Amharic language.

The National Museum heads the list of Addis Ababa’s must-see’s. Besides ethnographic  materials relating to the various tribes of Ethiopia, also exhibited are valuable finds on the earliest species of humans which were obtained in studies carried out over the last thirty years by anthropologists in the part of the Rift Valley that falls inside the borders of Ethiopia in a geography stretching from Mozambique in the south to the Middle East’s Dead Sea. But the most prized item in the museum is the mummy  of a hominid found in 1974 and known in the scholarly world as ‘our 3.2 million-year-old grandmother'. It is worth visiting the museum just to see this mummy, which has been named Lucy since its discovery coincided with the period when the Beatles’ legendary song ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was high on the charts.

One of Africa’s largest bazaars, Addis Ababa’s Marcato is another must-see on any city tour. Strolling among the stands that sell everything from fruits and vegetables to honey, legumes, rock salt and even sandals and automobile tires, the Mercato gives you an excellent opportunity to absorb the soul of Africa. Two other must-see’s in the city are the Cathedral of St. George, which was completed  shortly after the founding of the capital, and the Palace of Emperor Menelik II, which houses a number of interesting artifacts from Ethiopia’s imperial age. 

Ethiopia also has many places worth seeing outside the capital, the most striking indication of this being that it outstrips Egypt and indeed all the African countries in terms of number of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites.  Simien National Park, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a sacred place of pilgrimage known as ‘Africa’s Petra', the castle-palaces at Gondar, Aksum, one of the old imperial capitals, the Avash and Omo valleys, and the burial site with its 36 stelae at Tiya, which has so far defied a link with any known civilization, as well as Harare, which was added to the UNESCO list in 2006, are all part of the cultural heritage. Harare is an ancient settlement behind sun-dried brick walls 2-3 times the height of a man. With its narrow lanes, market places, and single-story dwellings behind high walls, it is a fascinating town that can make a person feel as if he has traveled backwards in time.

To capture a traditional taste you can try ‘shuro’ in one of the local restaurants. Served on a 35-40 centimeter  enamel tray, shuro is prepared by placing a small ladleful each of four different vegetable dishes on a piece of filo pastry called ‘injara’ about the size of the tray. Of these dishes, one is made of potatoes and one of red lentils, and the other two are dishes unique to Ethiopia. We might call it an Ethiopian version of India’s ‘tali'.

Ethiopia and its beautiful ‘new flower’ offer a very different Africa to those who want to make its acquaintance. This mosaic of cultures will draw you right in with a richer history and mythology than that found in any other African country.