Abyssinian cats and the Queen of Sheba! Does it get any more mysterious than that? It would appear however, that in both of these associations with Ethiopia, it is unclear how much is fantasy and how much is fact.
In 1868, a British soldier returned from the Abyssinian War (the ancient name for Ethiopia) with a kitten that was believed to be the ancestor of the cat breed. Apparently recorded pictures of this cat don’t really bear any resemblance to today’s famous breed. I did however spot this cutie in a piazza in Addis Ababa. He looks like he could have a touch of Abyssinian blood in his veins?
The legend of the Queen of Sheba is well documented in many religious texts, although its uncertain whether she hailed from Yemen or Ethiopia. It turns out that the Queen of Sheba may have had a dalliance with King Solomon, and historical records further assert that the founder of the Ethiopian Empire – King Menelik I (950BC), was the son of the Queen and King Solomon.
Addis is permanently in rush hour. All day long there seems to be a crazy jostle of pedestrians, taxis, policemen and a relentless presence of construction vehicles, pushing erratically into the spaces between the people and cars.
This is a fascinating place that allows one to see firsthand, the juxtaposition of a booming economy with pitiful poverty. Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia is also home to the African Union.
Ethiopian Airlines is an impressive carrier. Recently voted “The best Airline in Africa” (Skytrax Passenger Survey), the crew were friendly, the plane was spacious and I loved the luminous green pillows and bright yellow socks and earphones. Such fun! And then you arrive at the Bole International Airport in Addis. Wow. Expecting a Lagos or Accra experience, I was delighted to enter the modern glass building with its not-insignificant fleet of planes parked outside.
My second surprise was how pleasant the weather was. When travelling north of South Africa, I generally expect it to be sweltering. Addis is positioned at more than 2500 metres above sea level, which allows it to be just that bit cooler.
The fruit and vegetable market in Altkit Terra Piazza was the first thing on our agenda. We’d booked and arranged to be collected from our hotel at 5am in order to get to the Piazza just as the sun comes up. This is the number one, wholesale market for distribution right across the city. The vibe of the busy vendors and buyers carrying baskets and struggling under the weight of gi-normous sacks, or pushing heavily laden carts was enthralling. You had to be careful not to slip in the mushy compost or get flattened by a rushing labourer, blinded by his load.
The volumes of fruit and vegetables were astounding. I’ve never seen such mountains of potatoes, avalanches of garlic, dunes of avocados and hills of tomatoes.
At first I was a bit worried about these dogs! Were they even alive? Turns out they were perfectly fine and well-fed, languishing on the warm, gently decaying vegetable debris.
The opportunities to take pictures were endless. It was good to be with a guide who seemed to know a lot of the locals by name and would stop to chat and point out photo-worthy sights. In this way we found the vendors to be friendly and mostly comfortable with us taking pictures. We were encouraged not to be too invasive or stick long lenses into people’s faces, which was fair enough!
Addis Merkarto is considered to be Africa’s biggest market. It covers literally miles of sprawling stalls along lanes that weave chaotically in all directions. Our guide advised that this market employs around 15 000 people.
The heady aroma of coffee beans indicated one of the primary locally-grown agricultural products, although there is literally a section for anything you could thing of buying. The bolts of woven cloth, traditional crafts and other tourist items seemed to go on for miles. There were also spices, car parts, plastic goods and electronics.
Soon we were ready to recharge with some coffee. Ethiopia is considered to be the birthplace of this beverage and everywhere you go you see people drinking coffee – in the shops and in the streets. There is a significant traditional coffee culture, but there is also a strong influence from Italy. (Although Italians occupied Ethiopia for around five years, it remains proudly un-colonised). Espresso machines are in all the cafés, serving espressos and macchiatos. I was interested to learn that almost 70% of the coffee produced in Ethiopia is consumed locally.
It was most exciting to be taken to an authentic Ethiopian restaurant to sample a typical breakfast. It looked more like a feast to me. A large plate of sticky pancakes, called injera are placed in front of you together with a platter of spicy meats, vegetables and egg. You eat with your hands which I loved doing. Makes the food taste so much better! Then we were treated to a coffee ceremony, including the burning of incense. Such delicious coffee, so I also bought plenty of beans to take home with me.
Our guide pointed out the old-fashioned blue and white taxis. These are decade old Russian-made Ladas and are having to make way for new metered taxis in a industry that is transforming slowly but surely.
A worthwhile trip is to drive out of Addis to Entoto Hill, which is known as ‘the roof of Addis Ababa’ or ‘the lungs of the city’ due to the clean air and highland forests. The steep road is interesting because you pass homes and little villages along the way. I was fascinated by the regular appearance of elderly ladies weighted down by enormous bundles of sticks presumably for firewood, which would have been collected from higher up in the hills and then carried down into the settlements.
As you go higher into the hills there are amazing views over the city. Near the very top (over 3000 m) of Entoto Hill is the 200 year old, octagonal Entoto Maryam Cathedral. It was peaceful and cool and a very pleasant stop. There is a small but interesting museum that contains some of the robes and regalia belonging to Emperor Menelik 11. He was crowned in this church in 1889.
Ethiopia, with a population of over 90 million people is the second most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria (175 million). Over 80 different languages are spoken in this country. Exhilarating and compelling, Addis pulses with energy but is also peacefully spiritual and laid back. The Rastafari claim Ethiopia as their paradise on earth, and perhaps they have a point.