Arriving in Addis

Arriving in Addis
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Flying from Frankfurt to Addis Abbaba, we made a refueling stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Because of the Saudis’ strict laws regarding alcohol and women’s dress and behavior, those few of us who were continuing to Addis had to stay on the plane during this stop. We did get a pretty good view of the airport, which resembles a series of Bedouin tents, through the dusty haze of the desert. Most of the passengers who got off here were Muslims participating in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Finally arriving in Addis, we were met at the airport and taken to the Wassamar Hotel, which will be our home in Addis for the next few days.

In the morning we explored the neighborhood around the hotel and bought Maggie a scarf to wear–we will be visiting many churches here, and the Ethiopian Orthodox faith requires women to cover their heads in church. Then we met Zeowdi (pronounced Zo-dee), the friendly driver who took us downtown and brought us back in her beat-up Lada taxi. Addis is at around 7700 ft. altitude and downtown is very hilly, so after exploring for a while we sat down for a refresher at the Ghion Hotel and met Ambo and St. George, who would turn out to be our friends for the rest of the trip.

My favorite part of the day was a visit to the Red Terror Museum. The Red Terror took place in the 1970s after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by Mengistu and the military junta known as the Derg. As many as half a million opponents were killed, imprisoned and tortured during this time. Our tour guide in the museum was himself a victim of the Red Terror.

In the evening we met the rest of our tour group and learned about our itinerary for the next two weeks. First thing the next morning we met our Addis tourguide Thomas, who showed us the Holy Trinity Cathedral and gave us our introduction to the Ethiopian brand of Orthodox Christianity. This is a very old tradition dating back at least to the 4th Century AD, and some would say as far back as 34 AD, two years after the crucifixion. Ethiopian Orthodox beliefs and practices are based equally on the Old and New testaments.

This poster of the two leaders of the church, the Archbishop of Ethiopia and the Patriarch of Alexandria, who is like the Pope of the whole Orthodox Church, was an omen of things to come. They would be the guests of honor at tonight’s Meskel Festival, which celebrates the finding of the True Cross in Ethiopia, by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Ethiopia is mentioned some 40 times in the Bible (it’s also called Cush in the Greek translation), and while we Westerners may be skeptical of some of their claims, there is certainly some Biblical evidence for them, and they definitely make for some fascinating reading!

But first we visited two excellent museums, the Ethnographic Museum on the campus of Addis’ University, and the National Museum of Ethiopia. The Ethnographic Museum describes the traditions and customs of every phase of life in Ethiopia, from birth to death.

The big draw at the National Museum is Lucy, the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor (Australopithecus Afarensis). Lucy was discovered in 1974 in the Afar region of the Great Rift Valley in northeastern Ethiopia. About 40% of the bones were found, and this recreation shows which bones we have and what the others might have looked like.

After a late lunch near the museum, our tour leader Lorna gave us the “press passes” she had secured so we could get great seats to witness the annual Meskel festival. This festival is celebrated in homes and churches all over the country, but nowhere with quite the extensive pageantry that happens in the downtown Meskel Square in Addis. Dozens of church groups come from all over the country, dressed in their traditional clothing, to participate. The festivities start in mid afternoon and go on until the grand finale just after sunset.

The children are handing out Meskel Daisies, a yellow flower that blooms only at this time of year. We will see many more of them as we travel around the Ethiopian highlands. There are thousands of people in the bleachers set up on the south side of the square, and more where we sat, in the tents alongside the reviewing stand on the north. The soldiers try valiantly to keep the crowd under control as everyone wants to get as close as possible. As sundown approaches a woman who is chosen to represent St. Helena rides in on a white horse, salutes the crowd, and lights the Demera, the bonfire whose smoke led St. Helena to her discovery of the True Cross.

One of my favorite moments in the festival was the arrival of this honor guard of elderly ladies and gentlemen in military uniforms. I was surprised to see women of that age in the military, and it was explained to us that these were people who had survived torture and imprisonment during the Red Terror. They were accorded a status of great honor by the government and they marched proudly in their full regalia.

Notice they are carrying the Red, Yellow and Green Ethiopian flag. This color scheme has been adopted by many African countries, and has become the favorite color scheme of the African Union, which has its headquarters just a few blocks from here, as well as the pan-African movement in general. Ethiopia commands a great deal of respect from other African countries as the only African country that was never colonized. The Italians tried occupying Ethiopia in the 1890s and 1930s, but the Ethiopians were eventually successful in booting them out. They did leave a legacy in the form of some excellent highway construction, as well as pizza and spaghetti, which are on the menu of almost every restaurant we visited on our tour!


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