Addis Ababa ... Meskel celebrations & beyond
Find out more about Ethiopia’s wonderful capital, from its annual Meskel celebrations to its fantastic museums.
Addis Ababa is Ethiopia's wonderful capital – a fast-evolving, modern city that was only founded just over a century ago. Despite being relatively young, this destination has much to offer travellers who are curious to discover more about Ethiopia.
Indeed, the city houses many fascinating museums and interesting buildings. Perhaps what will tell you most about Ethiopian culture, though, are the annual Meskel celebrations, which take place each September. It is during these that the city really comes to life, giving travellers the opportunity to see it at its vibrant best. What's more, the festivities are unique, making them an all the more exciting experience.
Today, we will introduce you to the Meskel celebrations, as well as a few of the city's most interesting attractions.
An annual religious holiday that's also known as the Finding of the True Cross, Meskel is celebrated nationwide in Ethiopia – the only country in the world to do so. It falls in September, and has been celebrated for approximately one and a half thousand years. So, what does Meskel actually mark?
It stems from a legend, which claims that Nigist Eleni, also known as St Helena, found the cross that Jesus had been crucified on after following guidance she had received in a dream. The dream told her to burn a pile of wood and frankincense, which gave off a vast plume of smoke, which on its descent landed where the cross had been buried.
After the cross was unearthened, it is said that pieces of it were sent to churches across the world, including one in Ethiopia – the Gishen Mariam Church. It is the finding of the cross that Meskel celebrates.
In terms of what to expect from your visit, the liveliest of the celebrations tend to take place on the eve of Meskel, with the ceremonial lighting of a fire in Meskel Square – and smaller bonfires are dotted through the rest of the city too. Yellow daisies, candles and wooden crosses are often carried by locals and visitors alike throughout the evening, with celebrations often continuing all night.
The day of Meskel itself tends to be a quieter affair, with many locals attending church and feasting with their families, while you can expect to see many people in Meskel Square. Often, you will notice Orthodox Christians have a cross marked on their foreheads in soot – which, of course, harks back to the festival's roots.
Museum visits are an exceptionally worthwhile way to spend the rest of your time in Addis Ababa. There are several excellent options to choose from, but it is perhaps the Ethnological Museum that stands out the most.
You will find this wonderful institution tucked inside Haile Selassie's former palace, and it offers much to fascinate you before you even step inside – such as the wonky stairs stretching skywards, with each step added by the Italians to represent each year of Fascist rule.
Inside, you will discover a fabulously curated display of artefacts pertaining to Ethiopian people, starting with those relevant to childhood – such as games – and moving through to adulthood and, finally, death. Other things you can see include spectacular displays of religious art, an impressive collection of instruments, and some preserved rooms once lived in by Emperor Haile Selassie.
St George Cathedral and Museum
This impressive cathedral, where monarchs such as Emperor Haile Selassie were crowned, dates back to the early 20th century – though it was commissioned at the end of the 19th century to mark the defeat of the Italians in Adwa.
From the outside, the cathedral looks imposing and forbidding as opposed to spectacular, but inside you will find a wealth of treasures – from the beautiful ceiling to splendid paintings, including work by the celebrated artist Afewerk Tekle. Don't forget to pop into the museum, which is located in the cathedral's grounds – it displays Ethiopia's finest collection of religious artefacts.
The National Museum
Housing a collection that spans fossilised extinct creatures, ancient inscriptions, paintings and secular arts and crafts, the National Museum is full of amazing artefacts. Among the highlights are the remains of a fossilised humanoid which date back millions of years, a wide display of Ethiopian art and the excellent selection of weapons, utensils and other artefacts used in day to day lives throughout the country's history.