Seeing Some of the Spectacular Religious Sites in Addis Ababa
By Samuel Seyoum
At 2355 meters (7726 feet) above sea level, Addis Ababa is Africa’s highest altitude capital city and the fifth highest in the world. Crisp mornings and evenings are bookends to warm and bright sunny days for most of the year.
Hence, the “13 Months of Sunshine” slogan was introduced in the 1960s by the then Ethiopian Tourism Organization under the capable stewardship of Habteselassie Tafesse.
The name Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharic, the national language. And, in unrelated fact, Ethiopia is the fifth largest exporter of fresh-cut flowers in the world. September (Meskerem), the beginning of spring in Ethiopia, is known for blooming flowers and festive holidays.
Two New UNESCO Heritage Sites
This year, the month in 2023 came with good news from UNESCO, which inscribed two more world heritage sites in Ethiopia, enabling it to leapfrog South Africa to the number one spot for a country with the most heritage sites in the Continent. None of the eleven world heritage sites are in Addis Ababa. But, the city serves as a gateway and has its intriguing attractions to the believer and unbeliever.
It is 2016 in Ethiopian Calendar in 2023
The year has 13 months (12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month of five; six in leap years). Orthodox Christianity assigns each day of the month to a saint, the Virgin Mary, St. Anne, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Trinity.
This is in addition to other religious and public holidays such as Enqutatash, Ethiopia’s own New Year’s Day (on September 11th; this year on the 12th due to leap year) and Meskel (on September 26th; this year on 27th). The latter marks the finding of the True Cross.
Happy New Year
Many Ethiopian women of all ages don Shemma, the white national dress, for New Year’s Day and its Eve (as they do on other main holidays).
the occasion of the New Year, girls form groups to sing songs including “Abeba Ayeh Woy? Abeba Ayesh Woy?” (Have you seen flower?) in reference to the seasonal blooming of wild flowers which turn the meadows into yellow carpets.
It is customary to give a few dollars to the group, who assign a cashier, after their performance.
Boys have their fun activities too. On the Eve, they light Chibo (bundled dry tree branches) to welcome the holiday and usher in the brighter months. The lighting of Chibo torches is customary for Buhe (the Feast of Transfiguration) in August, and Demera (Meskel Eve) in late September as well as New Year’s Eve. The younger ones also create flower drawings for New Year’s Day and present them to neighbors receiving gifts of a few dollars in return.
Finding the True Cross
Two weeks after New Year’s Day, Meskel (a UNESCO Intangible Heritage) is celebrated throughout the country. On the eve, Demera is marked by burning a big bonfire at Meskel Square, the largest in Ethiopia. A million or more revelers attend.
Birthday of the Prophet
This year, the Muslim Holiday of Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad fell on September 26th coinciding with Demera. It is a national holiday in its own right. The Grand Mosque, the city’s oldest mosque is near Mercato, one of the largest open air markets in Africa. Several other mosques have been built in recent decades.
Many visitors to Addis Ababa stay in Bole, the trending airport area where most upscale hotels, malls, cafés, restaurants and embassies are located. This is a good place to start a city tour focusing on churches and cathedrals.
Men and women enter Orthodox churches thru separate doors and pray from different sides. Many churches have a third entrance for the clergy.
Remember to take your shoes off whenever you enter an Ethiopian church. You can still carry them with you in a bag if you so prefer.
Cathedral of Medhane Alem
We also started our tour here at the relatively new Cathedral of Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) which is considered the largest in Ethiopia and the second largest in Africa. It has a large compound to walk around and contemplate.
This also becomes handy to hold outdoor mass. A big statue of Jesus Christ with a verse from the Bible under it attracts attention from near and far.
The interior has frescoes worth taking time to admire. Abune Aregawi and Metmiku Yohannes (John the Baptist) are also celebrated from the same Church. A large number of believers had turned up for the annual celebration of Metmiku Yohannes on September 13th. Traffic was bumper to bumper on the streets in the area.
We then drove about five kilometers west to Fit Ber to pray at the Church of St. Gabriel. The building is unassuming and a typical circular style local architecture. It might not strike the visitor as a must see. But, locals know the secret: they credit the Archangel for his fast intercession and confide in him their worries praying for resolution.
The area is swarmed by hundreds of thousands of believers when St. Gabriel’s Day is observed every month. The highest numbers are recorded in July and December for the annual celebrations.
Ethiopia’s Camino de Santiago
July and December are also the months when believers flock to the main church of St. Gabriel in Kulubi, 464 kilometers south east of the capital city. Many take the 53 kilometers journey from Dire Dawa, the main city in the Eastern part of the country, by foot. Let us say this is Ethiopia’s shorter version of Camino de Santiago.
Back in Addis Ababa, walking about 100 meters from the Church of St. Gabriel, we found the Church of Be’ata Mariam where the remains of Emperor Menelik, Empress Taitu and Empress Zewditu are entombed. According to the resident guide, Deacon Teshome, the Church’s construction was completed in 1911.
The underground chamber also displays regalia, rare old books, religious drawings and a work of art by Michael Angelo. “What is the story with the ostrich egg?” one of the tourists in front of us asked. Deacon Teshome replied, “Ostriches protect their eggs jealously by staying put for at least 40 days.”
He then added, “It is meant to signify that the Church cares equally seriously about its followers.” With these words of wisdom we continued to the next Cathedral. Entrance fee was less than a US Dollar.
Recolleto to a Smaller Scale
We drove less than two kilometers west to Kidist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral near the Parliament Building. The remains of the late Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Mennen rest here.
The compound is also the resting place of Ethiopia’s who is who including former royal family members, famous artist Tilahun Gesesse, double Olympic champion Miruts Yifter and acclaimed author Tsegaye Gebre Medhin. Richard and Sylvia Pankhurst are also buried here. Imagine the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires but to a smaller scale.
The interior of the cathedral is spacious with beautiful stained glass windows which unfortunately we couldn’t visit this time due to renovation work. But, the Museum in the compound was open. Its coveted possessions include the first Amharic Bible published in 1848, as well as a cross presented to the Emperor Haile Selassie 1st by the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York.
The museum is also home to the relic of St. Thaddeus, brought from Armenia. Our guide, Berhanu, enlightened us on various historic and religious facts before we completed the tour. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. Entrance fee: about 4 USD.
St. George, the Holy Knight
Our final stop was the St. George Cathedral in Piazza, a couple of kilometers west. Construction of the cathedral, octagonal from the outside, was completed in 1911.
The new cathedral replacing the former thatched roof church was constructed to commemorate the Victory of Adwa in 1986. Empress Zewditu and later the Emperor Haile Selassie were crowned here—the former by the current Museum. Mosaics and paintings in the Cathedral include several pieces by Afework Tekle, the famous Maitre Artiste Laureate.
Our focus was, once again, the small museum within the church compound which brims with history. Li’ke Seyouman Mebratu, a knowledgeable senior deacon and guide with commanding voice indicated to the statue of Abune Petros (Abune means Bishop) near the Museum’s entrance and suggested we start our visit there.
He was among the first four Ethiopians to be appointed bishop. Before 1928, the bishops came from Egypt.
He was executed on July 29, 1936 for peacefully defying the Italian occupiers and had since been revered as a symbol of resistance and martyrdom.
A few hundred meters outside the church the formal statue is on display on the side of a main street. Mebratu told us that the less known Abune Mikael faced the same fate in Gore—hundreds of kilometers west of Addis Ababa.
We then visited the retired bell at the entrance of the museum which was a present from Czar Nicholas 2nd of Russia.
Inside the museum, we took a rich educational journey especially on the towering figures of Emperor Menelik, Empress Taitu and Empress Zewditu. Regalia, ecclesiastical objects and icons, ceremonial crosses and umbrellas, pictures, rare books and gifts from foreign leaders served as aids to Mebratu’s fluent story telling. Entrance fee: 2 USD per person.
For us, we called it a day and returned our attention to the mundane activities like having a cup of Arabica coffee at nearby Tomoca—Ethiopia is where coffee was first discovered. If you have adequate time in the city, there are more churches to visit—over 100 of them.
You will find out Addis Ababa is truly a city of saints and devout believers. Whatever religion you follow (or don’t), Ethiopian churches of all denominations are always welcoming.
What Else to Visit in Addis?
Addis Ababa has plenty of attractions. You can visit Arada, the old town, with Piazza at its center. Head west to Mercato—one of the largest open air markets in Africa or go south to the current financial district and former Railway Station known as Legehar (taken from the French word “La Gare”) or return to modern Bole.
Many Ethiopians consider Addis Ababa as the political capital of Africa as well. The city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Union (AU). It hosts one of the largest number of diplomatic missions in the world. And, this contributes to its international nature.
Where to Stay in Abbis
Hilton, Marriott (Sheraton), Golden Tulip, Hyatt, Radisson, and Best Western chains have properties in the city. And, Ethiopian Airlines operates the largest hotel in Africa, the Skylight.
I stayed two weeks at the Golden Tulip Addis Ababa and give it high marks for its friendly service-minded staff as well as spacious rooms.
I also stayed one night as a transit passenger at the In Terminal Skylight Hotel—very convenient to catch a few hours’ sleep before the connecting flight. There are also several local brand hotels of very good standard.
Getting Around Addis
Most of the hotels provide airport transportation on complimentary basis or for a reasonable fee. You can also use Uber-like services known as Ride. Download the app or call the dispatch center at 8294. Get ready to pay cash in local currency, Birr.
Remember to taste the local dish injera and wot and a glass of Ethiopian wine. You can then complete the meal with a cup of Ethiopian coffee usually served in a traditional ceremony.
Or, look for a fine Italian restaurant. They say the city cooks the best pasta dishes south of Italy. I liked Gusto and Belvedere (Italian) and Aladdin (Middle Eastern). I have also heard good comments about Mandoline (French).
Popular local restaurants include Kategna, Yod Abyssinia, and Habesha 2000. Some of them have cultural shows with dinner.
Samuel is a travel and hospitality industry professional who enjoys exploring the world with stamps of over 65 countries on his passport. When he is not doing destination marketing, he handles large groups and enjoys a fine cup of Cappuccino.
Orthodox Christians praise the Lord in Addis Ababa, City of Saints (Photo courtesy Ethiopian Reporter)
An Ethiopian Orthodox Christian book of prayers (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
A painting at Makush Gallery showing an Ethiopian lady with seasonal endemic flowers (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
Clergy with drums celebrating Demera at Meskel Square, Addis Ababa (Photo courtesy Ethiopian Reporter)
Demera bonfire at Meskel Square (Photo courtesy Ethiopian Reporter)
A sea of believers at Demera celebration (Photo courtesy Ethiopian Reporter)
Cathedral of Savior of the World (Medhane Alem), Addis Ababa (Photo courtesy Pexels-Gift Habeshaw)
Statue of Jesus Christ, in the compounds of Savior of the World Cathedral (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
The Church of Be’ata Mariam, Addis Ababa (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
The Royal Tombs in the Church of Be’ata Mariam (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
The smaller church of Kidane Mehret in the Be’ata Mariam compound (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)
St. George Cathedral, Addis Ababa—located at the City’s “Kilometer Zero” (Photo courtesy Pexels-Lan Yao)
The bell, a gift of Czar Nicholas II (Photo by Samuel Seyoum, CTC)