x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The Arab in Addis Ababa

Feature A visit to the Ethiopian capital reveals unexpected links with the Arabian peninsula.

The Grand Anwar mosque in Mercato, Addis Ababa, sits near the largest open-air market in Africa. Alamy photos
The Grand Anwar mosque in Mercato, Addis Ababa, sits near the largest open-air market in Africa. Alamy photos

I wake up suddenly in the skies over Africa and everything is quiet. Outside, the last wisps of white cloud vanish as we break cloud cover descending into Addis Ababa and, in slow motion, a carpet of green unravels below. As far as I can see, dark, lush fields stretch away, the sunlight through the clouds creating patchworks of lighter shades here and there. But everywhere to the horizon, where the grey mountains rise, is covered in a canopy of green. If this is what this cradle of civilisation looked like millions of years ago, it's not clear why our ancestors ever left.

I'm telling this to Tewodros in the Piazza the next afternoon. Teddy ("Please call me Teddy, you are not my mother") is a fearsomely clever man, with angular eyebrows, grey stubble and fingers that seem too long for his hands.

The Piazza isn't really a place; it is a collection of streets tailing off from a central roundabout, with Addis's most famous sight, the neo-classical cathedral of St George, overlooking it. The area, which features Italian-style architecture from the (brief) Italian colonial days, is one of the best places to come to find great coffee, good pastries and relaxed conversation.

But you have to know where to look and luckily Teddy can guide me. (For a price: I start off paying him 500 Ethiopian birr a day (Dh110) and it increases by 100 birr (Dh22) daily, but Teddy is such good company, I'm happy to overlook this quirky attitude to pricing.) I first meet him in a pool hall off the Churchill Road; he's a man who talks endlessly about his family, but spends his days driving and his nights playing pool. While we talk, ageing cars and the ubiquitous blue taxis and minibuses splutter along. Aster Aweke, an Ethiopian-American singer, oozes out of the music store opposite, a beautiful voice rising and falling with words I can't understand. Everything is slow; the sun and the dust take the edges off our words.

This, to me, is what I came to Ethiopia for - good coffee and good conversation. But it's hardly worth pretending other people see it that way. You can't avoid the fact that Ethiopia is not high on the travel lists of most people; memories of the 1984 famine and the starving children of Ethiopia still linger. Even in Ethiopia, Addis is often just a stop on the way to the astonishing carved churches in Lalibela or the hiking of the Semien mountains.

But there is much to experience in Addis, as everyone calls this sprawling city, if not all that much to see. The main sights - the enormous Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Derg and Yekatit 12 monuments, respectively remembering the lives lost under communist and Italian rules, even the new urban parks that are filled with residents picnicking - all can be seen in two days, leaving plenty of time to take life slowly, like the Ethiopians.

After lunch, we head to Mercato, reputedly the largest market in Africa, but in reality a slum with things to sell. Corrugated iron shacks house the endless stalls, which stretch out in all directions. We walk for two hours through this alternately pungent and aromatic market, where everything on Earth is for sale. People call out to us and rush over to grab my hand and lead me somewhere I don't want to go; deeper in the market, we are ignored, and the streets widen to reveal mosques and people in jallabiyas. Here people greet me in Arabic.

In the midst of the endless stalls, I find a beautiful stone statue of the Queen of Sheba, the semi-mythical ruler of an ancient city state in what would be modern-day Yemen. But at her feet sits a lion, the symbol of Ethiopia's emperors, and beside her is an obelisk, a symbol of Axum, the city in the north of Ethiopia that was the centre of a 10th-century BC city.

For the Ethiopians, the Queen of Sheba (whom they call Makeda) is part of their royal line and they tell a different story to the one known from biblical and Qurannic texts, a story that shows the country's intimate connection with both Christian and Islamic histories. For while the Abrahamic religions tell of the Queen of Sheba hearing of the wisdom of King Solomon and travelling to Jerusalem to meet him, the Kebra Nagast ("The Glory of Kings"), the Ethiopian national epic, recounts how the queen bore King Solomon a child, who eventually left Jerusalem for Axum, taking with him the Ark of the Covenant, and founding the line of emperors that stretched unbroken from him until the last emperor, Haile Selaisse, was deposed in 1974.

Such legends are what histories are made of, and there is no doubting the extensive links between Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula. It isn't just the language, with fragments of Arabic bursting through Amharic, nor the familial lines (I meet Yemenis and Saudis who are married to Ethiopians), nor even how Ethiopians share the slim noses and wide eyes of the Peninsula Arabs, more than their African cousins to the west. It's something else, to do with the warmth and welcome of the city, with the way people are always quick to smile.

A day later and we go walking in the Entoto Mountains that surround Addis to the north. A couple of small churches dot the hills and walking between them is an easy and pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Lush green hills and barely used trails greet us and the sky is so close and so blue above us, it feels as if someone has turned down the oxygen and turned up the contrast.

Down in the city, I noticed very few tourists: occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a couple of bright backpacks on packed buses, or see a middle-aged couple quizzically pondering a map. But up here, the walkers are mainly foreigners, part of the enormous NGO contingent that works in the city, taking a respite from the noise of Addis.

It's past nightfall when we return to Addis and I am in need of a shower and a good meal. For the latter, a friend takes me out along the Bole Road, a crowded strip of restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs that stretches south-east from the city, almost as far as the airport. This is where Addis residents with money come to spend it and it is where we find a restaurant called Habesha, which features traditional dancers.

The food is excellent, a mix of spicy wat stew and vegetarian dishes, all placed on the doughy bread injera, a staple of Ethiopian cuisine with a slightly spongy texture that - you find after a few days - is astonishingly versatile, adapting its taste to bland eggs or searing hot meat.

Around us are the performers and the noise is extraordinary. A group of dancers have commandeered the marble floor between the tables, while diners watch them "in the round". Each set of dancers perform ensembles from a different region, with costumes. The performers are prodigious, popping their bodies and rhythmically snapping their arms, chest and legs in time to a fast beat, more like gymnasts than dancers.

It is lunchtime the next day when Teddy and I drive up to the National Museum on the main King George VI St. On the way in, a group of teenagers on their lunch-time break from school call to me and I spend half an hour talking to them. They know their history, pointing out statues in the museum grounds and telling me the tales behind them. They are happy, smiling teenagers but, between the lines, you can read the scars of Ethiopia - at least one has family with Aids, while another tells me his father was killed in the war with neighbouring Eritrea a decade ago.

The museum itself is small, spread over four floors, and houses some nice artefacts from the period of the last emperor. But it is in the basement that the real attraction lies. It is here that two casts of hundreds of bones belonging to a hominid that walked the Earth 3.2 million years ago have been reconstructed.

The finding of the tiny Lucy in 1974 in the burnt valleys of Hadar marked a new chapter in the understanding of human evolution - she walked upright but had a small brain, overturning the old theory that humans developed large brains first.

Alone in the dimly lit rooms below the museum, facing the dark eyes of the reconstructed Lucy, I think of her and her families, walking out across the fields and mountains of Ethiopia and on to the wider world. And I think of the teenagers I've just met, eager to be part of the modern world and held back by disease and war. Like Ethiopia, the human race has come so far. And yet, like Ethiopia, we have so far yet to go.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Addis Ababa cost from Dh2,065, including taxes

The hotels

Kuriftu Guest House (www.kurifturesortspa.com; 00 251 11 662 3809) on Bole Road has homely apartments with living and dining areas from US$120 (Dh440) a night for stays less than two weeks. For proximity to the Piazza, try the Ras Hotel (www.africa-ata.org/ras.htm; 00 251 11 551 7060), which likes to boast that Nelson Mandela is a former guest. Double rooms start from around $25 (Dh92). At the top end is the Sheraton Addis (www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 251 11 517 1717), which also offers private three-floor villas. Prices for a double room start from $410 (Dh1,506), including breakfast, free internet access and taxes.