Celebrating Love in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a place where facts, legends, and myths are swirled together to create the history of an interesting people, who themselves, look like their facial features have been delicately chiselled by the hands of a master sculptor. Their national epic, the Kebra Nagast, or The Glory of Kings, tells of how the Queen of Sheba met King Solomon, who tricked his way into her bed, and from which the Emperors who ruled Ethiopia were a direct result. A dynasty that came to an end, not so long ago, with the twentieth-century reign of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah, and 235th in a line of direct descent from this famous queen.

The story of how Makeda became the Queen of Sheba is another one of those legends that captures the imagination. It tells of a time, long ago, when the city of Aksum was terrorised by a serpent king, sometimes called Awre, and sometimes Wainaba. His reign of terror came to an end when a brave and beautiful young woman named Makeda cut his head off. The population of Aksum, out of gratitude, made her their queen. It was soon after becoming the Queen of Sheba that she journeyed to Jerusalem where she met with the wise (or sly) King Solomon.

On her return to her homeland, Makeda gave birth to a son at a spring in Maibella, which is today part of Eritrea. She named him Menelik, literally “the son of the king.” Menelik grew up in Aksum, but in yet another of those twists of fate and legend, at the age of twenty-two, went off to Jerusalem to meet his father and recruit advisers and craftsmen to take back with him to Ethiopia. With the help of his companion, Azirah, young Menelik had the daring to make off with the Ark of the Covenant, which, it is said, is to this day kept in Ethiopia.

Travel to far-flung destinations is often inspired by stories like these, and although I find the myths and legends of Ethiopia captivating, it was a modern day love story that recently took Michael and I to its capital, Addis Ababa. It was here that a good friend and colleague of Michael married his very own Ethiopian queen. Although the celebration was not much different from weddings elsewhere in the world, the joyous ululating that erupted from the women when the beautiful bride entered the wedding hall was enough to give me goosebumps. What sets an Ethiopian wedding apart is the fact that raw meat is served as part of the meal. Traditionally served at special celebrations such as weddings and religious ceremonies, and eaten not long after the cow was slaughtered, it is a unique way of honouring the guests for their presence. It is usually served with awaze, a dry spice mixture mixed with water or tejj (honey wine), and mitmitta, a dry spice mix of bird’s-eye chili, cardamom, black cumin, bishop’s weed, and salt and pepper. Michael, as a self-professed ‘meatetarian’, happily partook in this ritual, and declared it delicious.

Founded by Menelik II in 1887, Addis Ababa is the third highest capital in the world. Entoto Hill, which rises 3000 metres above sea level, is a wonderful place to visit for sweeping views over Addis, although during the rainy season the days are not very clear. The Eucalyptus scented air that cloaks Entoto hill instantly transports one to another world. It is here that the local women are allowed to collect the fallen wood of the Eucalyptus trees that cover its slopes, which they carry down the steep, winding road to where it is used in different guises.

St Mary’s Church and Museum, at the top of the hill, is an interesting place to visit, especially in the presence of a guide. The museum, although small, has an interesting collection of historical articles, mostly related to Menelik II, whose palace compound can be found to the back of the church.

The humble palace of Menelik II does not in any way look like the quintessential idea of a palace, and is perhaps why he was such a beloved king.

The road to Entoto hill passes through Shiromeda market where traditional Ethiopian garments are produced and sold. It is a place simply too irresistible to pass by, and Michael graciously succumbed to the fact that his wife is always in need of another shawl.

What would a visit to Ethiopia be without partaking in a traditional coffee ceremony? It is a time-honoured ritual that forms the fabric of Ethiopian social life and should never be rushed. The smell of roasting coffee beans happily mingled with the scent of burning frankincense, and I was enthralled by the gracious hand movements of Rubi, as she prepared our coffee.

The Sheraton Hotel was not only a perfect venue for the wedding, but a wonderful place to relax for a few days, and although short, it was a special trip.

An interesting fact:

In 1582, when the Christian world adopted the Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia continued to use its own 13-month timeline. Ethiopia is, therefore, always seven or eight months earlier than the rest of the world.