Dateline Ethiopia: Let's do the time warp
You and I think it's 2007, but according to the Julian calendar this Tuesday marks the beginning of the year 2000. Adrian Mourby reports from Addis Ababa
Sunday 09 September 2007
September 11 means something very different to the people of Addis Ababa. The official electronic countdown board outside the Sheraton Hotel is not there to commemorate events that happened in America six years ago but the start of the last year of the second millennium. Don't worry, you haven't slept through the past seven years. Ethiopia works on the old Julian calendar and by their reckoning we're still a few days off the year 2000.
"Our months are more regular than yours," says Merid, my guide, as we gaze up at the board. "All 12 are exactly 30 days. Then we have the month of Pagume which is just five days, to tidy things up."
At the moment there's quite a bit of tidying up to be done in Addis. The diplomatic capital of Africa has decided to put on a big party for the Ethiopian 2000 celebrations. Twenty thousand people are expected to converge on a newly constructed hall on Bole Road for a New Year's Eve concert. The only problem is that it doesn't look all that constructed at the moment. Men and women are working round the clock to build a perimeter wall for the car park, but everyone remains good-tempered.
Addis is a very cheery place. Merid is supposed to be showing me the city's Christian churches but instead we've just spent an hour shaking hands in Kaldi's. Kaldi's is Ethiopia's own version of Starbucks. It looks like Starbucks, tastes like Starbucks, and even has the same sofas, but it's named after the Ethiopian goatherd who first noticed the stimulating effect of coffee beans back in the 10th century. If Howard Schultz can exploit our great gift to the world, runs the logic of proprietor Tseday Asrat, why can't we copy his marketing?
After Merid has said hello and goodbye to everyone in the café, we climb into his 4WD and set off on our tour, first through Meskal Square, where there'll be a big New Year's bonfire on the evening of 11 September, and then up to the mausoleum church of Emperor Menelik II, who founded Addis Ababa at the end of the 19th century. It's a steep hill; exhaust fumes erupt from a bus in front of us and we're cut up by UN Land Cruisers. The mausoleum proves to be a fascinating example of Ethiopian Orthodox architecture: three concentric square boxes, one inside the other. The outer rim is for the congregation, the middle for the priests and the inner for the Holiest of Holies.
Women worshippers sit wrapped in white cotton shawls called natelas. They are completely quiet and look like ghosts in their shrouds. On the ceiling Merid shows me murals of the Emperor defeating the mechanised Italian army in 1896. This is a place of Christian worship but it's also a shrine to the first African ruler to defeat a European colonial power. Menelik II's importance on this continent spreads far beyond Ethiopia.
As we leave Merid points out the Star of David carved into the columns of the mausoleum. "Our emperor was descended from the Queen of Sheba who had a son by King Solomon. He was Menelik I." This country goes back a very long way, even if is six and three-quarters years behind the rest of us.
Our next stop is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity which Emperor Haile Selassie, one of Menelik's successors, built to commemorate his own military achievements. It's a curious mix of styles that defies description. Moorish Baroque meets English parish church? The floor plan is European with two side aisles and the central dome is decorated with a fearsome Day of Judgement scene. A Lucifer straight out of Hieronymus Bosch is feasting on human flesh. The side panels feature the Emperor addressing the League of Nations and raising the Ethiopian flag after the Italian army had been driven out a second time.
As we drive to our next church the muezzin starts up. Addis has two very strong religious communities that live together in remarkable harmony. It was the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Aksum that gave refuge to Mohamed's daughter, Fatima, and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib when they fled Mecca in AD615. This is a country whose history goes a surprisingly long way back – and just keeps going.
But it doesn't take itself too seriously. As we near the Cathedral of St George (the patron saint of both Ethiopia and England), I'm struck by a poster that makes fun of the minuscule month of Pagume. "Come to Ethiopia for 13 months of sunshine!"
Merid is glad I'm amused. "We have another saying, you know. Come to Ethiopia and be seven years younger." There are definite advantages in the Julian calendar.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Adrian Mourby flew to Addis Ababa with British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com), which offers return flights from £425. He stayed at the Sheraton Addis (00 251 11 517 1717; luxury collection. com/addis), which offers b&b from $250 (£125) a night.
FK Explorer Travel (00 251 11 663 8431; fkexplorertours. com) offers tours of Addis for $65 per person, including driver, guide, admissions and lunch.
Further reading 'Eastern Christian Worlds' by Mahmoud Zibawi, Liturgical Press
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