The Italian steps

The Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa is recognised as one of the finest museums in Africa and no visit to Ethiopia is complete without going there.  It is housed in Haile Selassie’s former palace within the grounds of Addis Ababa University’s main campus.  As we drove through the main gates and up to the entrance of the building, we were struck by the beauty of the gardens – an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  The fact that the ornamental fountains weren’t operational because it was the dry season didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all.  

Before going into the building, we noticed a stone spiral staircase outside which was freestanding and didn’t lead anywhere. Yuhn, our guide, explained that it was built by the Italians as a symbol of Fascist domination.  Each step represents a year of Mussolini’s rule, from when he first took power in 1922.  A small Lion of Judah, the symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, sits on the top step as a sign that the Italians were kicked out of Ethiopia.

Ground floor exhibition

There is an exhibition about the history of the palace on the ground floor of the museum, but this isn’t presented in a very interesting way, so it didn’t detain us for long.

On the first floor, though, there is a much more arresting display.  The exhibits are shown chronologically – from birth to death and beyond.  You get a real insight into the lives of the different peoples of Ethiopia.  The childhood section was fascinating, particularly as we were being shown round by a local. Yuhn was able to relate personal stories which really made the exhibits come alive.  For example, table soccer was (and still is) a very popular pastime in Ethiopia, but Yuhn’s Mum wouldn’t let him spend the coppers that it

Fabric footballs

cost to play on a proper table, so he and his friends made their own smaller versions out of empty cooking oil cans.  There was an one on display, so we were able to understand what he was talking about.  It was the same with the home made footballs crafted out of rags.  Yuhn told us how he got into trouble as a boy for using one of his uncle’s socks to stuff a football!  He also told us how, as a teenager, he had been given a proper football as a gift, but he couldn’t play with it as it was too light and travelled too far when he kicked it, so he went back to his fabric ball!

Away from the raison d’etre of the museum, we wandered into side rooms and were intrigued to find ourselves in Haile Selassie’s bedroom, bathroom and changing room.  All were very spacious to suit the stature of the man!  Yuhn pointed out the bullet hole in the mirror, made during the 1960 failed coup attempt.

Haile Selassie’s spacious bathroom

The second floor of the museum houses exhibitions of religious art and traditional musical instruments.  At the moment, there is also a display of photographs of Christian Ethiopia by Nick Danziger, accompanied by images of the Queen and Prince Phillip’s 1965 visit to the country.  Their signatures in the visitor’s book are proudly displayed.

Royal signatures

Outside the university gates, you can join students and have a drink and a snack in a converted London bus which was brought to Ethiopia by Haile Selassie.

London bus cafe

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