wandering the city #1: the secret cathedral
It’s my fourth month in Addis Ababa, and I’ve just stumbled on a cathedral.
I’d been wandering in Kazanches, past bunting trailing from telegraph poles and blankets of chillies drying in the sun, when I heard a shout.
‘Where are you going?’ called a middle-aged man from over a red fence. ‘I will show you the cathedral, it’s up this road.’
And there it is – the must-see I could never find, the last emperor’s legacy, set upon steps and surrounded by trees, all turrets and angels and creamy brown stone.
Inside, it’s beautiful: bright stained-glass tableaux, the emperor’s throne, heaven scenes on ceilings, chandeliers. But it’s nothing on the grounds, a tangle of trees and unlikely scenes.
Untended graves crowd the area, their statues maimed, their letters faint. Rusting cages litter the ground: an angel prays behind bars. Lovers lounge in alcoves, whispering.
Men and women in white shawls sit silently in the shade, eyes on the front façade, as if watching something I can’t see. At the back, a tree heavy with fuchsia flowers leaks the slightest scent into the still, close air. A blue-and-white taxi glints in the sun, Bob Marley’s face sagging on a flag in its window. From somewhere comes the faint sound of singing.
Gravel paths lead off in all directions, to padlocked gates and distant walls. I follow one past trees and over rubble until something small and gold flickers in and out of view. From behind a metal shed the scene edges into sight: a man writing, cross-legged, a candle balanced by his side. The ground around him is littered with paper.
I leave him in peace. There’s more to discover, much more. Elsewhere, an old priest with a contagious smile holds ajar the museum’s splintered basement door and beckons me over with words I don’t know. The musty room’s dim light keeps all to itself but the slightest of shapes – of women, sitting, eating, talking. Their voices are quiet and rough with age.
Behind a wall there’s even a church, bustling with the theatre of worship: figures lighting candles, mounting steps, pressing their foreheads to the circular wall. Some slip coins into bright tin boxes, others stand in twos and threes, their voices mingling with teachers’ exposition.
The setting sun gilts the roof’s fringe of bells, and a slight wind spikes the cooling air. Three girls in Sunday shawls claim the bench in front of mine; their feet move restlessly underneath. The elder two giggle and whisper as the smallest shifts to sit with me, smiling broadly, saying nothing.
This place is like a dream. My eyes catch on everything I pass as I leave, trying to take it all in, but feeling, in this place of chipped graves and faded photos most of all, how little can ever remain.
I pass the men and women sitting silently, eyes on the facade, as if watching something I can’t see. Maybe what’s left is enough. I walk out and don’t look back.
After four months I finally found one of Addis Ababa’s main attractions – Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by Haile Selassie, the last emporer, and his final resting place. As beautiful as it was, though, the little things in the corners and in the shadows, rusting, crumbling, whispering – those are what stayed with me, what made walking away feel like losing something fragile and irretrievable, and what compelled me to write.
That is what this blog is for – to attempt to retrieve something of the magical, beautiful, accidents of wandering around. Addis is a city full of unexpected sights, everyday marvels, secret histories and delicate dereliction. It’s not boring, or a ‘shithole’, as someone ranted at me the other day. All it takes is an afternoon and the mood for adventure to find something that will make your day. It might be something big or something small: a cathedral, or a friendly conversation; a field full of rusting imperial trains, or a minibus with the most bizarre decor known to man. It might be a meadow full of woodsmoke and playing cards, a garden full of life-size pottery animals, a table football match in full swing on a crowded cobbled lane, a procession of children with silk flags, singing…
Stories for another day.