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wandering the city #1: the secret cathedral

July 7, 2011

 mausoleum behind fence, Holy Trinity cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


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.


graves, Holy Trinity cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopiametal cross on stool, Holy Trinity cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

angel grave, holy trinity cathedral, addis ababa, ethiopia









Holy Trinity cathedral silhouette, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 grave, holy trinity cathedral graveyard, addis ababa, ethiopia










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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2011 1:54 PM

    WOW. Just.. wow!! It all sounds like something out of a dream.
    The way you write about it completely captures the magic of your secret cathedral 🙂 I especially like “walking away [felt] like losing something fragile and irretrievable”, so so poignant!
    And the photos match your lovely poetic words perfectly; so dreamy! I actually had to put that last photo (with the little stars around the arch; amazing?!?! like a portal into heaven!!) onto my tumblr. And that’s only for ELITE photos, so yaknow, well done right there 😛 lol.
    Beautiful stuff, keep posting! You’re so talented!! xxxxx

    • July 13, 2011 11:34 PM

      aw thanks luce, youre so darn sweet 🙂 and im glad you like the photos, I wanted to make them seem all grainy and historical but alas, what i really need is a lomo or something. lomo + addis = perfect. ahhh the starry grave was one of the saddest, loveliest things ever. i guess because graves are so anoynmous, or understated, in england it’s so striking to see people’s photos everywhere. on murals, or on the graves like picture frames. i think it’s much more powerful, though for that reason also maybe harder for people to bear…. anyway hmmm rambling. glad i made your tumblr 🙂 miss you lots moose xxxxxxxxx

  2. July 23, 2011 12:05 PM

    This is such a enchanting account. I love the ambient dream-sequence feel to it, you really capture the wonder of unexpectedly finding something very special and honest.

    Reminds me of those little times when you’ll find somewhere which is on the one hand very beautiful, on the other a kind of fractured and confusing mix of love care and loss. Powerful places.

    So glad to have read this, Sophie. Look forward to seeing all the other stories surface one day. 🙂

    • July 25, 2011 5:43 PM

      Thanks fraser, glad some of the magic came across 🙂 ‘on the other a kind of fractured and confusing mix of love care and loss’ – wow, what a great way of putting it. thats exactly what makes these places special.
      hopefully some of the other stories will surface very soon… watch this space 🙂

  3. September 28, 2011 6:06 PM

    Hello I see you like Ethiopia. If you like its history as well, even the tragic moments, read my bilingual illustrated book for free: MY GREAT TRIP, ETHIOPIA 1976-78: 20 Months across 10 Countries. If you like it, share the link and drop me a line:

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