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Headquarters of the African Union Commission
Proposed Seat of the Pan African Parliament

African Union Commission Headquarters, Addis Ababa, the African Union

Addis Ababa means New Flower. It was founded in 1887, by Emperor Menelik II, by the site of a hot spring. Addis Ababa is a large, sprawling, hospitable city with 2 million people. It is important as a focal point of the struggle to end colonial occupation, and the center for the organization of African unity and sovereignty.

Through the efforts of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, representing the Monrovia Group of African states, and President Sekou Toure of Guinea, acting on behalf of the Casablanca Group, the leaders of 32 independent African states were brought together at Addis Ababa in May 1963. After two days of speeches, a charter creating the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was approved on 25 May (Africa Day). The charter was signed within half an hour the next day as 30 heads of state and prime ministers mounted the podium in groups of four to non-stop thunderous applause. Addis Ababa was alive with excitement. Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Leopold Senghor, and all the other great founders of Africa's post colonial states were there. Together they went out and planted trees to symbolize African unity.

Some of the OAU Founding Leaders at Africa Hall, Addis Ababa 1963

Addis Ababa's symbolic importance lies in the fact that of Africa's cities, it remained undefeated and free from colonial occupation until rather late. It was the last African city to fall to foreign armies (with the complicity of the League of Nations), and its occupation lasted the least amount of time. On May 5, 1936, the Italian army invaded and captured the city (it had been looted and stripped in anticipation of the invasion by fleeing inhabitants and rioters). Mussolini's first objective as commander of occupied Addis Ababa was to declare apartheid and order the removal of all historic African symbols, including famous statues of Menelik II and the Lion of Judah. He had the great Obelisk of Aksum and many historic paintings, crowns, and other ancient artifacts removed and shipped to Rome.

The invasion by Italy was an act of revenge for the defeat of Italy by Menelik in 1896 at the battle of Adowa. That defeat had caused the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, and had led to the policy of his successor Antonio Starabba Di Rudini to prevent Italy from pursuing expansionism. Di Rudini concluded a peace treaty with Abyssinia and endangered relations with Britain by the unauthorized publication of confidential diplomatic correspondence on Abyssinian affairs.

Mussolini's volence (he used chemical and biological weapons) together with the international community's indifference, galvanized the indignation of Africans everywhere. On February 19, 1937 after the unsuccessful assassination attempt against Italian Marshal Graziani, the top Italian official in Africa, occupation authorities put to death 30,000 people. Millions of Blacks in the USA and the Caribbean were moved to organize in support of Pan Africanism, and thousands of young men in Africa and the diaspora travelled to join in the war to liberate Abyssinia. The Occupation ended on April 6, 1941 when African regular and guerilla troops, backed by the Emperor Haile Selasie and the British, freed the city from the fascists.

Addis Ababa in 1935, before the Italian Occupation

The city began its rise to megacity status between 1967 and 1975 when rural to urban migration in Ethiopia was at its peak. This growth upset the social balance of the city as more people competed for jobs in all sectors. Inflation combined with a lack of jobs for qualified college graduates led to widespread student protests. In 1974, agitated students, laborers, and most importantly military officers, staged a coup, which toppled the imperial regime and established a socialist military government. There are some very imposing buildings dating from imperial times and some Stalinist ones from the Derge Regime.

The city is very hilly, and sits more than 2,200 meters high, 9 degrees north of the Equator. It is nestled in the central mountain region, in Shewa Province, on the western ridge of the Great Rift Valley. Addis Ababa is built in the foothills of Mount Entoto, and the panorama from the peak (3,200m), either by day or night, is a breath taking spectacle. The Church of St Mary (1885) overlooks the entire city and the surrounding area.

Dawn in the foothills of Mt. Entoto

The air is filled with the scent of flowers and eucalyptus trees, and the rich vibrancy of a city that is home to so many cultures. Addis Ababa is also famous for the "Markato" (also called Addis Ketema market), Africa's largest open-air market. Calls to prayer from the Addis Ababa's Orthodox churches and Mosques starts at dawn goes on until about 7:30. The muezzin's call to Muslim faithful is shorter, and about 5 times a day. In neighbourhoods where mosques and churches are in close proximity the Orthodox interrupt their service, the muezzin calls for 5 minutes, then the Orthodox service starts up again. They get along.     

Addis Ababa sits in the centre of international communication nets, with air links to more than 80 cities worldwide. It has a healthy mountain climate, mild temperatures, and warm sunshine that makes it a popular hub for international conferences. Addis Ababa has the headquarters and branch offices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, as well as seven other international organisations.

The airport at Bole is a 10-minute drive from downtown, close to ministries in the heart of the city's best hotel, restaurant and shopping district, close to the historic Africa Hall and the Offices of the African Union Commission. There is easy and comfortable transport by shuttle bus between the UN Coference center and other locations in the city. The UN center has onsite parking for 600 cars.

The United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa

The train service of the Addis Ababa/Djibouti Railroad terminates at the celebrated Addis Ababa Railway Station. A wide network of roads, most of them all-weather highways, link Addis Ababa with all the regional centers and most other towns in Ethiopia, as well as with AU's constituent republics of Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea . Bus services leave Addis Ababa daily for all regional centers, and most rural centers that have roads.

Places to vist in the African Union's capital city include the Emperor Menelik II Palace, the Menelik Mausoleum, Africa Hall (with stained glass mural depicting African history), the octagon-shaped St. George Cathedral, Jubilee Palace, Trinity Cathedral, the Ethnological Museum (located on the main campus of Addis Ababa University), and the National Archeological Museum. Nightlife, including many cinemas, theatres, casinos and bars, provides entertainment until the early hours.

The languages spoken in Addis include dozens of African languages (Amharic is the most common), English, Arabic, Italian and French. Popular festivals include Timket (Epiphany), Enkutatash (the Ethiopian New Year, in September after the rains), Maskal, Gena (Christmas), Id and Easter.