The northern city of Mekelle is one of the most pleasant
places to visit in Ethiopia. The people are nice, the streets are wide and
good for walking. As a foreigner, one of the most pleasant things about
visiting Mekelle is the lack of hassle from locals - there are no crowds
following you, no calling out of ‘you, you’ or ‘money, money’. People very
pleasantly leave you alone.
Within 80 kilometers of Mekelle there are reputed to be
over 120 rock hewn churches, which makes Mekelle a stop off point or
central resting place for visitors. From here day trips to the churches
around Wukro or Geralta are easily arranged.
The town itself has many sites worth visiting. It is a
good sized city but easy to get your bearings, and most places are walking
The Monument to the War
The artistic tower spiralling more than 100 feet above
the ground, mounted by a large ball, is visible through much of Mekelle.
This is the centrepiece of the large war memorial. Entranceways to the
memorial are surprisingly stark, but the memorial itself is wonderfully
new and engrossing.
As you enter the central portion on top of the pink cut
stone, the memorial stretches on both sides from the central tower. On
each side are larger than life figures, representing the victims and
victors of the war. Appropriately black and stick like, the figures
include mothers and children trekking out from the famine, several of them
not making it. With them are the hardy Tigrayan fighters, machine guns
over their backs and trusty donkeys in tow. These peasant fighters
overcame the Soviet backed might of the Derg military regime.
Appropriately enough, one of the tanks left over from
the war lies just beside the monument, and is a somewhat dubious
playground for children. My children showed no hesitation in crawling all
over and into the tank, with the unbounded curiosity about war items which
affects many of us!
Massive lights flood the monument at night, an eerie
reminder of the recent war. Mekelle was only captured from the Derg in
1989, yet the monument is the only visible reminder of the devastation of
The monument is a short walk from the hilltop Castle
hotel. To the west of the monument you can see the recently constructed
buildings of the attractive Mekelle University, appropriately dedicated to
Around the castle is the only place in Mekelle where
I’ve confronted officious and difficult behaviour from the military and
guards. Considering that Mekelle was near the front line in the war with
Eritrea, it was in fact a remarkably relaxed place. The exception is the
entrance to the castle, which always seems to have some confused and
confusing military types who make it difficult to enter and love to boss
If you brave the roadblock, however, the visit is worth
it. The Castle itself is the major attraction, a high multi-turreted
classic castle. Emperor Yohannes moved back to his home area of Mekelle
after spending the initial part of his reign in Debre Tabor, the capital
of his predecessor, Emperor Tewodros. This was a period of turmoil in
Ethiopia, Tewodros had reunited the country after almost 100 years of
warlords, but he failed to maintain his paramountcy and finally killed
himself in 1868 to avoid capture by an invading British force.
Two years later Yohannes the ruler of Tigray came to
power, benefiting from the arms given to him by the departing British, and
using his military and diplomatic skills to bring a degree of peace to
Ethiopia. After a few years in Debre Tabor, where the remains of his
earlier castle can still be seen, Johannes moved to his large new castle
in Mekelle, where he ruled until his death in battle with the Mahdists of
Sudan in 1881.
Unlike the Debre Tabor castle, which is a ruin, the
Mekelle castle is well preserved and eminently visible. The last time I
was there it was under renovation, with promises of new displays on its
reopening. Previously the interior was charming but amateurish, with a
hodge podge collection of military hardware, royal robes, household
effects and photographs all dustily thrown together. It was fun to rummage
through it, but not very edifying, even with the helpful but hopeless
guide. You could go upstairs by a narrow and somewhat rickety set of
stairs, where you could observe the royal bedrooms with some furniture
still around. The best part was coming out on to the roof, where you could
poke your head through the turrets and observe a nice view over the
rooftops of Mekelle.
The grounds are also nice and quite well kept, with
lovely trees and lawns and flowers. Some machine guns, probably 1930’s
Italian era, guard the front entranceway.
An unusual stop, but one that I don’t regret, is the
school which was bombed by the Eritreans at the outset of the war. The war
broke out in May, 1998, and the school was bombed on June 5th.
I remember the incident clearly from when I heard about
it in Addis Ababa. Most of us were still gripped by the shock of the
unexpected attack from Eritrea, and curious about how Ethiopia would
react. The seizure of a few hundred kilometers of farmland was certainly
serious, especially for the families who lived there and had to flee. But
the real impact of the war was burned into my memory, and I think that of
most Ethiopians, by the images of the children killed at Ayder School.
The school sits in an ordinary poor residential district
of Mekelle, across from a beautiful new hospital that has been built,
reputedly, with the assistance of the all pervasive Sheikh Mohammed Al
Amoudi. A clumsy fence surrounds the school, and the gate is marked by a
Inside the grounds, the school has a look of normality,
barren grounds with a grouping of tin roofed classrooms. It is still an
active school, a mere bombing couldn’t close a precious educational
As you get closer to the buildings, the normality wears
off. You can see the holes in the walls of the classrooms, where the
shrapnel from the cluster bombs dug through the cement. One of the long
classrooms has a huge hole in the roof, and others have chunks gouged out
next to their windows. All this damage has been left as it is, a mute
testimony to the destruction of June the 5th.
Inside the classroom with the hole in the roof is a
museum to the killings. The desks of the students are still in the room,
many of them with holes from pieces of shrapnel. Three students died in
this classroom - the surprise is that more didn’t. Along the wall are
tables where the detritus of the attack is displayed, cardboard casing of
the cluster bombs, anti-personnel canisters, metal shell casings.
More riveting are the posters and photos that show the
victims. Eleven children died in the attack, along with a teacher and a
woman with a baby on her back. Their blood spattered bodies are shown in
image after image. Now at the school a small shrine and a line of trees
has been planted to remember each of the victims.
The TV footage of the aftermath of the attack was shown
again and again in Ethiopia. Rescuers carried the limp bodies of the
victims across the field to cars, tears streaming down their faces. Dozens
were injured in the attack.
Perhaps the most horrifying thing was that the plane
that attacked circled around and came back, attacking again the people who
had rushed to aid the victims of the first attack.
This attack galvanized Ethiopia in my opinion. The
country arose from the shock of the initial invasion into a steely and
unified resolve, which eventually resulted in the defeat of Eritrea. I’m
no fan of warfare, and the major feeling I have about the war is that it
was tragic, but I understand the reaction of Ethiopia.
For me the visit was shockingly moving and emotional,
more than I had expected. I suspect the school will remain the major
reminder of the bloody war with Eritrea.
Queen Sheba's bath in Axum
Queen Sheba's bath
Mekelle City Hall
Perhaps in anticipation of a tourist boom after Mekelle
emerged from the devastation of the war against the previous Derg
government, there have been three very fine hotels built in the city.
These were started before the war with Eritrea broke out, and no doubt
they have suffered from the lack of visitors due to the latest war. The
hotels were quite empty when I visited, apart from the occasional group of
rough looking men with Bulgarian or Ukrainian accents. I didn’t ask them
what they did!
The nicest of the hotels in my humble opinion is the
Axum. Predictably their designs and motifs are Axumite, starting with the
multi-storey Axumite pillar design on their central wing. Inside windows
and archways also attractively imitate the pillar designs. The foyer area
is wide and spacious, with a wonderful lounge area using locally designed
furniture and art.
Even the restaurant is nice in this hotel! The service
is good! The staff are friendly! The rooms are comfortable, tidy and well
maintained! There is satellite TV in the rooms! By local standards these
are all tremendous endorsements! And the room rates are quite reasonable!
Apart from the Axum Hotel, there are several other nice
places - the Hawzien Hotel in particular. Although the Castle Hotel lacks
some of the comforts of the Axum, it compensates with its historic
resonance. This is an old castle, with turrets and towers. Predictably,
the rooms are not that great, and the interior is old. The best room to
stay in is the one in the castle turret. It is a government hotel, so the
rates are high for foreigners. The restaurant is unremarkable, but there
is a nice national food restaurant in a tukul at the end of the walkway.
The real advantage of the castle is the view, which you
can take advantage of on the balcony having coffee or beer, you don’t have
to stay there. From here you can see Mekelle spread out at your feet, with
new government buildings mingling with the castle of Emperor Johannes, and
the large monument to the victims of the war against the Derg government.