Once home to emperors of the imperial times of Ethiopia, and later serving as a torture facility for Dergue regime, Unity Park has become the talk of the town since its opening three months ago. Financed by the United Arab Emirates, the construction of the Park cost more than USD160 million. The park displays what Ethiopia looked like during the 19th and 20th centuries along with Ethiopia’s great and recent emperors, including Emperor Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie, both of whom are featured with life-size waxwork statues. It also features the post-1991 political works of EPRDF-led government in the form of sculptures in the garden, representing the nine ethnic-based regional states. EBR’s Kiya Ali, who visited the park last month, explores.
Three months ago, walking along the Grand Palace of Ethiopia was not easy, let alone getting inside or being allowed to visit the more than century-old compound. However, that is now history. On Saturday morning, December 21, 2019, more than 40 people were lined up at the gate of the Grand Palace of Ethiopia, situated in a place commonly known as Arat Kilo along Niger Street. Such a reality might be surprising in the past as it was only foreign diplomats or government officials and few civil servants who were allowed to enter the compound. Now this is however possible for the masses thanks to the opening of Unity Park, inaugurated five months ago in the presence of the heads of government of Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.
Welcomed by security guards with great hospitality and smiles on their faces, the park offered an opportunity for visitors to understand Ethiopia’s millennia-old history to the current day. Serving as a bridge between the past and current Ethiopia, the park allows people like Shiferaw Assefa to find Ethiopia in just one place, making it the first of its kind. “I remember how difficult it was to walk along the palace. That time is now over,” said Shiferaw, shaking his head from right to left to show his excitement, speaking with EBR while entering the compound.
Built with USD160million (five billion Birr) secured from the United Arab Emirates, Unity Park sprawls for 40 hectares, covering half the total area of the Grand Palace, with the balance carrying the offices and residences of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD.). Passing the gigantic black door at the entrance of the Park in the Grand Palace, there is a building, painted white, that has a cafeteria, ticketing office and souvenir shop. Next to the souvenir shop are stairs that rise gracefully towards an area featuring an artificial cave.
The trees surrounding and a fountain on the top of the cave allow visitors to enjoy a splendid view of the Park. Breathing and feeling the cold fresh air gives more pleasure. Coupled with the sounds of insects and birds, passing through the twisted 175-meter cave inside the park, visitors may second guess if they are in a natural environment. There is more. Continuing through the cave, visitors come across a window allowing them to see the famous black maned lions, living in one of the two zoos found inside the Park, moving around in a small artificial park.
Feeling tired; here is a cafeteria right after the exit door of the cave. But if the choice is to purchase artifacts—including jewelries, traditional shoes, cultural clothes, and bags—there is a store immediately after. But not all visitors want to do so. The reason is obvious. “The price of artifacts in Ethiopia is two or three times higher than what I have seen in other African countries. For instance, a beaded necklace culturally worn by the Maasai tribe in Kenya is sold for ETB160 in Nairobi, while the price of a similar item is ETB600 inside Unity Park,” remarks Ferdos Ahmed, an international NGO employee, who has visited the park recently.
Another captivating site inside the Park is the botanic garden holding over 43 indigenous plants, including Tenadam, Koseret, Feto, Besobila, and Zigba—all of which are used as either food, medicine or cosmetics by various communities throughout Ethiopia. Leaving the garden behind, visitors see the portraits of leaders of modern Ethiopia, from Emperor Menelik II to the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, placed on the wall. Right after the portraits, facing the graceful octagon shaped two-storied building commonly known as “Egg House” (enqulal bet in Amharic) will be a must.
Constructed during the early 1890s, the House got its name for the octagonal shape of its roof. It features Emperor Menelik II’s bedroom and reception room, Etege Taytu’s dwellings, former imperial princes’ bedrooms and a small banquet room, all of which are connected through passageways. It is here where the first telephone room of Ethiopia is found. To the east of the Egg House, is a hall which was the seat of the council of ministers during the imperial regimes, as well as a room of the former Ethiopian Minister of War, Fitawrari Habtegiorgis Dinagde (a.k.a. Aba Mela). In front of Menelik’s prayer room, the first car to enter Ethiopia thanks to the Emperor, is exhibited within a glass box, and is found right after the Throne Hall (locally known as Yezufan Bet).
The Throne Hall derives its name from the large golden throne displayed at the center. The golden statues of lions standing on either side of the gate make the astonishing view of the Hall visible from its entrance gate. Its sparkling insides are highly decorated with precious stuccos covering the walls and ceiling. Having plinths on its walls that feature the Star of David, the symbol of the Solomonic Dynasty, the Throne Hall holds a cloak worn by Emperor Haile Selassie when he addressed the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936, together with the crowns of Emperor Menelik and Etege Taitu, as well as the famous hats of Emperor Menelik II.
The Throne Hall is where Ethiopia’s monarchs used to meet with the provincial lords of aristocratic background and royal lineage to discuss local issues and make important decisions on subjects, such as land tax. On special occasions, the space was also used to welcome nobles and foreign dignitaries. The room found at the back of the throne was used to host banquets as well. Since 1974, the upper room of the Throne Hall has been used as meeting place for member of the military regime, Dergue.
Numerous parts of the Park are not yet completed, yet there’s much to explore. There is another exhibition where the history and culture of Ethiopia that shaped a nation through its ethnic, religious and political identities are celebrated. The exhibition traces Ethiopia’s evolution through legends, cultural beliefs, four successive regimes, and historical events, some of which took place inside the Grand Palace.
The exhibition starts by depicting and giving cursory information on the common religious practices in Ethiopia, including Irrecha and Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant rituals. Ethiopian Jewish handcrafts are also displayed here. Next to the exhibition, there is a dark room displaying the legends of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of ancient Israel and the conventional image of the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the same room, to express the history of Ethiopian rulers in concise and precise manner, there are brief notes about each leader of the country since its formation as a modern state more than a century ago.
Emperor Menelik II is honored for his effort in modernizing Ethiopia’s infrastructure; while his grandson, Lij Iyasu is praised for reforming judiciary systems, introducing modern tax systems, and establishing the first police force; and his daughter, Empress Zewditu is remembered for furthering the abolishment of slavery and commissioning the development of a maternity hospital—the now Zewditu Memorial Hospital.
Emperor Haile Selassie is praised for putting Ethiopia at the forefront of African politics and making Addis Ababa the headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (now African Union), while President Mengistu Hailemariam is admired for defending Ethiopia from the invading Somalis and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is remembered for establishing a federal political system in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Hailemariam is honored for the construction of industrial parks across the country and giving increased emphasis to boost the tourism sector.
It is not only the positive stories of the country that is displayed inside the park. Near the Throne Hall, there is a room narrating the stories of Ethiopians tortured and killed during the Dergue regime. Displayed is a three-minute testimonial video of two people who were tortured in this room. The basement was initially used as a wine cellar during imperial times but was later used as a prison cell for senior officials of Emperor Haile Selassie by the Dergue.
Be that as it may, the lavishly decorated Banquet Hall (Gibir Adarash locally) is another attraction site for visitors. It holds a waxwork model of Menelik gracefully sitting on his original throne and surrounded with a red carpet wax model. The design of the curtain is similar to the one used when Menelik received Russian officials after the victory of Adwa. Moreover, this hall holds various equipment used to serve food and drink during Menelik’s time. This includes different types of bottles (locally known as berile) used to drink local honey wine (tej), denbejane (tej container), King Mikael’s and Ras Tessema Nadew’s cups, and a food container made out of wood (Agelgil).
It was here that Prime Minister Abiy hosted one of the most expensive dinners in the world last year. Being a hall where royal feasts were once held, attended by the nobility, dignitaries, officials and members of the public, the house has a capacity of hosting up to 3,000 guests and will be open for public events in the future. There are also regional states’ pavilions in Unity Park. However, before visiting this site, if the visitors want to take a break and rest, there are more than five cafeterias including Tomoca, Green Gold Coffee, Bilo’s and Kaldis, as well as another five shops.
Messay Mitiku is among the visitors taking a break and visiting these cafes. Sitting on his wheelchair, Messay looks around the environment with a smile on his face. “I can’t get enough of this place. Starting from the architecture to the green areas and cafeterias, it is really amazing. Moreover, this is a place that holds more than a century of history,” he said. Except for one recommendation, Messay is completely happy with his experience. “For disabled people who need special care, it would have been nice if there was ramp. Since the compound is still under construction, I hope they will consider it.”
Near to Messay’s viewpoint, in the regional pavilion’s site, all regional states, except for the recently autonomous state of Sidama, are represented with their natural, cultural, and historical heritages. A digital display is placed to provide information about each regional state, both in video and written format. There is much to explore, especially had one more expected attraction site of the Park, a zoo housing 312 wild animals, been completed. However, although not completed, figures indicate more and more visitors are coming to the park.
In more than three months, more than 50,000 people have visited the park, through categorized ticketing. For foreigners, the prices are USD20 and USD50 for normal and VIP, respectively. For Ethiopians or those with a resident ID, the prices are ETB 200 for normal and ETB1,000 for VIP. VIP tickets include a guide and the privilege to visit the “Egg House”. In case of any emergency, there is a branch of St. Peter’s Specialized Hospital inside the Park where visitors can access free primary medical treatment. The satisfaction of visitors means more revenues for the Park, which has collected more than three million Birr thus far. “Unity Park is an answer to critics claiming Ethiopia has poor tourism culture,” Biniam Asrat, Domestic Tourism Directorate Team Leader at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, concludes. Yet, for Fanta Beyene, Communications Director at the Authority for Research and Conservation for Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), there is much to further offer inside the park. “Had there been more space, we could have shown a better collection of our possessions. Despite such limitations, Unity Park is a place where Ethiopians will learn from and about past generations; and their heritage is permanently preserved.”
9th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2020 • No. 82