The rapidly expanding university city of Mekele (መቀሌ), Tigray’s capital, owes its importance to Emperor Yohannes IV. He made this town his capital in the late 19th century. Though hardly anyone comes to see the town itself, there's enough here to pass the time waiting for your Danakil tour to depart or en route between Lalibela and the north.
Mekele is a fast growing town with a strong economic base and a vibrant cafe culture. It is a military town and therefore of regional significance. Mekele also serves as a useful base for the northern Tigray churches. Away from the main tourist trail, Mekele is relatively unknown, and travellers are honoured guests.
Two nights here in the excellent Axum hotel is one way to explore the hundreds of rock churches in the region, including the Gheralta and Wukro church clusters. Here, there is also an impressive war memorial celebrating the end of socialist regime.
To witness the extraordinary sight of the Afar tribes’ camel trains, some selling salt, arriving from the sun blasted Danakil Depression is a fascinating experience. Similar in appearance to the Gabbra tribes in Kenya, the Afar have a fascinating aura about them, and their ancient trade route is still very much alive today.
How to Get to Mekele
Coming from Axum there are three types of buses. These are public buses, minibuses and shared taxi. The buses depart from Axum in the early morning. If you want to go to Mekele in the afternoon you have to go by either minibus with a stopover in Adwa or by shared taxi. Ask at the bus station for certain taxi companies.
The public bus should be about 65 birr, the minibus 90 birr and the shared taxi around 100 birr. From Addis Ababa buses depart early morning from Meskel square, cost around 600 ETB and take about 14 hours (July 2019). It is advisable to purchase your tickets a few days in advance (e.g. Selam bus has their office near Meskel square, but there are also other companies). The bus passes Yangudi Rassa National Park which gives you some scenic views during your ride. Buses leave Wukro for Mekele regularly.
It is possible to travel to Lalibela by public bus in a long day. You need to be at the bus station in town just before 6:00AM. There are some changes of bus on the way but everything goes pretty smoothly until you reach Woldia.
There are direct buses from Woldia to Lalibela these do not go via Gashena but turn off the B22 before Gashena however the direct buses only run in the morning. Buses from Mekele arrive in Woldia in the afternoon so you need to either take a bus to Gashena and change or pay extra money (300 Birr per person, as of 2020) so that the bus goes direct.
Buses from the north terminate at the Northern bus station, about 4 km north of the town. Buses leaving for southern destinations leave from the bus station in the centre of town.
As of July 2011, there are daily direct flights to Axum Addis Ababa and Lalibela . For other destinations you have to change flights.
History of Mekelle
The credit for Mekelle's growth into a regional capital goes to Yohannes IV who made Mekelle political capital of his expanding state. He must have chose the place for its strategic proximity both to rich agricultural areas (of Raya Azebo ) and to the Afar salt country. Mekelle's position on the route to Shewa, the power base of Yohannes's main rival Menelik could have been another factor. Three institutions still important for modern Mekelle were founded by Yohannes:
- The grand palace built in 1882-84 by his architect Giacomo Naretti, together with the engineer Engedashet Schimper and still forms the nucleus of Mekelle.
- The large market Edaga Senuy ("Monday Market")
- The church, at Debre Gennet Medhane Alem, built after the return from Raya Azebo campaign in 1871.
In the 1880s, Mekelle became the Emperor's capital city. Among the factor that further accelerated Mekele's growth and urbanization were the establishment of residential quarters by the "nobility" and court servants, the prominence of the amole salt market and the subsequent establishment of local and foreign trading and occupational communities, and Mekelle'a strategic position as a transit center for commodities of the long-distance trade routes of north eastern Ethiopia, attached to the Red Sea ports, and to northern and central Ethiopia. By establishing a market in Mekelle, Yohannes could draw on the norther trade routes as well as the salt caravan routes to the town, capitalizing on his political leverage.
The succession of atse Menelik IIof Shewa signaled a trading reorientation from northern to southern Ethiopia (centered in Shewa). The new capital Addis Ababa quickly outstripped Mekelle, which, however, retained its political importance as the district and regional administration center of Enderta andTigrayrespectively through the 20th century, and its economical role in the Ethiopian salt trade.
During the Italian War of 1895–96, Mekelle became an important site in the conflict. After the fall of Adwa in spring 1895, ras Mengasha Yohannes retreated from his father's capital Mekelle following the advice of atse Menelik II. Mekelle was occupied by the Italians without a shot and integrated into the Colonia Eritrea; from here the Italians extended their occupation south, up to Ambalage. The Italian army established their fort near the Enda Eyesus church above Mekelle in October 1895. After the re-occupation of Ambalage in late 1895, the fort was besieged by Ethiopian troops, who cut the Italians' water supply. When the Italians surrendered in January 1896, Menelik allowed them to retreat to their stronghold Adigrat, probably hoping to prevent an escalation of the conflict, and he appointed his own governor over Enderta at Mekelle, dejazmach Tedla Abaguben, in order to check the rebellious Tigrayan princes.
Mekelle in the 20th century
Three historical epochs sustained Mekelle's urbanization in the 20th century. The first was the advent of dejazmach Abreha Araya Demsu, governor of Eastern Tigray with Mekelle as his capital. Abreha imitated his cousin Yohannes by establishing his own splendid palace (now the Hotel called Abreha Castle) on a hill facing the grand palace, a new Saturday Market (Edaga Senbet), and a new church, Selassie, all of which were situated to the south of Mekelle proper. Likewise, he attracted various occupational groups including Muslim traders, women service vendors, and army retainers. Consequently, in the 1920s and early 1930s, Mekelle witnessed a remarkable growth in trade. Haile Selassie Gugsa renovated the Palace in the center to use it as his seat.
What to Do in Mekele
Atse Yohannes IV's Palace
Mekele is the seat of a historical palace called Atse Yohannes IV Palace named after the famous King who ruled Ethiopia from 1872-1889. Emperor Yohannes chose Mekelle as the seat of his government and built his graceful palace, still intact, in 1870s. The palace now serves as a museum. The Emperor’s throne, royal bed, ceremonial dress, rifles and many other valuable historical collections can be seen in the museum and the fantastic throne of Atse Yohannnes IV made by the Italian engineer Giacomo Nareri in 1874 is the eye catching centerpiece of the museum.
Dejat Abraha Castle
Mekelle has also a quite imposing and impressive castle called Dejatch Abraha's Castle built around 1906. Located at the heart of the city that has very similar architectural design with Emperor Yohannes palace, in 1890s. At present the castle is a hotel, commanding a magnificent view of Mekelle.
Edaga Seni - Open Air Market
The famous old Monday market, Idaga Seni, is surrounded by unique arched buildings. It is here in the open-air market where the British Royal Air Force carried out air raids in support of Emperor Haile Selassie’s bid to crash the peasant uprising known as the First Woyane in the late 1940s.
Mekelle is also a primary transfer point for the salt bar trade. The salt bar locally called Amole had been the standard currency of the region until the late 19th century. Salt is mined from the Denakil (Dallol) Depression and transported by camel, mule and donkey caravans.The caravans carrying bars of salt arrive at Mekelle in big numbers, especially in Saturday Market.
Hawelti - Monument of the Martyrs
Another interesting hallmark of Mekelle is Hawelti. It is erected to dignify the valiant fighters who sacrificed themselves to emancipate their people from the dictatorial military regime (1974-1991).
The sculpture complex is supposed to consist of museum, library, conference hall, restaurant and many other sections. Having a commanding view over the vicinity.
|Currency used||Ethiopia Biir|