Adigrat is a land of welcoming people, where strangers are made to feel at home and warmth radiates from all around.
Differences are transcended and it seems that unconditional love exists. It is difficult to know if they are only sincere to guests, or treat each other the same. The people embrace you with open arms – no questions, only humanity matters.
Without expecting any gratitude, they will feed you or give you a ride. Travelling is never easy, and airports add to the feeling of uncertainty. It is 753 km from Addis Ababa to Mekele, and you notice a distinct change when you reach Alula Aba Nega Airport.
Mekele, the city of walls, with the distinctive brick houses gradually transforming themselves into the inevitable shiny glass buildings, like those that crowd Addis, is on its journey to becoming a metropolis. Passing through or staying for a couple of days in Mekele the names of restaurants, bars and clubs linger in the mind, such as One Love, adorned with a picture of Bob Marley, Babylon Besalon or Toscano.
There are many towns on the 120 km road from Mekele to Adigrat, like Wukiro where the famous Enqu Buna lives, the woman who received an award from the Ethiopian president Girma Woldegiorgis.
Sipping coffee at one of the many dedicated establishments makes you realize how famous the dark bean is in the Tigray region.
People who know the area are eager to share their knowledge with newcomers, which we experienced on our car journey. The driver from Adigrat University gave us a lesson on the region, about Meskel and the people on the road. He eagerly talks about Senkata, a small town that we pass, and its vibrant Meskel celebrations.
Meskel is celebrated prior to the day in Adigrat, and on the eve there were a lot of women returning from church wearing netela and putting grass in their hair to symbolize the crucifixion of Jesus.
This is the land of the proud people, the land of Agame, considered the nucleus of Tigray. The Agames trace their lineage to Ras Sehul and Dejazmach Sebagadis, a rich ancestry often celebrated.
Many know the history of Saba Gadis, who ruled Tigray at the turn of the 19th century. His territory extended to the Eritrean highlands, including Hamesien, Akalw Guzay and Seray.
Reaching Adigrat the colors change, old houses and bricks, once clean but are now filled with dust.
The roads, still under construction by the Chinese, make the city uncomfortable for the inhabitants. The workers from the East seem out of place, scattered here and there, sitting on the street corners solemnly observing the dust, ditches and crumbling roads. Adigrat has somehow preserves history via the ancient architecture.
Most of the neighborhoods have Kebele names and refer to nearby churches, highlighting the main religion: Orthodox Christianity.
Religion is intertwined with the lifestyle of the people – they are one and the same. With a population of around 58,000, according to the 2007 national census, Adigrat is enriched with history.
Meskel is a warm time of year and adds to the sense of community. Everyone goes back to their hometown to celebrate Meskel and it is particularly distinctive here – a day when families celebrate their togetherness.
Women and men put butter on their heads, inside their ears and on the animals. It is a day when blood is spilled and grass is laid on the floor, a day of festivities. Tihlo, made from barley powder, is widespread and the day is not the same without it.
Awash Amare always celebrates the day with his brother Mesfin Amare, his wife Masho Negussie and their son Filmon, along with friends and other family members.
Like any urban holiday everyone gazes at the TV while Masho goes in and out of the kitchen, sweating and cooking. Graduation pictures adorn the cupboards while she works hard and others observe. Finally she produces a large plate of injera and puts it on the table, placing a clay pot full of meat sauce in the middle, using paper to make sure she doesn’t burn the large disk of spongy flatbread. Also joining the feast is a hilbet made of milk, which she adds to the sauce.
Sitting on a stool she garnishes the injera, leaving while everyone picks up a shintar (made of wood, like a chopstick) and starts eating, mixing with the sauce.
She was insistent on hosting everyone and no one minds. After the tihlo different courses are served, one of them is Geezem, which is minced meat stuffed inside an intestine, famous around the Erob area. She chopped the Geezem to make it easier to eat while the well-known Adigrat’s mes (tej) added a certain spice to the occasion.
Outside everyone was enjoying the show held by the Tigray Culture and Tourism Agency, featuring a group that showcased the dance, lifestyle and custom. Some of it was dramatic, telling stories of folklore around the Piazza area.
As is the culture a group of men go from house to house bringing the congratulatory news of the Finding of the True Cross. While singing and dancing they accept presents, money and food, but in this case one of the woman in the drama didn’t give them any money. The young crowd spread a rumor about her death and went to the next house where they were given food and mes (tej) as she looked on enviously.
Another group showed how tihlo is made, while a highlight was the presence of the musician Mengesha, who got everyone to their feet dancing.
Renowned for the raya style, he possesses a ferocious and powerful voice. In Adigrat, different from Mekele, if it is not Tigrigna then their shoulders cannot move. The only music that truly hits them is Tigrigna, like Solomon Haile’s remix of Athiliti, ‘mekele neyre kemelehi adigrat’, or bal karesa (the man with a cart), by an Eritrean singer, all followed by dancing and shouting.
It is the Tigrigna songs that are famous in the different restaurants and bars, and the coming of Wodi Romit and Solomon Haile to Adigrat was the talk of the town. Some translate and try to tell you the story behind the music, like Sintayehu, whose love betrayed him and said that he was her brother. The city is lit up by the music and the demera (bonfires).
The people took the chibo (a bundle of dried stick that makes the bonfire) to a nearby mountainous area, and the party went on all night with Tigrigna music, tej, beer and vodka.
The bonfire in the morning is blessed by Abune Mekarios, the diocese Archbishop of Adigrat, and after the praise and liturgies it is lit, and as the flowers burn everyone smears their head with charcoal to signify healing.
Traveling miles to see the faces of your loved ones is the biggest thing, while the coffee spots are the place to hang out with friends and listen to the Tigrigna songs from Asmara.
Adigrat has a special connection to Asmara. It’s where many people were born, got married, did their business and worked. People reminisce about the good old days before everything fell apart.
The stories of Massawa and Red Sea are told, and they feel like they have lost a part of their life. This connection has perished, and many wait for the day when they can once again cross the 35 km border.
But for now Eritrea TV, the stories and the Eritrean Tigrigna singers such as Abraham Afeworki, Yemane bariya and Helen touch the heartbeat of Adigrat, making the memories fresh and the connection alive.
New Eritrean songs are always adopted in Adigrat as their own, like bal karesa, everyone listening gets up and dances from the heart. In this part of the world it is normal to see families going to a bar and drinking whisky while wearing netela (scarf); freedom is expressed by dancing, no apologies for expressing how they feel.
Most of the hotels are reasonably priced, like the Geza Gereselassie with rooms at 140 birr per night, and there are many even cheaper. Agoro Lodge is a bit more expensive, but still good value compared with other lodges in the area, and is located in the mountains away from the city. You get a great view of Adigrat, the landscape, the ancient city and the darkness.
There is a lot happening in Adigrat; the ancient Adigrat cherkos of the 19th century; the Italian cemetery commemorating some 765 Italian soldiers who died between 1935 and 1938; or the vibrant weddings featuring tihlo mes, dance and the warm welcome of the people.