Originally the Mercato (the old Arada Gebeya) was located south of St. George Church at the City Hall area as an open market with informally employed street vendors where grain, spices, coffee, cotton, home-made garments, salt, jewelery, arms, farm implements, saddles etc. were exposed for sale. Around the time of the fascist Italian invasion in 1936 the old indigenous market was relocated to the present Addis Ketema area, Mercato. Today, Mercato is estimated to have an area of 114 hectares and in this market operate over 13,000 employees, 7,100 business entities, some 2,500 retail shops, most in open stalls, 1,500 service businesses, and 80 wholesale operators: 14,800 formal businesses in total.
People arrive by regional buses, city buses, taxis, their own transport or on foot, and the numbers can rise to more than 200,000 in a single day. As the largest open-air market in Africa, Mercato is a vibrant, fascinating attraction for tourists and visitors. It is said that no visit is complete in Addis Ababa without making a trip to Mercato. The market fascinates tourists with its endless array of goods on display in the 50 trading sections or ‘Teras’. On Saturdays, the busiest day, the vast city market provides a snapshot of Ethiopia: Amhara farmers rub shoulders with Gurage businessmen; Tigrayan women from the north with their distinctive braided hair stand alongside Dorze traditional weavers from the south; Somali traders from the east bring in their electronic goods, and pastoralist nomads display their livestock. Operating six days a week (it is closed on Sundays), there is seemingly little logic to Mercato, whose small shops, stalls and market halls spin off chaotically into labyrinthine alleyways. But after a while the disorder does make some sort of sense. The market’s winding lanes are arranged according to the various products so that you’ll find mounds of colorful plastic goods grouped together, blaring music will lead you to the electronics section, while the pungent aroma of deep red berbere (chilli pepper) draws you to a heady display of spices. Across the way, the market hall housing multitudinous traditional crafts, silver jewelry and woven cloth is a magnet for tourists.
Flecks of floating grain indicate that the vast cereal and vegetable section is nearby. Exotic arrays of coffee beans, the country’s biggest export, tantalise the senses as merchants offer tiny cups of powerful Ethiopian buna (coffee) or delicately spiced shai (tea). In the “recycling” area, old tires are turned into sandals; tin cans are hammered into trinkets and rusty old metal transformed into gleaming buckets and bowls. Everywhere, children scamper around carrying goats, urging on stubborn donkeys, offering to shine shoes or selling mastica (gum). It takes several visits to work it all out so it’s not a bad idea to have a trusty guide, preferably arranged beforehand.
Mercato is an appropriate area in which to expose the handicrafts and artworks of all Ethiopian people. One area in Mercato specializes in arts and crafts and other objects assembled as tourist attractions. In Mercato are located around 60 souvenir shops. In these shops can be found:
- Traditional paintings on canvas, goat skin, comic strips of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, representation of St. George and the dragon etc.;
- Musical instruments, (Krar, Washint, Atamo, Kebero, Systrum, Embilta, Qachil, Dewel, prayer stick, Turunba etc.);
- Pottery (both modern and traditional);
- Various colorful baskets, especially from Harar;
- Lovely embroidered costumes and materials;
- Intricate and less orthodox crosses worked in silver, bronze, wood etc.;
- Ear picks and ear-rings, and other decorations or jewelry;
- Shields, traditional knives, spears, swords, and many other tourist articles.
The Mercato experience isn’t just about shopping, however. It also provides a fascinating insight into aspects of daily life in Addis. The district, known as Addis Ketema (New Town), is one of the most diverse and densely populated parts of the city.