By Addis Getachew
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AA) - Ethiopia on Thursday turned a late 19th-century palace in its capital Addis Ababa into a major tourist destination.
The brainchild of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Unity Park was constructed on a 40-acre National Palace compound at the heart of the city, comprising of historical buildings where both imperial and Marxist governments passed decisions that affected millions of Ethiopians.
Perched on a central plateau overlooking hot spring plains nearby, the palace was constructed as part of the founding of the city of Addis Ababa in 1887 by Emperor Menelik and his influential wife Empress Taitu.
Ever since, it saw a succession of leaders including the country's final Emperor Haileselassie I, Marxist former President Mengistu Hailemariam, Ethiopian-style ethnic federalist former prime ministers Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn and now the reformist and progressive Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Costing 5 billion Ethiopian Birrs ($170.7 million), the Unity Park features a wide banquet hall made of wood and leather ropes, wooden and glass houses once inhabited by princes and princesses and an imperial court and hall, Tamirat Hailu, a historian who coordinated the park project, said in a pre-launch press briefing.
The park also includes a spacious green area including a botanical garden, a zoo where primates and endemic black-mane lions will roam among 300 individual animals of 46 species, to be watched from an artistic tunnel with grass portions for viewing.
According to Tamirat, ticket prices are set at $7 dollars for ordinary visitors and $34 for VIP -- who would enjoy special access to restricted areas in a guided tour. "1000 -- 1500 people are expected to visit the site each day when it is open for the public this coming Monday," he said.
The grand opening of the Unity Park was attended by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Somalian President Mohammed Abdella in addition to diplomatic officials, businesspeople and others.
Abebaw Ayalew, the deputy director general of the Ethiopian Heritage Conservation and Research Institute who co-managed the construction of the park, told visiting reporters that experts from Gujarat and Punjab participated in the restoration of the Banquet hall as architects from the two Indian states had participated in its original construction.
Visitors will have access to an underground cellar, which was used as a cold area to keep liquor in barrels and kegs, before its legacy later took a turn for the darker when the military-junta regime of Colonel Mengustu used it as torture chamber for prisoners, especially those from the imperial era.
A photograph exhibition including images of imperial-time ministers executed by the military "Derg" regime is also featured in addition to written descriptions.
Turkish Ambassador to Ethiopia Yaprak Alp told Anadolu Agency: "Today, we have, under the invitation of the prime minister along with all ambassadors to visit the beautiful complex which will be open for the public tomorrow.
"It is a beautiful heritage that the Ethiopian government is now showing to all the people and tourists who are hopefully coming very soon. I hope it will prove to be a huge asset for Ethiopia," she said.
Rwandan Ambassador to Ethiopia, Hope Tumukunde Gasatura said: "This is a huge and exciting project and one can only congratulate the prime minister who initiated the project. It is the palace where the prime minister sits. Renovating it and opening it to tourists would contribute to the city and the country’s tourism in general. It is commendable".