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Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia. Its name means "New Flower" in Amharic (አዲስ አበባ), and the tale of how it got its name is told thus:

The location of Addis Ababa was chosen by the Empress Taytu Betul, and the city was founded by the Emperor Menelik II in 1886.

In 1886, while Empress Taytu Betul admired the landscape, she saw a flower of remarkable beauty.  She fell in love, and asker her husband Emperor Menelik II, to build her a house in the area. She named it “Addis Ababa”, and the rest is 130-year-old history.

So my question is: what was the flower of Empress Taytu that she saw there and named the city after?

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Ascertaining details in legends might be a good thing. But it is a legend and curiously lacks detail, leaving open a huge space for projections and arbitrary symbols, to be filled by listeners. And perhaps to the detriment of flower sellers who have a more complicated time instead of always stocking for example coffee flowers, or others. It might be more interesting to look at the materialist foundations of history instead of more or less successful myth making.

If we look at how the legendary story is presented now:

Taytu’s choice: she had been stunned by that beautiful flower she had never seen before, hence she named the city Addis Ababa, or “New Flower” in Amharic.

Or

Addis-Ababa – Africa’s New Flower

Amazed by the beauty of a rare flower during one of her luxurious walks, Empress Taytu – Wife of Emperor Menelik II named today’s Ethiopian capital “Addis Ababa”, which translates to beautiful flower in the ancient Amharic language. That was in the year 1886. Today, Addis Ababa is the metropolitan capital of Ethiopia. The city’s fascinating architecture houses more than 120 international missions and embassies. The headquarters of the African Union are based here as well as United Nations Commission for Africa, hence the title “the political capital of Africa”

It becomes a bit clearer that Taytu's credit is probably more to deliver a nice marketing idea for establishing an entirely new capital.

Addis Ababa, officially founded in 1887, and now one of the five largest cities in the sub-Saharan region, is not the only African city of comparable stature to have sprung up from nothing little more than a century ago. However, it is unique in that it owes its existence to the unlikely combination of a grandfather’s prophecy, an empress’s whim and the timely intervention of an Australian tree.

In the early 1880s, the future Emperor Menelik II – then the King of Shewa – decided to abandon his capital at Ankober in favour of the Entoto Hills. What inspired this move is unclear, but the Entoto area had held great historical significance to the Shewan aristocracy prior to the 16th century, when it was occupied by the Oromo in the wake of the religious upheavals initiated by Ahmed Gragn. The area was reclaimed for Shewa by Menelik’s expansionist grandfather Sahle Selassie, who prophesied that his grandson would build a large house in the valley below Entoto, from which would grow a great city.

At the end of the cold rainy season of 1886, Menelik II and his royal entourage moved down from the chilly hilltops of Entoto, to set up camp around the hot springs known as Filwoha. The emperor’s wife Taitu fell in love with the natural hot baths and the abundance of mimosa trees there, and suggested that her husband build her a house at the site she christened Addis Ababa – New Flower! Menelik concurred, partly because the site also fitted with his grandfather’s prophecy, and the royal party returned to Filwoha semi-permanently at the end of the 1887 rainy season. Posterity has thus settled on 1887 as the year in which Addis Ababa became the capital, if not of Ethiopia then of its future emperor. In reality, the shift to Filwoha was more gradual. Most of Menelik’s correspondence prior to 1891 was dispatched from Entoto, and it was only in 1889, months before his formal coronation as emperor, that he set about building a proper palace in the valley.

Outsiders seem to have regarded the move from Entoto to Filwoha as folly. One Frenchman who visited the site in 1887 regarded the notion it might one day house a great city as ‘fantasy’. A decade later, European visitors felt the growing lack of firewood – now transported 20km from Menegasha – would force the new flower to die long before it reached full bloom. Indeed, Menelik made tentative plans to relocate his capital some 50km west to a forested site he christened Addis Alem – New World – and have a palace constructed there. Bizarrely, it was a stand of eucalyptus trees planted by a foreign resident in 1894 that would save Addis Ababa. Spurred by his Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg, Menelik II noticed how rapidly these trees grew, and instead of shifting the capital he decided to import vast quantities of eucalyptus seedlings. The residents of the nascent city were initially unimpressed, above all by the smell of the exotic trees, but the eucalyptus’s phenomenal growth rate soon swept such delicacies aside.
–– Philip Briggs: "Ethipoia. The Bradt Travel Guide", Bradt Travel Guides: Bucks, 72015.

The above is the rosy version. A more practical and materialist analysis for this might read:

Addis Ababa, or “New Flower” in Amharic, was founded in 1886. During early imperial times the capital had been located in Axum, Lalibela, and Gondar, as well as several other smaller cities. In modern times, the capital was built anew. Empress Taytu Betul, wife of Emperor Menelik II, first settled in the Entoto hills. This settlement was “little more than a military encampment.” She later moved to a valley in the foothills, attracted by natural hot springs on land called Finfinne by the Oromo people who lived there. As historian Getahun Benti argues, “From its earliest days, Addis Ababa was the staging station for the economic exploitation and political control of the conquered provinces of which Oromia was the largest. It was at Finfinne that Empress Taytu Betul renamed the city “Addis Ababa,” a strong proclamation of the ambitions of both Taytu and Emperor Menelik II.
–– Amber N. Wiley: "The New Flower: Addis Ababa and the Project of African Modernity", Society for Architectural Historians, 2013

More on that statement of conquest in: –– Getahun Benti: "A Nation without a City [a Blind Person without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa", Northeast African Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 3, Special Issue: The Oromo in Ethiopian Studies: Confronting Challenges to Politically Engaged Scholarship (2002), pp. 115-131.

So while a reference work says "possibly a mimosa tree" these were there in abundance at the time, beautiful but not "rare". Other plants are not ruled out.

Though the task of gathering fuel is an ancient one, the Addis Ababa market and the eucalyptus trees are both relatively new. In fact, their genesis can be dated to the day in 1886 when Queen Taytu Bitul stood on slopes draped with juniper, acacia, and kosso trees, looked down on the watered valley below, and declared that a city would bloom there. Addis ababa: a new flower.
–– The Virginia Quarterly Review - Volume 89, Issue 4 - Page 183, 2013.

A recent book about the history of that city did not choose a mimosa flower:

enter image description here

The flower on this cover is a Bidens macroptera (Sch. Bip. ex Chiov.) Mesfin, of the family Astarceae. That seriously complicates things as my command of Amharic is zero. But that plant is called "Adey Abeba" unique yellow flower that only grows for Ethiopian New Year." Unless an Amharic speaker comes along here, this will remain an ambiguous fork of the road of just possibly speaking names. Compare how Taytu's abbess is consistently addressed with a bracketed explanation of "(flower)".

If we just discard the legend and look at the materiality, things are less romanticised:

The settlement on the crest of Entotto was, however, short-lived. From 1886 onwards Menilek began to spend more and more of his time on the lower slopes of the mountain. They enjoyed a more temperate climate, and were the site of warm thermal baths in which his courtiers revelled. There a new capital soon began to emerge - and in 1887 Menilek's consort Taytu gave it the name Addis Ababa, literally "New Flower".
–– Richard Pankhurst: "The Role of Indian Craftsmen in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Ethiopian Palace, Church and Other Building", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Apr., 1995), pp. 11-20. (jstor)

The first written reference to Addis Ababa occurs on November 26th 1886 in a private letter from Taytu to her husband who was engaged on the military conquest of Harar. Menilek's former wife had already settled some retainers in the area and may have even had some rights over the land. So when Menilek having gathered his troops on the plains of Fel Weha, left on his campaign refusing to take Taytu along, she in turn refused to follow the advice of the mäkwanent or nobles that Menilek had left behind. She insisted on remaining on the plain below the capital Entotto. The mäkwanent were then forced to gather the wood necessary to build her a house in which to sleep and later also a kitchen. The person responsible for all this would almost certainly have been Ras Gobäna who at this time was Kätäma Täbbaqi (protector of the city) for Menilek during his absence. Concern for Taytu's safety might also have been a vital issue at this time; fully armed sol­diers who had deserted Däjazmach Wälda Gäbre'él were streaming back to the capital of Entotto demanding redress for maltreatment by their leader and, according to Borelli, quite impervious to reason.

At least two waves of these deserters seem to have descended on the Addis Abäba-Entotto area. Borelli on 9.12.86 saw three or four hundred soldiers and 1,200, according to Capucci, were present somewhat later. Taytu seems to have handled the whole incident rather adroitly, inviting them all to a royal feast and calmly having them disarmed, as custom demanded, before they entered the imperial Addarash, or banquet tent. The pro-Taytu chronicle said that they were then enchained at her command but this is not corroborated by other contemporary accounts. The chronicle goes on to say that some one month later when Ras Gobäna was seriously injured in a fall from his horse, the Oromo peoples in the area surrounding Addis Abäba became restless and thought of revolt. Menilek was far away in Harär and Kätäma Täbbaqi incapacitated. So she settled in Finfinne and began building Addis Abäba to demonstrate to one and all her faith in the impossibility of any revolt being successsful. Thus the chronicle continues , the Orome became calm and a city was founded. Here, as upon other occasions, the chronicle betrays itself as an official history of the reign. No other contemporary account, European or Ethipian, mentions the Oromo as being anything but peaceful during this period and it seems that Tytu's move may well have been prompted by the rebellious troops Däjazmach Wäldä Gäbre'él and the possibility that they might incite a local Oromo revolt. The Oromo in Addis Abäba area had been brutally crushed some ten years earlier, many had been transferred to Arusi and were in no real position to revolt for a second time.

Thus two factors worked to persuade Taytu to choose the more salubrious Addis Abäba for her residence; the reluctance to return to Entotto after her husband left on campaign, be it because of the climate or, perhaps, to emphasize her independence from Menilek's generals and, the need to impress one and all, be they restive Oromo or unruly soldiers, of the stability and strength of Menilek's base of operations in the Addis Abäba/Entotto area.

However, it was not until Menilek returned from his Harar campaign (6.3.87) that a real building program was undertaken in Addis Abäba and th is did not even include a church foundation, u n til several years later.

Aside from these personal and local factors there were wider political and military considerations of the empire which influenced the exact timing and siting of the new capital.
–– Peter Phillips Garretson: "A History of Addis Abäba from its Foundation in 1886 to 1910", Dissertation, University of London, 1974. (PDF)

However low of importance any actual blossom found by an empress might be to get to the meaning of the legend; if now a specific flower is given as the source for that legend, we hear of mimosa tree blossoms, once allegedly bountiful in the area but burnt for fuel. How that turned up as an explanation might be retroactively constructed:

Menelik's Georgian physician, Dr Merab, who subsequently lived for many years in the Ethiopian capital, also discusses the establishment of the city. Observing that Taitu may have found consolation in naming the place as she had never had a child of her own to christen, he suggests that the name Addis Ababa, or New Flower, had been chosen on account of the numerous flowering mimosa trees growing in the area. He cites an early European resident, Leon Chefneux, as stating that the main distribution of land and the erection of the first stone house did not take place until 1891. In support of this view he observed that he had questioned many Ethiopians of the older generation about the founding of the town and that 'no one gave so early an origin' as 1887.
–– Richard Pankhurst: "Menelik and the Foundation of Addis Ababa", The Journal of African History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1961), pp. 103-117. (jstor [emphasis added, LLC])

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    Omg. That is an amaaaazing answer. Thanks. Still waiting to see what else others turn up. – Johan88 Jun 17 at 10:39
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    If someone has access to Pierre Mérab, Impréssions d'Ethiopie (Paris: Editions Ernest Leroux, 1922… – LangLangC Jun 17 at 16:02
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Though mostly recent works,several published books claim it was the bloom of the Mimosa Tree, also known as the Persian Silk Tree. enter image description here (image from The Mimosa Tree Complete Guide)


From the book Ethiopia By Steven Gish, Winnie Thay, Zawiah Abdul Latif (2007)

Menelik's Queen Taytu marveled at the flowering mimosa trees in the area, and thus the town was named Addis Abada meaning "new flower."


and

Ethiopia By Philip Briggs (2015)

The emperor's wife Taitu fell in love with the natural hot baths and the abundance of mimosa trees there, and suggested that her husband build her a house at the site she christened Addis Abada-New Flower!


also repeated in Encyclopedia of African History 3-Volume Set (2013)

...and gave it the name Addis Abada ("New Flower"), possibly due to the presence of the mimosa trees.


As I mentioned, all fairly recent publications. I did find one older reference to the source of the name, this one from 1963, so predating the days of internet research:

Addis Ababa means 'New Flower', and was so-named because its plain was covered with flowering mimosa trees. The name was selected by Menelik's consort, the Empress Taitu, who, it has been suggested, liked choosing names for towns...

This from pg 539 of a publication entitled West Africa, which appears to have been a periodical published in London. A snippet view here, however, limits our available information again.

So, four publications (one pre-internet) give us the mimosa tree as the probable
flower which so impressed Empress Taytu so long ago.

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    Yeah, perhaps, the point being that she was some who liked it hot and knew how to sell the idea… – LangLangC Jun 16 at 21:04
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    That's amazing, thanks. Do they say what their sources for those claims are? – Johan88 Jun 17 at 2:10
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    I did not notice any footnotes, and with current publications often all we get is a limited 'preview' selection. – justCal Jun 17 at 2:16
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    Note that among the legends we have one that pretty much disagrees with "abundance of mimosa trees" vs " Taytu’s choice: she had been stunned by that beautiful flower she had never seen before, hence she named the city Addis Ababa, or “New Flower” in Amharic."/"Amazed by the beauty of a rare flower " – LangLangC Jun 17 at 7:30
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    Amharic is not on my list of languages, and neither properly on any machine translator I know. But while the Wikipages on this may not directly lead to a useful answer when machine translated, still, try it for entertainment, at least. Norm McDonald said it: Oh, Google. – LangLangC Jun 17 at 14:06
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With the caveat that one arguably can't prove a negative, this doesn't seem to have gotten captured in historical records - or at least not those indexed by Google and Google Scholar. Seeing how there are more than a few beautiful flowers that are native to the area, perhaps no one will ever know.

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