SAH Blog

  • Harar and Old Goa: Architectural Hybridity on the Periphery

    Amber N. Wiley, 2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Feb 11, 2015

    I started the New Year in Harar, Ethiopia, where I was one of few who actually acknowledged the event. The day was like any other day for most Hararis. Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11 (September 12 in the leap year) so there were no fireworks in the sky the night before. It was quite surreal to wake up in a traditional Harari house in this historic walled city and think about the year that lay ahead.

    Over the past month I visited two regions that can be considered “on the periphery” of their respective countries: the Harari region in Ethiopia, and the state of Goa in India. These regions are the smallest in Ethiopia and India, and are often characterized as being in their respective countries but not of their respective countries. It is this air of exceptionalism that attracted Victorian-era intellectuals like poet Arthur Rimbaud and explorer Richard Burton. Harar is the Muslim heart of Ethiopia, and Old Goa the Catholic heart of India. At the same time that they are portrayed as epicenters of great religious devotion, they are often branded as colorful, relaxed, fun, and “other:” a deviation from the norm, a place to break free from the usual.

    Figure-1_WileyFigure 1. Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center in Harar, Ethiopia. An Indian merchant built the current edifice, now over 100 years old.

    These were trade cities – Harar thrived because of its strategic location along trade routes connecting landlocked Ethiopia to the port city of Zeila in Somalia, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Peninsula.1 Part of the reason I chose to visit Harar was its trade relationship with India. I believed it would be a nice transition between the two countries. Old Goa, a prosperous port under the Islamic Adil Shahi dynasty, fell to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Since these were cities with far-reaching cultural and economic contacts they are often defined by their architectural pluralism. Their positions on the periphery, however, often paint them as “exceptional” which is problematic if one is attempting to understand them within the larger context of cultural heritage and preservation studies. As architectural historian Preeti Chopra emphasizes, “Far for being pure, most cultures are a product of diverse influences from others, a result of trade, travel, and conquest.”2

    Figure 2. Church of St. Cajetan (1655), Old Goa, India.

    These regions were contested grounds, important strategically for various empires, dynasties, and religious orders. Trade influenced the development, urban character, and architecture of both the Harari region and the state of Goa. The resulting architectural heritage, then, often highlights structures that facilitate trade such as fortifications, administrative buildings where transactions occurred, and the resultant residential areas and educational and religious facilities that reflect the splendor and magnificence of the trade economy in these areas.

    Harar the Walled City

    If one chooses to visit Harar by air, one must fly into Dire Dawa. Harar and Dire Dawa (formerly Addis Harar) are located in eastern Ethiopia. I spent a week in Dire Dawa, a city established at the turn of the twentieth century that owes its development to the railroad. Although the city acted as an important node from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the portion of the rail network running from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa is now defunct.

    The Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Éthiopien took over railway operations in 1908 after the Imperial Railway of Ethiopia, founded in 1894, folded under financial troubles. The Dire Dawa railroad station is the key architectural edifice associated with the city, and its construction had significant impact on the city’s planning. There is scant literature written about the urban development and architectural heritage of Dire Dawa, and most travel guides treat it as a place one should only visit in transit to Harar.

    Figure 3. Google Map depicting the two major sections of Dire Dawa: Kezira and Megala.

    I found the layout of the city to be quite intriguing. In Dire Dawa there is a stark contrast between the European Kezira section or “new town,” and the older Islamic section, Megala. In Kezira one finds airy restaurants such as Chemin de Fer, housed in a building constructed in 1912, tree-lined streets, shaded villas, and grand boulevards that converge on the railroad station. In Megala one finds a more organic growth pattern, narrower streets, winding roads, and cul-de-sacs. The presence of Indian and Arab traders in Dire Dawa influenced the design details of buildings in both sections of the city.

    Figure-4_WileyFigure 4. Commercial building in Megala, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.

    Figure-5_WileyFigure 5. Residential buildings in Megala, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.

    The jugol city of Harar is considered the architectural prize of eastern Ethiopia, and it also stands as the heart of Muslim Ethiopia. Muslim Ethiopians consider Harar to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.3 There are an estimated 90 mosques and many Quranic schools within the 48 hectares enclosed by the city walls. Harar was founded in the eighth century, Sheikh Abadir introduced Islam in the twelfth century, Emir Nur built the city walls in the mid-sixteenth century, and the city was an independent emirate from 1647 to 1875. The Egyptians occupied the city from 1875 to 1885, Menelik II conquered it in 1887, and the Italians occupied it from 1938 to 1942. Each phase of governance is reflected through the remaining cultural heritage within and outside the city walls.

    Figure-6_WileyFigure 6. Mosque built during Egyptian occupation of Harar.

    For much of its history the city was closed to non-Muslims, and it was only after Egyptian occupation did the city become more accessible to opportunistic foreign traders and merchants. Today coffee and khat are two of Harar’s primary exports, and while those industries are still important to the lifeline of the city; increased tourism is also a welcome addition to the economic structure. UNESCO recognized Harar as a laureate city in its short-lived Cities for Peace Prize in 2002-2003 and inscribed the walled city on the World Heritage List in 2006.4

     Figure-7_WileyFigure 7. Gidir Magala. Italians built this market structure during occupation of Harar.

    The walled portion of Harar retains much of its urban fabric. When Amir Nur erected the walls in 1567 there were five gates through which visitors to the city had to pass (today there are six). These gates have become a distinguishing architectural feature of the city, and are even imprinted on the bottles of the locally produced Harar beer.

     Figure-8_WileyFigure 8. Courtyard of house with elaborate detailing near the Sheik Abudir mosque, Suqutat Bari area.

    The most celebrated aspect of Harari architectural heritage is the traditional Harari house. I chose to stay in one of the popular guesthouses to get a feel for the everyday use of the structure. The programmatic layout of the house is highly prescribed, following cultural conventions. Women and men have certain spaces dedicated to their use, all with various layers of privacy. There are numerous levels to the seating in the living room (gidir gār) that denote the status of family members and guests. Basketry is a prime decorative ornament for the interior of the houses.

     Figure-9_WileyFigure 9. Interior of model house at the Harari National Cultural Center.

    Modern Harar extends to the west outside the city walls. While it was certainly not my intent to highlight architecture of the Italian occupation in all of my blogs on Ethiopia, I find it necessary to mention here. Whenever I made my treks outside the walled city to document architecture from the twentieth century, people were surprised, curious, and a bit baffled as to my intentions. The heritage of significance, according to the guides, townspeople, and tourists I spoke to, was to be found within the walls. Serge Santelli’s chapter “The Structure of the City,” in Harar: A Muslim City of Ethiopia was most useful to me in this regard, as he treats both the old and new city as what they are—two sides to the same coin. That chapter helped me overcome the disconnect I felt when trying to piece the city together myself. It is true, the richness of traditional Harari culture is concentrated within the walls of the old city, and that should be admired. This should not happen, however, to the detriment and disregard for the rest of the city itself.

    Figure-10_WileyFigure 10. Former Italian municipio in newer portion of Harar, outside city walls.

    Goa: Rome of the East, Pearl of the Orient

    I do not believe Goa to be the Rome of the East. Perhaps in a religious sense it is a useful analogy, if one desires to think about Old Goa as a powerful concentration of Catholic practice. Perhaps. But trying to reconcile the nickname with the reality feels false for two reasons. The first is that Rome, the “Eternal City” is truly incomparable. The second is that Old Goa never reached the complexity in function, design, or development that Rome did. Part of the colonizing project, however, is to recreate the familiar in foreign lands, and to engage in heavy boosterism to spread propaganda for political and economic reasons. All that being said, Goa is a gem. An absolute treasure.

    I spent half of my time in Goa in Panaji (Panjim). It is the capital of the state of Goa. I was surprised to learn that the Portuguese had control of the area until 1961. The second thing that surprised me was the discovery that, along with a distinct architectural style that made a lasting imprint on the region, the Portuguese brought the marigold to India. The practice of Catholicism and the architecture it produces felt very much imported, but the marigold has been thoroughly integrated into the social, religious, cultural, and political customs of India. Hindu, Buddhist, and Catholic shrines are all embellished with marigolds. Marigolds are draped on the shoulders of important figures memorialized as statues. The marigold is a ubiquitous symbol of India.

    Panaji was colorful – a distinction also held by the city of Harar. The main advertised attractions of the city were the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Goa State Museum. The museum was a gloomy affair – its modernist and geometrical design hinted at the grand intentions behind its erection. The building maintenance and the lackluster curatorial effort, however, belied a slim budget that held the operation back from its potential.

    Figure-11_WileyFigure 11. Commercial building in São Tomé neighborhood of Panaji.

    It was the vernacular architecture of Panaji that stood out the most. I stayed in the Old Quarter, or Fontainhas. This was one of the Portuguese residential quarters, and heritage tourism was gaining a foothold in the area. Boutique accommodations catered to a range of economic situations, and several art galleries displayed a variety of work—from traditional ceramic designs to contemporary Goan expressions.

    While doing research on the region I came across a curious passage in an article about the contested heritage of Goa. Travel writer David Tomory covered the protests against the 1998 quincentenary celebration of Vasco da Gama’s landing in India. Tomory states:

    The beauty of heritage—or the privately run heritage business—is that it doesn't depend on the past, offering only history without tragedy—the simple recreation of history's fun bits, such as food, costume, music and “ambience.” Heritage is the old romantic stuff that nobody minds. You can't see it being as contentious in Goa as “history” can be, but you never know…5

    This passage made me think about the tricky relationship between heritage and tourism and the ability for those who have an appreciation for both heritage and history to gloss over controversy for the sake of tourism. I am writing about the beauty of Fountainhas, but I am not writing about the Goa Inquisition. I delight at the beauty of architectural syncretism as it is manifest in Goa. I wonder what the Hindu-practicing Goans think about this heritage. When I visited the Goa State Museum I cringed at the images of Goans carrying Portuguese men from one place to the next on palanquins. The beauty of the architecture comes at a price—one of religious oppression and cultural subjugation.

     Figure-12_WileyFigure 12. St. Francis of Assisi (1661), Old Goa.

    With those factors in mind, it must be said that the churches and convents of Old Goa are truly exceptional. The crisp white structures stand as strong contrasts to the ultramarine sky. The heavy concentration of religious structures at once reminded me of Antigua, Guatemala, another abandoned capital of a colonial territory.6 I visited Old Goa on a Sunday, Se Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus had active church services. Tourists (and there were many) were not allowed into the sanctuaries during that time, but they could stand to the side of the entrance and take pictures. The Basilica of Bom Jesus additionally allowed tourists to take a side entrance to visit the relics of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit leader entombed in the building. Circulation continued from the tomb to the cloister where a Christmas display was still exhibited, and an art gallery highlighted the work of various artists. This setup made me think of some of the major pilgrimage churches I taught about in class, and how they worked as both sites of visitation and sites of worship.

     Figure-13_WileyFigure 13. Detailed woodwork embellishing the St. Francis Xavier tomb niche. Scholars have highlighted the masterful dexterity of Indian carvers who worked on the churches in Goa, albeit in a Portuguese Baroque style.

    Circulation was an important component of a church’s functionality, one that was often overlooked in art historical texts that focused on paintings and sculpture. I wondered how people related to each other in pilgrimage spaces—were they rushed through and hissed at, as I was at the Basilica of Bom Jesus? Was it always the crowded spectacle I experienced on that Sunday in January? I had, up until my time in Ethiopia and now in India, a very romantic idea of religious pilgrimage—a journey of solitude and quiet reflection. I participated in a great pilgrimage while in Harar, traveling to Kulubi for the feast St. Gabriel. The sea of bodies pressed together, the noise, and the vendors reminded me of my time in a crowd of thousands at the first Obama inauguration. My experience at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, being funneled through passageways for a quick glimpse of St. Francis Xavier’s tomb was reminiscent of my trip to the Louvre and the half-second I spent in front of the Mona Lisa. I have begun to think that the chaos of pilgrimage sites is but a small fraction of what makes the experience exciting for the pilgrims/tourists.

    The big story on the news this morning was President Obama proclaiming that Gandhi would be disappointed in the religious intolerance of contemporary India. I have been in India for less than a month, and I am not an expert on the religious or political situation, but that certainly was the opposite of my impression of the country. While in Panaji I came across a governmental sign discouraging city residents from dumping garbage. It stated, “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness” and displayed religious icons of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. It was in Panaji, the capital of the Catholic state of Goa, where I visited two active Hindu temples. The imposition of Catholicism on the region did not snuff out other religious practices.

     Figure-14_WileyFigure 14. Cleanliness is Next to Godliness.

    Figure 15. Temple in Panaji. I was unable to ascertain the name of this structure.

    Harar and Goa offer very important lessons about our assumptions of architecture on the periphery. These two areas are “othered” in the critical discourse of their respective countries, but are in fact central to their respective religious communities. Harar and Goa are at once on the edge and in the center. Architectural, cultural, and religious syncretism can be found in these places, and in other cities around the world that have served as major nodes for commodity trading. These cities are not an exception – they are the result of trade, travel, and conquest.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map


    Recommended Readings

    Paul Axelrod and Michelle A. Fuerch, “Flight of the Deities: Hindu Resistance in Portuguese Goa,” Modern Asian Studies 30 no. 2 (May 1996): 387-421

    Carlos de Azevedo, “The Churches of Goa,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 15 no. 3 (October 1956): 3-6

    Avishai Ben-Dror, “Arthur Rimbaud in Harär: Images, Reality, Memory,” Northeast African Studies 14 no. 2 (2014): 159-182

    John F. Butler, “Nineteen Centuries of Christian Missionary Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 21 no. 1 (March 1962): 3-17

    William Connery, “Within the Walls,” World & I 15 no. 12 (December 2000): 184-191

    François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar and Bertrand Hirsch, “Muslim Historical Spaces in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa: A Reassessment,” Northeast African Studies 11 no. 1 (2010): 25-53

    “Goan Residences,” Architecture + Design 17 no. 4 (July/August 2000): 76-84

    Elisabeth-Dorothea Hecht, “The City of Harar and the Traditional Harar House,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 15 (August 1982): 57-78

    T. P. Issar, Goa Dourada: The Indo-Portuguese Bouquet (Bangalore: Issar, 1997)

    Rumi Okazaki and Riichi Miyake, “A Study on the Living Environment of Harar Jugol, Ethiopia,” Journal of Architectural Planning 77 no. 674 (April 2012): 951-957

    Philippe Revault and Serge Santelli (eds.), Harar: A Muslim City of Ethiopia (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2004)

    Isaac Sequeira, “The Carnival in Goa,” Journal of Popular Culture 20 no. 2 (Fall 1986): 167-173

    Tibebeselassie Tigabu, “Dire Dawa's Good Old Days,” Africa News Service November 24, 2014

    David Tomory “Reluctant Heritage,” Index on Censorship 1 1999 67-68

    David Wilson, “Paradoxes of Tourism in Goa,” Annals of Tourism Research 24 no. 1 (1997): 52-75


    1. See Richard Pankhurst, “The Trade of Central Ethiopia in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 2 no. 2 (July 1964): 41-91 and “The Trade of the Gulf of Aden Ports of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 3 no. 1 (January 1965): 36-81.

    2. Preeti Chopra, “Refiguring the Colonial City: Recovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854-1918,” Buildings & Landscapes 14 (Fall 2007): 124.

    3. This title is disputed, as Kairouanin, Tunisia is also held to be the fourth holiest city of Islam. See John Anthony, “The Fourth Holy City,” Saudi Aramco World 18 no. 1 (January/February 1967)

    4. See Jan Bender Shetler and Dawit Yehualashet, “Building a ‘City of Peace’ through Intercommunal Association: Muslim-Christian Relations in Harar, Ethiopia, 1887-2009,” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace 4 no. 1 (Fall 2010) 

    5. Tomory, 68.

    6. A series of plagues forced the abandonment of Old Goa for Panaji. Constant, deadly, and destructive seismic activity in Antigua forced abandonment of that capital.

    Go comment!
  • The Medieval City and the Pilgrimage City: Gondar and Lalibela

    Amber N. Wiley, 2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Jan 5, 2015

    Gondar “The African Camelot”

    I looked at the date on Fasilides Castle—1667—and thought to myself “Wow, this is incredible! If only I had known… I would have taught my history class in a completely different way.” The date was important for two versions of a class I taught. The first version was entitled “History of Architecture: Renaissance and Baroque.” The second version was ambiguously titled “History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism II.” In both versions of the course the historical trajectory had found its way to England via Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren by 1666. We spent a little bit of one class period on the urban fabric of London prior to and after the Great Fire of 1666. We were completely immersed in arguing about rational plans versus organic growth versus a combination of the two, or even something completely different for London. And here — here in Ethiopia, just one year after the fire, grand palaces were built at the onset of the Gondarine period. I was shocked at how little I knew about this time in African history, and was intrigued by the date as a way to connect with the Western history that I had taught and with which I was most familiar.

    Gondar was an old imperial capital in northern Ethiopia. Emperor Fasilides ruled from 1632 to 1667, and this was the time frame posted near the entrance to his castle. The building was the first constructed in the Fasil Ghebbi compound. The complex hosted several castles erected by a succession of emperors, as well as one building on the far north side erected by a queen, Mentewab.

    Figure 1. Library of Yohannes I in the foreground, Chancellery of Yohannes I in the background. Fasil Ghebbi complex. The Italians did reconstructive work on the library between 1938–1939.

    The Fasil Ghebbi complex was breathtakingly beautiful. The shapes, outlines, and details of the palaces were so unique that I regretted not teaching about them before (then, how could I, since I did not know them before?). The three most impressive buildings in the complex were Fasilides Castle, Library of Yohannes I, and the Palace of Mentewab. These were also three of the best preserved. It was hard for me to determine what parts were reconstructed and which were simply conserved. These points are hard to extract from a tour guide, although some can be determined through published articles. Various portions of the complex fell victim to time and natural weathering, others to an earthquake of 1704, and also to damages sustained during World War II.

    Figure 2. Mentewab Palace in the Fasil Ghebbi complex.

    The exterior detailing of Mentewab’s palace set it apart from the other buildings in the complex. The windows and doors were accentuated red tufa details, including carvings that depicted various cross designs attributed to different regions in Ethiopia. This, of course, was a sign of unity and of holiness. These same details can be found in her banqueting hall at the Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace, a later complex she constructed outside the Fasil Ghebbi compound.

    A mid-1570s castle erected by Emperor Sarsa Dengel closer to Lake Tana influenced these buildings. That castle, Guzara, was the first of the kind that would be described as “Gondarine style” by scholars of Ethiopian art and architecture. The plan of Guzara castle is square with four circular bastions at each corner. Egg-shaped roofs top these bastions, a feature that was repeated in the palace complex of Fasil Ghebbi. Architectural antecedents of the stone and mortar Guzara Castle do not exist in Ethiopia, and various scholars have posited that Sarsa Dengel employed or was inspired by the work of Ottoman Turks.

    Guzara Castle is little more than a picturesque ruin that sits atop a hill outside a small city. There is no major tourism there — the day I visited I was the only foreigner in sight. Slender, young farm boys followed me through the ruin, asking for pens and money. There was no interpretation at the site, and my Gondarine guide was not extremely knowledgeable about the specifics of the construction. I was extremely surprised to find that Guzara was considered contributing to the UNESCO World Heritage listing of Fasil Ghebbi given its remote location and lack of infrastructure and inclusion within the tourism circuit promoted in Gondar.1 What Guzara provided, more than any major illumination on the evolution of the “Gondarine-style” architecture, was a challenging trek and workout.

    Figure 3. Former Italian Cinema on main avenue linking Fasil Ghebbi to the post office.

    My main reason for visiting Gondar was actually to see and understand the Italian presence in the city. I was introduced to Gondar through David Rifkind’s 2011 article “Gondar,” published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Every week a different student in my “Architecture, Culture, and Society” class at Tulane presented the hypothesis of an article related to our weekly themes. One theme was “Empire.”  The assigned readings for the week were two chapters from David Brody’s Visualizing American Empire: Orientalism and Imperialism in the Philippines. I presented the etymological roots of words like “Empire,” “Imperialism,” “Culture,” and “Civilization,” found in Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, and illuminated Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism and the process of “othering.” A very engaged student found Rifkind’s article and presented the thesis, tying it to the discussion we had about the relationship between architecture, urban planning, and empire. I remembered her presentation and the article when I was planning this trip, and knew I had to head to Gondar.

    Figure 4. Villa in the Italian section of Gondar.

    The Italian presence in the city, beyond the walls of the Fasil Ghebbi, is still very evident, as Rifkind describes. The monumental post office, connected to the Fasil Ghebbi complex by a major avenue, the villas, commercial, and administrative buildings to the north are all quite conspicuous. What is missing is any kind of preservation or interpretation of these sites. Given their inclusion in a controversial point in Ethiopian history I wondered why they had not been demolished, and whether local residents felt some sort of antipathy towards their existence. None of the town residents I spoke to had any strong negative feelings towards the Italian buildings in Gondar. In fact, the Italian presence in Gondar was considered inconsequential to many residents, as I was reminded time and again that the Italians never conquered or colonized Ethiopia.2

    On Faith and Pedagogy

    In order to teach a world history of architecture course, one should be prepped with the world history of faith systems and religion. As humans evolved and mastered the basics of sustenance—hunting and gathering, constructing shelter, farming, domesticating animals—man was searching for the meaning of his existence. Monolithic arrangements were constructed to mark death, the moment when man stopped roaming the earth and stayed in one place. The need to situate ourselves in the world and to remember those who were once in existence gave us some of our earliest architecture. Agrarian societies dependent on the changing seasons, the sun, and rain for good harvests began sacred rituals around those things. That is why the granary shape is an important formal typology in Japanese Shinto religion and various African religions as well. Man’s need to mark cycles of life and cycles of nature on earth and in the sky led to the creation of complex structures, the most famous being Stonehenge. The Egyptians believed in the divinity of Pharaoh, and the erection of pyramids strengthened that ideological relationship. Greeks crated temples for the man-like gods. Aztecs created sacrificial temples dedicated to their gods. Christians erected churches to worship their God. It goes on and on.

    I split most of my time in the 16th–18th century portions of my “Renaissance and Baroque/History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism II” course discussing divergent design trends in the Catholic and Protestant churches. Not once did I cover the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christianity is a unifying force in most of Ethiopia. In class I talked about Renaissance theories like those of Alberti or the drawings of Da Vinci that focused on the centralized church plans and discussed the fact that the liturgy of the Catholic Church did not support this idealized space. However, Ethiopia has countless centralized churches in addition to basilica plan churches because their liturgy allows for the reconfiguration of space as needed, as long as it abides by one major schematic principal, illustrated below.

    Figure 5. Schematic from Niall Finneran, “Built by Angels? Towards a Buildings Archaeology Context for the Rock-hewn Medieval Churches of Ethiopia,” World Archaeology 41 no. 3 (2009): 424.

    Figure 6. Elfin Giyorgis, one of several churches in the Fasil Ghebbi complex.

    Greece is the only other country I have visited where Orthodox Christianity was dominant, and they also have many central plan churches. But even the Greek Orthodox Church has significant differences from the orthodoxy practiced in Ethiopia. I have found a number of religious-cultural practices in Ethiopia to be particularly fascinating as an outside observer. One could easily mistake/conflate/confuse the conservative practices of Christianity in Ethiopia with those of Islam. For instance, taking off shoes when entering into a holy space, and the women covering their heads. There is also a significant amount of circumambulation and prostration that happens both outside and inside the spaces themselves.

    Doing the research here in Ethiopia on Orthodox Christianity was dizzying. Eastern, Oriental, Ethiopian, Greek, Slavic… whew. As archaeologist Niall Finneran reminds us “The Ethiopian Church was tied politically to the Coptic Church and Alexandria and also too, it should not be forgotten, to the west Syrian church as well as the Byzantine world.”3 The ties between these religious practices are very much reinforced by old trade routes that have existed for centuries between some of these ancient cultures and modern day countries.

    “A Necessary but Temporary Evil”

    The first things that one sees when approaching the primary cluster of rock-hewn churches at Lalibela are the large white shelters looming above the internationally famous structures. Let’s just say, the vantage points and pictorial views that are in your textbook are a lie. Except the photographs of Biet Giyorgis (coincidentally it is the most circulated image). UNESCO erected these protective structures in 2008 in a joint project with the European Union, who supplied funds for the construction. UNESCO is upfront in its integrity statement about issues surrounding these structures: “Temporary light-weight shelters have now been installed over some churches and these, while offering protection, impact on visual integrity.”4 Anastase Zacharas, administrator at the European Commission involved with the project called the buildings a “necessary but temporary evil.”5

    Figure 7. View from outside the second cluster of churches. Lalibela church Biet Abba Libanos with protective shelter. Teprin Associati of Italy designed the temporary structures. This is a modified version from their original commission-winning proposal, which was less visually obtrusive. Façade of Biet Abba Libanos shows cracks on left and center, the right portion of the wall has been replaced. One can see more utilitarian shelter for Biet Lehem in the background.

    The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela faced significant challenges in the twentieth century, including man-made damage. The churches are cut from living rock, and as such have to respond to the shifting of the earth’s surface over the centuries. This led to fracturing and destabilization of the buildings themselves. There is also micro vegetation that has grown in the countless edifice cracks. As Jacek Rewerski, specialist on troglodytes, states “Conserving a cave [building] is a totally different activity from conserving a building made of ‘dead’ stone removed from its environment. A cave building lives, changes and ages with the earth of which it is a part.”6

    In the mid-1950s Italian Sebastiano Console undertook conservation efforts for the churches, adding a “protective” coat of tar to the buildings and covering it with red paint. He also covered the roofs with cement and metal to shield the buildings from water damage that was especially harsh during the rainy season. The rock could not breathe under tar and paint coating, resulting in additional cracking of the structures. In 1966 a joint project between UNESCO, the Ethiopian government and the International Fund for Monuments (later the World Monuments Fund) helped reverse the damaging restorations that were undertaken in the previous decade. The rock-hewn churches at Lalibela would become the first landmark project of the World Monuments Fund.7

    Despite the early attention from the World Monuments Fund, conservation at the site lagged due to the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the rise of the Derg political party. The World Monuments Fund was unable to complete the later phases of its project in the 1970s. International coalitions were not invited to work on the site again until the 1990s. The need for immediate, yet delicate and conservative approaches to preservation work at the site is evident. The UNESCO statement of integrity about the site is telling:

    Structural problems have been identified in Biet Amanuel where an imminent risk of collapse is possible, and other locations need to be monitored. Serious degradation of the paintings inside the churches has occurred over the last thirty years. Sculptures and bas-reliefs (such as at the entrance of Biet Mariam) have also been severely damaged, and their original features are hardly recognisable. All of this threatens the integrity of the property.8

    There are holes in the ground around buildings where previous shelters had been erected. A small section of the Biet Medhane Alem church still bares evidence of the fateful tar and red paint restoration of the 1950s.

    Figure 8. This image of Biet Medhane Alem illustrates various conservation techniques undertaken at Lalibela over the course of the last sixty years. Original pillars have been replaced. The last vestiges of the tar and red paint are an illustrative reminder of previous harsh alterations to the building. To the right are the posts that hold the canopy of the newest additions—the UNESCO protective shelters.

    Replacement pillars and walls for portions of the buildings that have already failed are conspicuously reconstructed to illustrate the fact that they are not original. In many ways, the work undertaken at this extremely holy pilgrimage site is a case study of best and worst practices for future preservation and conservation students and professionals. Increased tourism is both beneficial and detrimental to the conservation of the site. On the one hand increased tourism means increased tourism dollars being spent in the small town. On the other hand, the churches already receive a significant amount of internal pilgrims from Ethiopia, and the added human presence of foreign tourists can wear down the natural materials of the buildings at an exponential rate.

    Wanderlust: Nomadic Interpretations of Contemporary Africa

    "Have just returned from Ethiopia with a mass of welts from the bed bugs of Seven Olives Hotel in Lalibela,” Colonel Gray wrote in a letter to Richard Howland of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. – one of the [World Monuments Fund] early trustees, "but with the satisfaction of turning over to the Antiquities Administration the completed monument. God preserve me from faraway places."
    - World Monuments Fund: The First Thirty Years

    I guffawed when I read that line. I could relate.9 As I told my father and two younger brothers over Skype on Christmas “It’s nothing like the movies!” My brother Roland asked, “What do you mean, how so?” I replied, “The bed bugs, fleas, mosquitos… wearing the same clothes for days on end… sometimes no hot water, sometimes no electricity.” My dad replied, “So you mean, when Indiana Jones emerges from a cave with a crisp white shirt, it’s not real?” We all laughed. It has been quite the challenge trying to be Indyamber Jones while in Ethiopia. The country’s infrastructure leaves much to be desired, though there are crews working every day to expand roads and make the smaller cities and sites I have visited more accessible.10 The reward, however, is experiencing architectural sites and preservation practices that are so far removed from what I have previously known. Another reward is the opportunity to capture these sites through my photography and share them with the world.

    I am very pleased to announce the inclusion of my photography in an exhibition in the United States while I continue to travel on this fellowship. Several of my works from Ghana and Ethiopia will be a part of the exhibition “Wanderlust: Nomadic Interpretations of Contemporary Africa” at The Project Box, a creative arts space in the Paseo Arts District of Oklahoma City. The show runs from January 2–30, 2015.

    Figure 9. Wanderlust at the Project Box, Oklahoma City, OK.

    Wanderlust: Nomadic Interpretations of Contemporary Africa” is a group art show highlighting the diversity of Africa through eyes in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Somaliland/Somalia and the United States of America. Curated by Afrikanation Artists Organization (AAO), Wanderlust features work by Oklahoma City-based artists Ebony Iman DallasGay PasleyRonna Pernell, Alex Mutua Kathilu, as well as Zena Allen, the Afrikanation International Art Exchange participants, and myself. Jeff Mims, an Oklahoma City-based Afrikanation musician, will play acoustic guitar during the opening reception, which coincides with the First Friday Gallery Walk in the Paseo Arts District.11

    In addition, Afrikanation Artists Organization USA will be collecting much needed youth art supplies to send to Voices for Street Children/Little Voices orphanage in Addis Ababa and professional art supplies to artists in Somaliland/Somalia. My travel to faraway places has allowed me to participate in an international artist community that is particularly rewarding and meaningful.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended Reading:

    Sandro Angelini, “Lalibela – Phase I: Adventure in Restoration,” (New York: International Fund for Monuments, Inc., 1967)

    Merid Wolde Aregay, “Society and Technology in Ethiopia 1500-1800,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 17 (November 1984): 127-147

    LaVerle Berry, “Architecture and Kingship: The Significance of Gondar-Style Architecture,” Northeast African Studies 2 no. 3 (1995): 7-19

    Stanislaw Chojnacki, “New Aspects of India’s Influence on the Art and Culture of Ethiopia,” Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 2 (2003): 5-21

    Niall Finneran, “Built by Angels? Towards a Buildings Archaeology Context for the Rock-hewn Medieval Churches of Ethiopia,” World Archaeology 41 no. 3 (2009): 415-429

    Niall Finneran, “Lalibela in its Landscape: Archaeological Survey at Lalibela, Lasta, Ethiopia, April to May 2009,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 47 no. 1 (2012): 81-98

    S. C. Munro-Hay, “Horse-Shoe Arches in Ancient Ethiopia,” Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 33 (1989): 157-161

    David W. Phillipson, “From Yeha to Lalibela: an Essay in Cultural Continuity,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 40 no. 1/2 (June-December 2007): 1-19

    Jacek Rewerski, “Life Below Ground,” UNESCO Courier 48 no. 12 (December 1995): 10-14

    David Rifkind, “Gondar,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70 no. 4 (December 2011): 492-511

    Matteo Salvadore, “Muslim Partners, Catholic Foes: The Selective Isolation of Gondärine Ethiopia,” Northeast African Studies 12 no. 1 (2012): 51-72

    Tomohiro Shitara, “A Study of the Methods and Materials Used in the Construction of Italian Buildings in Gondar,” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 5 no. 2 (November 2006): 215-220

    Bahru Zewde, “Gondär In the Early Twentieth Century: A Preliminary Investigation of a 1930/31 Census,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 21 (November 1988): 57-81


    1. UNESCO has plans to address these types of issues at the Continental Conference on UNESCO Sites in Africa foreseen in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, in November 2015:

    2. The characterization of Italy’s presence in Ethiopia is also highly debated by the scholarly community, as was examined in my previous blog on Addis Ababa.

    3. Niall Finneran, “Built by Angels? Towards a Buildings Archaeology Context for the Rock-hewn Medieval Churches of Ethiopia,” World Archaeology 41 no. 3 (2009): 424

    4. UNESCO, “Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region”

    5. Sophie Boukhari, "Lalibela's Fragile Churches." UNESCO Courier (July /August 1998): 71

    6. Jacek Rewerski, “Life Below Ground,” UNESCO Courier 48 no. 12 (December 1995): 10-14. The churches at Lalibela fall under the purview of the mission of two separate but important specialist initiatives in conservation. The first is Histoire Architecture Découverte Etude Sauvegarde (H.A.D.E.S.) and the second is the World Heritage Programme on Earthen Architecture (WHEAP).

    7. The World Monuments Fund has expanded its operations in Northern Ethiopia. Work continues at Lalibela, funding for conservation at the Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace, and Yemrehana Kristos is included on the 2014 Watch List.

    8. UNESCO, “Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region”

    9. I did not stay at the Seven Olives Hotel and cannot speak on their current situation. Colonel Gray’s letter was written in the early 1970s.

    10. The funding and the managerial workforce for these many of these projects come from China.

    11. This information was taken directly from the Wanderlust Facebook Event Page:
    Go comment!
  • The New Flower: Addis Ababa and the Project of African Modernity

    Amber N. Wiley, 2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Dec 4, 2014

    He is a young man.
    He is a young man
    by a steel track.
    He wants the streets
    to be more than streets.
    The Italian boulevard
    the Italians built
    to be more
    than a boulevard.

    The city more
    than a city.
    He has high,
    admirable ideals.
    It is a dangerous world.
    The emperor
    is such a powerful
    man. The Derg
    and the military
    the most violent

    Excerpt from “The Track,” Lena Bezawork Grönlund Callaloo 33, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 295-296

    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.”1 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.2 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.

    Figure 1
    Figure 1. Major capitals of Ethiopia. Ronald J. Horvath, “The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia,” Journal of African History 10 no. 2 (1969): 208

    Figure 2

    Figure 2. Partial view of Menelik II’s Palace in the area formerly known as “Gebi,” now grounds of Prime Minister’s residence. Source: Ethiopundit.

    Many recent texts on Addis Ababa explore the founding of the city as a project of modernity, one that Emperor Menelik II undertook after successfully conquering portions of what is today the southern region of Ethiopia. Menelik II’s reign, from 1889 to 1913 brought into existence the modern borders of the country, and he chose to rule from a central location, symbolically bringing together the northern and southern regions. The question of modernity as it applies to Addis Ababa, however, has yet to be answered. This is a direct result of the fact that modernity itself is subject to different definitions and interpretations. Menelik II, in his diplomatic relationships with various countries, believed he was creating the modern state of Ethiopia. His defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 proved that Ethiopia had the military prowess to fend off colonization in the “scramble for Africa.” Yet, by the time Emperor Haile I Selassie fled to England as the Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea in 1935, Italian claims of Ethiopian primitivism served as fodder for their imperial conquests.

    Figure 3. What does it mean to be a modern African capital?  View up Churchill Avenue.

    Early Industrialization and Urbanization in the Imperial City

    The narrative arc of the Addis Ababa Museum, established in 1986 on the centennial of the city’s founding, explained how the city became the epitome of a modern, cosmopolitan entity within a few decades. Exhibition material in Finfinne Hall of the museum highlighted the beauty of the highly detailed wooden structures erected under the early part of Menelik II’s reign. The craftsmen for these structures came from various regions that had trade relationships with Ethiopia, including India. Menelik II's palaces at Finfinne and Addis Alem show clear Indian detailing and architectural motifs. The next room in the museum focused on Alfred Ilg, a Swiss engineer who brought a significant amount of industrial technology to the country (Ilg also extensively photographed Menelik II’s court). The rapid urbanization of the city of Addis Ababa after its founding, the cosmopolitan nature of the market spaces and trade relationships that brought foreign goods to Arada (later Piazza), the introduction of the rail line, electricity, bridges, and other feats of civil engineering are the hallmarks of Menelik II and Taytu’s reign. Mekonnen Worku, in his 2008 urban design master’s thesis proclaimed Menelik II “the great modernizer of Ethiopia.”3

    Figure 4. Building on the complex of the Central Statistical Agency. While I have not yet discovered the original use of the building, guards told me it was the location of the first Bank of Abyssinia.

    Figure 5. Residence in the Arada/Piazza area of Addis Ababa.


    Figure 6. La Gare, constructed in the 1920s. This station linked land-locked Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti.

    Even with the introduction of industrial technologies to the young capital, could one argue that the city was truly modern? Several scholars dispute the claim. Andreas Eshete, former president of Addis Ababa University, where he was also a professor of law and philosophy, argues “there is a crucial distinction between the advent of the idea of modernity on the one hand, and its psychological and institutional realization on the other.”4 He bases his argument on the fact that throughout the first 70 years of the city’s existence, the imperial powers, centrality of Orthodox Christianity, Italian Fascist presence, and communist rule disallowed “popular legitimate rule by free and equal citizens, the abolition of all privileges of birth or inherited position, equality of faiths and cultural communities, industrialization, and secularism.5” Indeed, Ethiopia was an imperial nation until the overthrow of Selassie in 1974, and operated under major themes of exceptionalism – Ethiopia of antiquity, with ruling parties claiming direct descent from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon; Ethiopia, one of the earliest Christian nations; Ethiopia the modern nation that resisted European colonialism.

    For much of the short history of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been a country of centralized power, resting with the looming historical figures of Menelik II, Selassie, and Mengistu. This factor allowed for the exploitation of Addis Ababa’s topography for expressions of power. Planning historian Dandena Tufa suggests that Empress Taytu was most influential in the early layout of the town. She wanted military officials and their soldiers to settle around the palace for purposes of defense, so the earliest settlements were on the high grounds of the Finfinne region. Additionally, Tufa states, “This original settlement layout was based on a traditional land use system that was derived from the settlement structure of the northern part of Ethiopia.6


    Figure 7. Traditional territories in vertical space: garrison “säfär” and a church with village development from Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 34

    Military and political officials associated with the imperial power were literally “lifted” above the common people, “reshaping of [the] topography to locate and display differences and hierarchies of power, wealth, and status:”

    The most elevated part of the city was reserved for the highest authority in the land—the king— subsequently becoming the nucleus of the city that was being organized concentrically. In a descending order, politically and geographically, land was allotted beginning from top officials to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic order.7

    Embassies were situated close to imperial compounds, also on the high ground. Eshete also discusses how political control was a major factor that “pervaded the organization of Addis Ababa in the 1880s, the restructuring of its space under Italian colonialism in the late 1930s, and its modernization after the 1940s.”8

    These physical realities were very clear to me (and my legs – what a workout!) as I visited significant architectural sites in Addis Ababa. The Addis Ababa Museum, former home of Ras Biru Wolde Gabriel (War Minister of Menelik II), the Beate Maryam Church (Menelik II Museum), the Holy Trinity (Selassie) Cathedral, the St. Giorgis Cathedral, and Ras Makonnen Hall (formerly Guenete Leul Palace, the residence of Haile I Selassie, and currently under the aegis of Addis Ababa University), were all on high ground. While I initially had not studied the planning of Addis Ababa before visiting these sites, the physical realities of their high positions were not lost on me. They certainly would not have been lost on a resident of Addis Ababa in the early stages of the city’s development.


    Figure 8. Beate Maryam was accessible only after a steep climb up the Gebi hill on the grounds of the Prime Ministers residence.

    Landscape designer and city planner Sara Zewde, who is currently pursuing her MLA at Harvard School of Design, has been a useful contact during my time in Addis Ababa. A U.S. born second-generation Ethiopian, she split her childhood between New Orleans and Houston. Her research and work has helped me think about urbanism in the Global South in new and exciting ways. Zewde put me in touch with Brook Teklehaimanot, a practicing architect and professor at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction, and City Development. Teklehaimanot supplied me with the basics of urban development in Ethiopia, and the challenges the city faces today as it undergoes rapid growth and construction.

    Brook Teklehaimanot Lecture “Addis and its Urbanism”

    Italian Colonialism or, The Occupation 1936-1941

    “They got hopes and plans a getting’ rid of me
    I hit ‘em like Ethiopia hit up Italy”

    Black Thought of The Roots
    “The Show (Must Go On)” feat. Common and Dice Raw
    Rising Down, 2008

    I was sitting in my bed reading about the history of Addis Ababa while listening to the unparalleled, multiple Grammy award winning, hip-hop band The Roots when that song lyric resounded in my ears. I was reinvigorated by the intersection of my love for hip-hop with my quest to understand Ethiopian history. One will find, within scholarly texts on Ethiopia that focus on the period between 1936 and 1941, various methods of referring to the Italian presence in the country. The decision to call the time period an occupation, as many pro-Ethiopian and nationalist publications suggest, or colonization, as many studies on Italian Fascism suggest, is a truly political statement. Ethiopian resistance to European colonization is a central part of its historical memory/mythology and exceptionalism. Most architectural publications on the subject, interestingly enough, choose to describe the period as one of colonization.

    Ethiopia, along with Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland were the countries that made up the entity of l'Africa Orientale Italiana. This region became a site of “engage[ment] in the mystical discovery of the former Roman presence, to feel the miracle of an ancient society coming to life, and to sense a vital spiritual connection with the past.”9 The Italian presence had tangible consequences for Ethiopians. Italy began a campaign of “modernizing” the region in the language of Italian Fascist architecture. Urban plans recreated pre-existing cities into the utopia of an Italian regime. Le Corbusier even submitted a plan for Addis Ababa to Mussolini based on his Radiant City scheme. Thankfully, many of these plans were not fully realized. Architectural developments came in the form of public and governmental buildings such as post offices, banks, and administrative centers. These were the objects of empire, in the same way (though on a much smaller scale) that the circus and theaters of the ancient Roman Empire were established in colonial cities.

    Ethiopians in Addis Ababa as well as other major cities in the “Italian Empire” were subject to “racial segregation at all levels:”

    In the Fascist version of apartheid, districts of all major towns were reserved exclusively for white settlers, conjugal relations between Italians and Africans were criminalized, collective activities were prohibited. The relationship between settlers and subjects was organized along hierarchical lines. In all accounts of empire, the indigenous population was represented as the other of the new imperial structure.10

    These ideals were adapted to the topographical realities of Addis Ababa. While Italian master plans for the city did not acknowledge the topographical layout of the site, the need of Italian imperial powers to be seen as domineering was easily adaptable to the layout of Ethiopian imperial hierarchy in the city. Cultural anthropologist Mia Fuller discusses the implications of Italian segregation practices in the forms of “exposure and visibility.” She argues “The guiding principle was to make blacks, except insofar as their 'quarters' needed to be supervised, as invisible as possible to whites, and to make whites as visible as possible to blacks, in a public, though not a private sense.”11 This discourse on visibility reminded me of several passages I had read many years before in “Duality and Invisibility: Race and Memory in the Urbanism of the American South,” in the volume Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race, written by Craig Barton, current Director of The Design School at Arizona State University. There were also similarities to Getahun Benti’s description of the subjugation of the Oromo peoples in the early founding of Addis Ababa in “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa.” One thing that was significant in this intersection of discourse, however, was that ethnic and racial dominance in an urban setting often depended on intricate social engineering of interactions within the public sphere.

    The Promise of Pan-African Modernity

    The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) was established in 1958, while the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded in 1963, both in Addis Ababa. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was a vocal advocate for the founding of the OAU (now known as the African Union, or AU). There was a particular kinship between Ghana and Ethiopia, Kwame Nkrumah and Haile I. Selassie. It is not a coincidence then, that the first Encyclopedia Africana that W. E. B. Du Bois published while in Ghana actually covered the two countries together. Here the claims for exceptionalism that put the two countries at the forefront of the Pan Africanist movement were strong. Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence, and Ethiopia, the only nation in Africa to resist European colonization.


    Figure 9. UNECA building, constructed 1961 by Italian architect Arturo Mezzedimi. It was expanded in 1975.

    Similar to Accra, Addis Ababa looked to outside architects to define its post-war, Pan-Africanist modernity (foreign architects had significant influence in the construction and erection of the most important buildings in Addis Ababa since its founding). The Goethe-Institut in Addis Ababa hosted an exhibition in December 2013 entitled “Addis Modern: Rediscovering the 1960s Architecture of Africa’s Capital City,” that “focus[ed] on series of buildings with contextual, structural, monumental, formal, minimal and sculptural approaches to architecture.”12

    Examples were numerous. Along the monumental Churchill Avenue, laid out by French planner L. De Marien in the 1960s, I found the Ethiopian National Theatre (completed in 1955), the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Television and Radio Building. They all possessed a very sculpture quality in their construction, and were “modern” landmarks along the Addis Ababa street that was inspired by the Champs-Elysees. To be clear, these singular moments along the street did not give the same type of coherence of urban fabric that one would find in Haussmannian Paris.

    Figure 10. Commercial building near Churchill Avenue.


    Figure 11. Undated postcard image of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia on Churchill Avenue. Source: Postcard Exchange.

    Another major public work that was created during the 1960s is the John F. Kennedy Library on the campus of Addis Ababa University. The John F. Kennedy Library is situated slightly off the ceremonial path of the university campus that leads from its historic gates to Ras Makonnen Hall. And here is where things get exceedingly interesting. The Washington-based architecture firm McLeod, Ferrara, and Ensign, designed the John F. Kennedy Library. McLeod, Ferrara, and Ensign, at the same time, was working on the construction of Howard D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington, D.C. They completed the design for Howard D. Woodson High School in 1972; the school was demolished in 2008. The building was featured prominently in my dissertation “Concrete Solutions: Architecture of Public High Schools During the Urban Crisis.” So when I trekked off the main path of Addis Ababa University to see the John F. Kennedy Library (as an American I felt it was my duty somehow, strange as that sounds) I was completely floored by the discovery of the architecture firm.


    Figure 12. John F. Kennedy Library on the campus of Addis Ababa University.

    Addis Ababa Today: Modernity and Heritage

    Addis Ababa is an exceedingly young capital in a country with an amazing historical legacy, however none of the UNESCO World Heritage sites listed for Ethiopia are located in the country’s capital. Neither are any of the tentative sites. This does not mean that Addis Ababa lacks architectural heritage worthy of preservation. The United States Embassy in Addis Ababa received the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation in 2007 for the restoration of the Mohammed Ali House. According to the World Monuments Fund website, which listed the building on its watch in 2008:

    Minas Kherbekian, a well-known Armenian architect from the region, constructed the house to be the headquarters of the powerful trading firm G.M. Mohammadali. The structure echoes the diversity of styles and materials of the buildings surrounding it, exhibiting traces of Indian, Arab, and Ethiopian influences.13

    U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is a truly exciting initiative from the Department of State, granting direct funds to projects around the world. The work of preservation should not just rest with organizations dedicated to architecture, but those dedicated to the political diplomacy as well.

    The socio-cultural battle for Addis Ababa, the modern “capital city of Africa” is not yet over. The struggle is embedded within the urban fabric of the city through the erection of key political and cultural buildings. The Oromia Cultural Center, currently under construction, carries with it the hopes of the Oromo people to re-establish authority in the capital city. The Architectural Design and Research Institute of Shanghai’s Tongji University designed the new African Union building, the tallest building in the Addis Ababa skyline. The Chinese government funded construction. Scholar Lloyd G. Adu Amoah argues Chinese “soft imperium” is undermining African claims of sovereignty and modernity in Addis Ababa as well as in Accra. The topic of Chinese involvement in rapidly expanding African cities is also covered in design critic Justin Zhuang’s Metropolis article “How Chinese Urbanism Is Transforming African Cities.” Visible presence in the built environment of the city is important for entities seeking legitimization and a strengthened profile in the African capital city. Historian Shimelis Bonsa Gulema in “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” contends:

    On the one hand, the multiplicity of narratives demands constructing the city as a city of modernity, but also as a modern city of tradition, a city that could negotiate between its past and the past of the nation on the one hand and the modernist aspirations of its leaders and occupants on the other. It also requires cultivating and displaying the city’s various origins and characters as Ethiopian, African, and cosmopolitan urban space but also as national, imperial, and revolutionary.14

    This has been the dilemma of the “New Flower” and the project of African modernity in the twentieth century. There is money to be spent in Addis Ababa, evident by the McMansions sprouting up in the stylish Bole area. Despite a conservative culture, Ethiopians are also avant-garde and trendy, as fashionistas strolling down major thoroughfares can confirm. There is a palpable energy in Addis Ababa (also felt in Accra) that the city is contributing to the trend of “Africa Rising” in the twenty-first century. The city has been banking on the notion since 1886.

    Figure 13. Lion of Judah statue. Junction of Churchill Avenue and plaza in front of La Gare. Construction of new elevated metro seen in lower region of photograph, as well as construction of skyscraper to the right.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended reading:

    Hussein Ahmed, “Faith and Trade: The Market Stalls around the Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa during Ramadan,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 19 no. 2 (1999): 261-268

    Getahun Benti, “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa” Northeast African Studies 9 no. 3 (2002): 115-131

    Charles Burdett, “Italian Fascism and Utopia,” History of the Human Sciences 16 no. 1 (2003): 93-108

    Maurice De Young, “An African Emporium, The Addis Märkato,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 5 no. 2 (July 1967): 103-122

    Mia Fuller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR '42,” Journal of Contemporary History 31 no. 2 (April 1996): 397-418

    Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, ed. Special Issue: Engaging the Image of Art, Culture, and Philosophy: Particular Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity and Modernism

    Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013)

    Fasil Giorghis & Denis Gérard, Addis Ababa 1886-1941: The City and Its Architectural Heritage (Addis Ababa: Shama Books, 2007)

    Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 167-213

    Ronald J. Horvath, “The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia,” Journal of African History 10 no. 2 (1969): 205-219

    Mark Jarzombek, “Fasil Giorghis, Ethiopia and the Borderland of the Architectural Avant-garde,” Construction Ahead (May-August 2008): 38-42

    Belle Asante Tarsitani, “Linking Centralised Politics to Custodianship of

    Cultural Heritage in Ethiopia: Examples of National-Level Museums in Addis Ababa,” African Studies 70 no. 2 (2011): 302-320

    Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 27-59

    Dagmawi Woubshet, Salamishah Tillet, and Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, eds. Special Issue: Ethiopia, Literature, Art and Culture Callaloo 33 no. 1 (Winter 2010)

    Mekonnen Worku, “Heritage Conservation Oriented Planning: Heritage Policy in Light of Sustainable Urban Planning, The Case of Piazza LDP, Addis Ababa,” (Master’s thesis, Addis Ababa University, 2008)

    Mulatu Wubneh, “Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Africa’s Diplomatic Capital,” Cities 35 (2013): 255-269

    1. “The Finfinne Hall,” Exhibit. Addis Ababa Museum.
    2. Getahun Benti, “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa” Northeast African Studies 9 no. 3 (2002): 117.

    3. Mekonnen Worku, “Heritage Conservation Oriented Planning: Heritage Policy in Light of Sustainable Urban Planning, The Case of Piazza LDP, Addis Ababa,” (Master’s thesis, Addis Ababa University, 2008), 3.
    4. Andreas Eshete, “Modernity: Its Title to Uniqueness and its Advent in Ethiopia: From the Lecture What is ‘Zemenawinet? – Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 12.
    5. Ibid.

    6. Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 32.

    7. Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 171.

    8. Gulema, 173.

    9. Charles Burdett, “Italian Fascism and Utopia,” History of the Human Sciences 16 no. 1 (2003): 99.

    10. Burdett, 102.

    11. Mia Fuller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR '42,” Journal of Contemporary History 31 no. 2 (April 1996): 405.

    12. The Goethe-Institut hosts a great variety of exhibits and talks on architecture and urbanism in Africa generally, and Addis Ababa more specifically.

    13. “Mohammad Ali House,” World Monuments Fund

    14. Gulema, City as Nation, 191.
SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Fund at The Chicago Community Foundation for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Copyright - (c) 2012