The Architectural Heritage of Addis Ababa

Historical sources shed light upon an ancient human civilization located in the river valleys in about the 4th century BCE. Across periods of development, primitive societies used trees, caves, mud, and crude stone houses as shelter for survival.
A south Arabian influence in ancient Ethiopia triggered early urbanization or clustering of dwellings and commercial enterprise.

This early form can be witnessed at the ruined temple of Yeha built during the era of the Da’amt (in the millenium preceding the common era) near Adwa in northern Ethiopia. The Aksumites, citizens of the Empire of Aksum, learnt much from their antecedents subsequently developing Aksum as a permanent center of administration and learning when the political center of power transferred to Debre Roha and the monolithic obsidian of Lalibela, a period of unique architectural development was recorded in the country.

In the early years of the second millenium, the political centres of Harar and Gondar provide historical insight into the cultural significance of Ethiopian heritage, through their own ancient urban edifices. The later centres of Ankober (ancient seat of royalty) and Entoto, echo this heritage.

These oldest towns, Aksum, Gondar, Harar, and Ankober, despite losing their principle role as centres of power, have still maintained their magnificence and architectural value. For centuries they had been the center of cultural interaction and we can view them as symbols of Ethiopia’s deep and rich civilization.
In most other cases, Ethiopian urbanization grew around caravan trade routes and garrisons, and these centres eventually evolved as seats of administration. In the eastern part of the country however, towns developed somewhat differently, as a result of the construction of the Ethio-Djibouti railway line.

After many centuries, the making of a capital city of Ethiopia would be completed under Emperor Menilek and his consort Empress Taitu.  Addis Ababa [the new flower beneath Mount Entoto] became the fourth permanent seat of imperial Ethiopia in 1886.

Addis Ababa’s buildings represent a melding of traditional prototypes, indigenous identity and modern design, reflecting different eras of architectural development in the country.

Since its inception, Addis Ababa has been characterized by traditional roads, bridges, and thatched roof wooden houses made of mud and stone, eventually to be replaced by bricks with corrugated iron sheeting in a scattering of settlements. The interlude of modernizing efforts whilst retaining native value has continued throughout the capital’s development, from Emperor Menilek to his successors Queen Zewditu, to Emperor Haile Sellasie, to the Italian occupation and the post-liberation period, to the military Derg era and to the present day. Urban development continues to shape the cityscape.

To some extent, expatriate traders, masons, and architects those who migrated to Ethiopia – Greek, Gujarati Indians, Armenians, Syrians, and Yemeni Arabs, had a considerable and complex cultural influence on city construction. This is because they began to settle in the heart of Addis Ababa, from its beginnings.

The period between 1887 and the 1930s saw different forms of building being erected. Armenian Matig Keworkof built his own house known as Keworkof’s building in Piazza; Indian businessman Mohammed Ali built his house and business also in Piazza; the Etegue Hotel (Taitu Hotel) and the house of Ras Mulugeta Yigezu who was minister of the defense ministry was constructed; the Old Post and Telegraphy office buildings were built. Then in this same era there were private homes built that in time, became functional city offices: the house of Bitwoded Haile Giorgis (who served as foreign minister) located in front of St. George church, became the first municipal offices in the capital;  the house of the close advisor to Emperor Menilek, a Swiss engineer named Alfred Ilg is today the office for the Central Statistics Agency;  the house of Ras Birru Wolde Gabriel is now the Addis Ababa museum; the house of Fitawurari Habte Giorgis has become the Yemeni community school;  the house of Ras Gebre Hiwot is today the OPDO office located in Sedist Kilo.

The Fascist occupation in Ethiopia left an architectural hybrid influence in Addis Ababa. The Italians used the local style of house construction and clad them with non-native exteriors. The quarters Piazza and Cazanchise were declared for white settlement and administration. Centro, Cinema Ethiopia, Banko de Roma, Popolare, Cazanchise, Mercato, big shopping halls, the present National Museum, the home of the Italian mayor of Addis Ababa, Hakim Bora Hospital what is today the Ras Desta Damtew Memorial hospital, are all conspicuous constructions of the period.

The post-liberation period is noteworthy for the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, and the selection of Addis Ababa as the newly formed multilateral organisation’s seat, in 1963. This was largely the result of the diplomatic wisdom of Emperor Haile Sellasie who became one of the OAU’s founding fathers. The subsequent arrival of international diplomats provided impetus for Addis Ababa to continue on an upward urban development trajectory.
From 1960 onwards, Addis Ababa was obsessed with building. City residents were amazed at the radical change of the skyline as the National Theatre, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the head quarters of the Organization of the African Unity, the circular Ministry of Fine Arts and Education located at Arat Kilo, the Finfine building in Masqal square, the Municipality, and the National banks of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Coffee Exporter Association, the Hilton Hotel, the Lycée Gebre Mariam, all rose skywards.

Following the fall of the imperial state in 1974, the Derg came to power and implemented a socialist-oriented political system. Some typical decorative building patterns during this period were derived from the influence of the communist world as the Derg aligned itself with the Eastern bloc. Among the buildings of the time, the Ethiopian Labor Union Confederation (CELU) located on Bole Road near Flamingo, the buildings of the Ministry of Agriculture, what is today the Oromia Regional State Administrative Offices, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic (EPDR), the president’s offices, apartments around Revolutionary Square, are worth mentioning.

All of the buildings of Addis Ababa nurture their own architectural history. Their similarities and differences in style, shape, material and technology can be interpreted through an understanding of the period in which they were built. Engineers and urban architects should draw attention to the heritage of the city in order to preserve these edifices for their architectural, historic and aesthetic value. 


By: Mulugeta Gezahegn

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