The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Tuesday 11th December 2012
A Century of Planning in Aksum
Given by - Michael Mallinson
Reviewed by - John Mellors
Originally titled 'Aksum: past and future, the changing spiritual capital of Ethiopia', Michael's fascinating lecture documented the changes that have taken place in the town since Littman's Deutsche Aksum Expedition (DAE) carried out the first detailed survey of it in 1906. Michael explained that calling his talk 'a century of planning' was a little bit of a joke - the problems associated with planning in an old town built over Aksumite ruins has always caused difficulties, and no plan has yet been followed to a conclusion.
Aksum was the capital city of the Aksumite empire, one of the great civilisations of the first millennium, and many impressive stelae and ruins from the period can still be seen. Aksum is also the first home of the church in Ethiopia, its Old Cathedral is built on Aksumite remains, and it hosts many impressive religious festivals. Despite this Aksum has remained a small town until very recently.
The first major changes in the town since the DAE occurred during the Italian occupation. A modern grid layout was imposed on the road layout in the old town which resulted in some new roads cutting through the larger old monuments. The main road to Gondar cut through the middle of the ruins of the great Ta'akha Maryam Palace.
In 1980 Aksum was listed as a World Heritage Site and there was an attempt to completely empty the old town of its people to enable the area to be cleared so that all the Aksumite remains could be revealed. It was eventually recognised that many of the buildings that would have had to be demolished were also of historical importance and this plan was abandoned.
In 2005 the World Bank funded site planning and conservation activities in Aksum as part of an Ethiopian Cultural Heritage Project. Michael was involved in this project and described the work that was carried out and some of the difficulties encountered. The importance of any plan maintaining the old processional routes around the church complex was stressed.
One of the highlights of the conservation and survey work carried out was the discovery and uncovering of the remains of a very early church building in an area previously considered of no archaeological interest. The planning work involved much discussion with local people to find out what they would like to see provided. The features most asked for included additional seating, more flowers to brighten up the town, donkey rides for tourists and a sound and light show in the evenings in the Stelae Park.
The team were only supposed to draw up plans for a new archaeological museum but, in the end, managed to build a museum within the budget allocated for designing it! This was achieved by dispensing with some of the items normally associated with projects of this nature, such as cars and expensive office equipment. One of the pressing reasons for building the museum in such a hurry was that the church was threatening to throw out the archaeological material that was housed at the time in the church museum.
The museum was built using local labour and traditional building techniques. However, as the normal mud filling between stones was not deemed secure enough for a museum building, and cement was very expensive at the time, lime mortar was used for the construction. The stones used for the buildings were transported from the fields of local farmers using donkeys, because of a local strike by lorry drivers. During a survey of the museum site, prior to the building work starting, two pit tombs were uncovered, as well as a number of stelae, and a well. The well proved very useful during the building work but the tombs required changes to the museum's design to incorporate them.
The museum was built within the grounds of Gebre Sellasie House, a large traditional house that was restored for use as a café and handicraft shop. The grounds are designed to be used as a public performance area and hosted many performances at the opening of the museum.
Recent developments in Aksum have included the adoption of a 2010 master plan that includes a number of very strange proposals, such as the removal or alteration of the new Archaeological Museum! Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that the church has started building a new four storey museum in the middle of the World Heritage Site without seeking the necessary approval.
A lively question and answer session followed the lecture. Hopefully Aksum can sort out its planning problems and make itself the 'must see' tourist destination it is striving to become.