The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Bridge at Debra Libanos

Author - Stephen Bell

My father, Ian Bell, who died in 1998, was a member of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society and a British diplomat in Addis Ababa from 1949 to 1953. It was an extended posting which he was to look back upon as one of the happiest and most interesting of his career.

While in Ethiopia he was able to indulge in his passion for painting and sketching, and he pursued this when travelling widely through the country, whenever the opportunity offered. In 1952, for example, this included the journey that my mother and he undertook to Lalibela: in those days a three-day mule trek, and out of which came a number of drawings and paintings of these remarkable churches many years before they were opened up to tourism. His many depictions of Ethiopia - her landscapes, her churches, her festivals - are now widely dispersed.

His largest ever painting, in oil and measuring about 2.4 metres by 1.2 metres (and seen below), was commissioned by his parents in 1951 as an adornment for one of the larger rooms of their hotel. It remained in the family until last year when my mother presented it to the Ethiopian Embassy in London. It shows an old stone bridge near the monastery of Debra Libanos, and in its setting at the head of a gorge that cleaves its way through the plateau towards the distant Abai (Blue Nile) river.

The bridge itself is a structure of considerable interest. In its appearance and its method of building it is similar to other bridges far to the north, in Gojam and in the Gondar region and constructed in the 17th century either by Indian or Portuguese masons before the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1633, or later in the same century during the subsequent Gondarine period.

Whether, however, the bridge is as old as this is uncertain. Even though it is sometimes referred to and even by some locals - as the 'Portuguese bridge', another local tradition holds that it was built only in the late 19th century under the orders of Ras Darge Sahla-Sellase, an uncle of Emperor Menelik (r1889-1913), when, resident at nearby Feche, he was the regional governor. It cannot however be ruled out that the restoration of an already existing bridge was carried out under Ras Darge Sahla-Sellase.

If indeed the bridge is no more than little over a century old - rather than four centuries or so old - it would still remain as an impressive testimony to masonry skills enduring in the country that were inherited from the much earlier Gondarine period. From bank to bank it is 33 metres long, ten metres high above the perennial stream, and of three arches. The largest and central arch spans two large boulders, pillars which nature has helpfully provided across the stream bed. Low castellations line the 2.75 metre roadway on top. So skilfully has the bridge been built that, in places, it is hard to see where its masonry meets with the natural rock beneath.

The Embassy has honoured my father's painting by placing it prominently in its main reception room. By happenstance the Ambassador, HE Fisseha Adugna, was born and grew up in this same area, and has known this particular bridge well from an early age.

First Published in News File Winter 2003

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