The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Addis Ababa 1886 - 1941, The City & Its Architectural Heritage

Fasil Giorghis and Denis Gerard

Reviewer - Richard Snailham

I have always thought of Addis Ababa as a rather untidy, unplanned urban aggregation and this book shows beautifully how it all came about. In 1886 Negus Menelik and his wife, Taitu, came down from the cold, rainy Entoto hills to settle on lower ground to the south, he, I suspect, a bit reluctantly (Entoto is a more defensible position), she more contentedly (nearer to Filwoha, the pleasant hot water springs). Menelik, then only King of Shewa, set up his camp on the highest eminence, the site of the present gebbi, and allotted a sefer or plot of land to each of his attendant rases, nobles, clergy and military chiefs. They and their retinues established several ‘villages’, scattered over a big area, which has since been filled in to constitute today’s sprawling Ethiopian capital.

This collection of old photographs, with accompanying text and captions in English and French, is by architects Fasil Giorghis and Denis Gerard and covers the growth of Addis Ababa from these beginnings until the liberation of the city by allied forces in 1941. There are some lovely images: barefoot drummers marching past the old Majestic Hotel; the first steam traction engine (“Babour”) brought from Djibouti to Addis by Armenian Serkis Terzian; hordes of squatting diners in Menelik’s new aderash in the gebbi; Alfred Ilg and the first three heads of legation from Italy, France and Britain in all their plumed finery.

I never thought of the Piazza (now under extensive redevelopment by Sheikh Al-Amoudi) as Arada, the original market, the hub of economic activity in Addis before the Italians set up another one on a grid iron pattern — the Merecato. Nor did I realise the shift was racially motivated — a native market some distance away from the continuing, central, national market at Arada.

There are some superb photographs of the great and the good of the Emperor Menelik’s day and their residences, some familiar like Ras Biru Wolde Gabriel’s home, now the Addis Ababa Museum near Maskal Square, and the Guenet Leul, now housing the administration of the university and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies library and ethnographical museum. But there are others extant (just) of which most people know nothing, many fine examples of period buildings of the Menelik-Lij Iyassu-Zewditu era. It is sad that many of these once fine residences are in such an alarming state of disrepair, some of them sites of multi-occupancy by poor families. Let us hope this excellent book may spark more timely works of Restoration — where is the Ethiopian Griff Rhys-Jones?

The book is in three parts and ends with a series of then-and-now pictures, panoramas from the same viewpoint, mainly of the streets around General de Gaulle Square. There are some good maps and a useful glossary. All the pictures are monochrome, It is an original work, should have wide appeal, and apart from its other intrinsic value is well worth its weight.

Addis Ababa 1886-1941, The City & Its Architectural Heritage by Fasil Giorghis and Denis Gerard, published by Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2007.
Softcover: 344pages, maps, plans, and many photographs and illustrations.
Price: 345 Birr

First Published in News File Summer 2008

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