Tucked away in a neighborhood now far removed from its aristocratic origins stands a historic home that holds secrets of Addis Ababa’s past, traces of lives once led within its walls more than a century ago. The building itself a survivor from the city’s nascency, having borne witness to the transformations that birthed modern-day Addis Ababa.
What began as a private residence for one of Ethiopia’s elite citizens now serves a higher purpose: preserving and sharing glimpses of that bygone era through its collection of photos, furnishings and forgotten treasures that offer an intimate look at the lives of Addis Ababa’s earliest inhabitants.
The house, now the Yimtubezinash Museum and Cultural Center, has become an invaluable archive of the early 20th century city, transporting visitors back through time with each item carefully preserved within. Stepping through its doors is like stepping into history itself, a rare opportunity to view Addis Ababa anew through the eyes of those who shaped its foundations.
Through its collection of tangible reminders from the past, the once private home has become a public portal, inviting all who enter to experience a walk through history and discover what stories lie within the walls of a very old house.
Nestled in the center of the newly opened Friendship Park Phase II lies the little-known cultural center. The museum occupies the former home of Yimtubezinash Habte, a well-known businesswoman and patriot who fought at Illuababor for three years during the second Italian invasion in 1928.
The house overlooking the grand palace was built in 1892, four years after the Battle of Adwa. Constructed by Indian contractors, it served as her main residence and was registered as a national heritage site in 1982.
The house remains privately owned by fifth-generation descendants, who transformed it into the museum that stands today. It holds a collection of items related to her life as well as rotating exhibitions showcasing the works of historical figures like Hughes Fontaine and collaborations with other artists.
The exhibition “Horsemanship in Ethiopia,” held from March 2 to April 2, 2023, marked the 127th anniversary of the Adwa victory.
A recent exhibition, “Addis Ababa: The Birth of a City,” currently on display at the museum, started last week on June 1 and continues until the 15th. The exhibition showcases photographs of the earliest settlements in Addis Ababa taken by different photographers over 100 years ago, capturing Addis Ababa as it began to grow as a city.
“Back then, Ethiopia was gaining huge recognition because of its victory over the Italians, and many tourists were coming to the country to take pictures,” explains Abel Assefa, chief curator and director of the museum.
When establishing cities in Ethiopia previously, three main things needed to exist: a religious institution—be it a church or mosque—but it was dominantly a church in Ethiopia, a market place, and a grand palace, according to him.
The establishment of the city replicated this, and the pictures taken over 100 years ago included images of the grand palace, the Arada market place, and the Arada Giyorgis church built in Piassa—the three major places Addis Ababa was built and established upon.
The photos presented at the exhibition were taken no more than 10 years after the establishment of Addis Ababa. “Dominantly, the photos were taken by Alfred Ilg, who was the Minister of State for the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. He stored a lot of pictures from that time that we are able to display today,” Abel said.
Two pictures were placed at the entrance of the exhibition. The first one, a photo taken by Alfred Ilg from the location of the house in 1897, shows the Grand Palace, currently open to people as Unity Park, from a distance with many huts littered around. This picture illustrates that Addis Ababa had yet to become the over packed city it turned into.
Another photo taken by a traveler named Fredrick Von Kalmer of the Arada market in 1908 depicts the early inhabitants of the city going about their days, buying goods and groceries from the busy market.
This photo not only proves that the history and name of Arada date back a century, but it also shows the materials and goods that used to be sold back then.
“Historical images like these, apart from showing the way things were and how people looked, also showcase the materials and goods that existed at the time,” Abel said.
Some of the other photos that were a part of the exhibition showed more of the history of Addis Ababa’s initial years, including a picture of the first road ever built—the one from Addis Ababa to Entoto—the first locomotive steam engine, a picture of Arada Giyorgis church before its transformation into the cathedral it is now, and more snapshots of historic reminders of the city’s beginning.
“When it comes to Addis Ababa, the city is growing and expanding rapidly, and though we cannot stop it, we can document the progress over time through many means, one of which is photography. In addition, being able to look back and see what it was like years ago is very important, and that’s one of the main reasons exhibitions like these are important,” Abel explained.
The fact that this historic house stood witness to a bygone era when these age-old photos were captured and now serves as a refuge for these priceless snapshots plays an invaluable role for the museum.
Apart from safeguarding these glimpses into the past, the items and relics within its walls offer a window into how the elite lived during that bygone time, revealing secrets of their daily lives left buried for over a century. The museum transports visitors back to walk the very halls once trodden by the well-to-do of Addis Ababa’s infancy, granting a rare privilege to experience history through their eyes.