Home to Armenian, Greek, Indian and Italian expatriates, Addis Ababa of the 1920s and 30s was a unique city adorned with buildings and structures influenced by European architecture. Piazza was at the center of all of this and now works are being started to preserve some of relics of this era and what has come to be known as the old Piazza, writes Hiwot Abebe.
A tourist guidebook of Piazza was launched on Monday at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise to a large audience. Written by Dominique Harre, a social economist, Addis Ababa Old Piazza is part of the Ethiopian City Guides series, which explored Dire Dawa and Gondar in its previous edition.
Even though the launch did not provide the guidebooks for sale during the event, it included a panel discussion by Harre, the illustrator Wendimagegn Gashaw, associates from the French Center for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE), Agence Francaise de Developpment (AFD) and Ethiopian Institute for Architecture and Building Construction (EiABC). The guide takes the tourist on three different self-guided walking tours of Piazza.
The first tour is of central Piazza and begins at the famed Taitu Hotel (the first hotel in Ethiopia) and traverses to Edouard Garabedian’s residence/store, now owned by Dashen Bank, then takes the walker through Serategna Sefer. Harre emphasizes the unique architectural properties that make these buildings stand out.
The second tour is of the commercial center of Piazza, what Harre called Addis Ababa’s Early Mall. It follows the Central Statistical Agency building, formerly the Bank of Abyssinia established in 1910, towards Mahatma Gandhi Street, Arada Post Office compound, Mhamdeally’s residence and stores, Addis Ababa City Hall that used to be the site of an open market area in the 1930s and St. George’s church.
The final tour is through Villas of the Arminian Quarter, this route follows the Ras Makonnen fountain, Seba Dereja, the homes of many dignitaries during Haile Selassie’s reign like Bejirond Letibelu Gebre’s adarash, the Armenian Church and the residences of many Armenian nationals like Krikoris Boghossian.
Wendimagegn Gashaw filled the city guide with beautiful watercolor renderings of these old buildings. These drawings lend romanticism to the already nostalgic Piazza area. Referring to the drawings during the tour can bring certain lightness to the grim reality of poorly maintained decaying buildings. During the book launch, Wendimagegn expressed his dismay that it wasn’t Ethiopian nationals that wrote the guide. Large reproductions of his watercolors adorned the walls of Alliance Ethio-Francaise during the event.
The highly researched book includes many historical facts that help readers reimagine Addis in the early 20th century and explains the architectural influences of many buildings during that period. Armenian, Greek, Indian and Italian expatriates determined to make this new city their home built most of the buildings included in this tour of Old Piazza. According to the guide, the layout of the houses, roof structures, the fascia and the verandas as well as the carvings on the door and finials are highly influenced by European architecture.
This tour highlights the economic and class differences of the late 19th and 20th century Addis Ababa. While Arada mushroomed around Menelik II’s residence in the 1890s and the narrow streets house small adobes houses, upper class imperial dignitaries primarily owned the buildings that remain. Piazza’s unique, and sometimes unsettling, blend of ancient and modern as well as the large economic difference among residents creates a microcosm of Addis Ababa itself. Keeping this in mind, this guide calls attention to how old Piazza must have been a cosmopolitan melting pot in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ignnace Monkam-Daverat, Director of the Agence Francaise de Developpment (AFD) in Ethiopia which had collaborated with the French Center for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) to publish the book, said the guide will be a huge opportunity for Addis Ababa in terms on increasing economic value in tourism, job creation, as well as improving social cohesion and may even entreat city municipality officials to renovate these historic sites.
While the Ministry of Culture and Tourism does register historical buildings as heritage sites the rapid transformation of Addis Ababa has led to the demolition of many buildings. While many recognize the importance of preservation, in some instances, the master plan takes precedence. The controversial demolishing of a building in Lideta area built by Sheik Ahmed Salah, a Yemeni business man and diplomat even though it was registered as a heritage site by MoCT’s Authority for Research & Conservation of Cultural Heritage and by Addis Ababa Culture & Tourism Bureau might be most memorable. The heritage site was contested by the Construction and Housing Development Office and following a 2-year long legal battle in the high court the 87-year-old building was demolished in 2016.
However, the re-development of the city is not the only threat to these buildings. Time, weather and lack of upkeep have resulted in their decrepit condition. Negadras Haile Giyorgis Wolde Mikael’s home, which had served as Addis Ababa City Municipality until the 1960s, is now a crumbling structure. The compound still serves as administrative center to the Arada sub-city and a legal aid center but the original building has been abandoned for over a decade. The front side of the yellow building has a large hole exposing the layers of stone structure and lower floors filled with old files and boxes of documents are hard to reach due to the mud. The doors on all sides are wide open leaving the house to vulnerable to the elements and the upper floors are impossible to see because the wooden stairs have rotten away. Beautiful stained windows are visible between overgrown tree branches but one can hardly take a photograph for posterity. Even though the Addis Ababa Culture and Tourism Bureau had planned to renovate this locale last year, the work has yet to begin. Renovation of the Menlik II monument located at near St. Georg Church is currently taking place and the Sebastopol monument on Churchill Avenue will soon begin.
The first radio station located in the Addis Ababa University School of Journalism and Communication campus has been demolished in order to build a 9-story research center, despite the City’s efforts to keep the historic registered site as part of the new city master plan. Fasil Giorghis, architect and associate professor at EiABC, insists that the urge for development does not need to clash with the need for heritage preservation. “Addis is a very young city”, he said referring to how younger heritages are easy to ignore but “buildings outlast us, they tell stories”. He also appreciated the adaptive use of old buildings identifying the contemporary use of areas like Piazza and urged people to make effort to engage with these sites and their preservation. EiABC has been teaching conservation since 2015.
The city bureau of culture tries to protect buildings but if a site is chosen for demolition the only measure is to document the building plans and take photographs. Following the nationalization of private property by the Derg regime in 1970s, many sites have fallen in government control. While some have been converted to administrative institutions others have been sold to the private sector to function as business locations.
Some of the sites highlighted in the guide are commercial buildings while those in the Armenian quarter largely remain residential. While Harre herself visited these homes and talked to residents about their houses’ history, walkers following the tour may not be as welcome. After all, who would continue to allow strangers into their homes for the unforeseeable future? The signature corrugated iron roofs with triangular fold and the occasional roof finial and ornate pediment can be viewed over the front gate.
Following the guide around Piazza, navigating the narrow streets while braving the poor summer weather might not be attractive. Taking the tour while enjoying what the Piazza has to offer may take several hours but, to the uninitiated, it can be a wonderful introduction to the rich history of Addis Ababa. The book, especially the drawings, offers a glimpse into a colorful past it would be a mistake to dismiss.
Harre is currently working on a book on the history of the Indian community in Ethiopia. She is also the author of The Indian Firm G. M. Mohamedally & Co. in Ethiopia (1886-1937).