Abandoned historical bridges
Gondar, the medieval capital, holds a unique place in Ethiopian history. More famous for its castles, the town does also boast other magnificent pieces of architecture, bridges among them. Whether locals or Portuguese masons built these structures is beside the point. What is indisputable is the fact that these bridges are heritage sites worth preserving for posterity, not to mention their value in luring visitors – both domestic and foreign. As Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen of The Reporter observes in this week’s issue of the paper, most Gondarian bridges have fallen into disrepair, and are in need of immediate attention.
Angereb, a famous river in Gondar, has an unforgettable childhood memory for Ephrem Mitiku. Born and raised in Gondar, he is now a bajaj driver and he remembers the good old days when he and the rest of the neighborhood kids used to swim in the river, especially summers when they swam from dawn to dusk.
Defecha Bridge is built on the Angereb River, and Ephrem knew about the historical background only when he grew up. When he learned the history, the river was more than a place where to swim. It was a national heritage.
Although he has not found documents attesting to when and how the bridge was constructed, he relies on the popular narrative passed down through oral history.
The story goes like this: Emperor Fasilades (1632-1667) had an affair with two Roman sisters – Zeliha and Meliha. The Orthodox Christian church leaders of the time condemned the king’s act, saying it was not a Christianly thing to do. They then confronted the king and clashed with his military, which resulted in the death of numerous people (it is estimated that close to 10,000 people lost their lives).
The ensuing human toll bothered the king and when he asked what he could do to rejuvenate his soul, he was told to build bridges so that everyone who crossed it would say, “May God save the soul of Fasil!”
Consequently, it is said the king was responsible for the construction of 12 bridges, including Defecha Bridge. Two of these bridges, Defecha (next to Angereb River dam) and Genfokuch or Gobate (also called Seytan Metaya) on Gilgel Megech are in the town of Gondar.
Whereas Gobate (in Infranz), Rib and Megech are located in the North Gondar Administrative Zone, Alata (on the way to the Blue Nile falls) and Qorata bridges are found in Gojjam and Gur (near Debre Libanos Monastery) is located in Shewa.
Ephrem says, despite the historical significance of these bridges, they have been completely neglected. “There has never been any kind of upkeep of the bridges. In the past few years, I have witnessed Defecha Bridge deteriorating with no attention whatsoever from responsible bodies,” he explains.
For many, the bridges are nothing more than another infrastructure and over the years, the bridges have been losing their original form. Defecha Bridge has a unique history in that traders used to pay taxes en route to Adwa. Similarly, the other bridges have a significant place in Ethiopian history.
Asegid, one of the tour guides who has been working in city tours of centuries-old heritage of Gondar says, “It seems the town is only focusing on world-famous heritages like that of the Fasil palace compound. But, there is no such a thing as a big heritage and a small one. All heritages have to be equally preserved as they are entirely momentous.”
He explains, the bridges are additional representation of Gondarian architecture to be categorized with the palace compound, swimming pool and other architectural heritages of the town. There has always been concern when it comes to heritage preservation in Ethiopia. Let alone these bridges, that hasn’t been recognized well, the heritage preservation and conservation bodies of the country has been criticized for lack of adequate attention for UNESCO world heritage sites too.“It seems like we don’t even know the value of our heritages,” Asegid points out.
When The Reporter visited Defecha Bridge, most parts of the bridge’s basement had broken in to pieces. According to Asegid and Ephrem, the other bridges are even worse off – to the extent that some of them had broken in half. Members of the the community are still using the bridges since there are no alternative routes.
The exact number of bridges is not known due to lack of a proper survey, according to a research paper, “The Gondarian Period Bridges,” by Engidu Gebrewold, Hirut Sintayehu and Solomon Lingerih, educators at Gondar University’s Tourism Department. However, eyewitness accounts put at 12 the number of bridges located in and around Gondar, with more in Gojjam and Shewa.
As Engidu explains it, most of these bridges are often referred to as “the Portuguese bridges,” even though there is no source supporting the claim. Especially, foreign writers claim the bridges were built by the Portuguese. Some others give the credit to the time of Emperor Susenyos (1606-1632). However, according to historians such as Richard Pankhurst (Prof.) and oral history, the bridges were built during Fasilades’ time.
Engidu mentions two contradictory pieces of information he came across while studying the bridges. The first one is from William Coffin, an Englishman who visited Gondar in 1814. He stated that on approaching Gondar town, he noticed one of the old ‘Portuguese’ bridges. He also noted he was told by a priest that there were several of them, called by the name Fasil Dildey (Amharic for ‘bridge’).
The other evidence, contrasting with the above, is from the manuscript, “the Glory of Abune Hara Dingel”. It has been written that in the 16th century, the bridge connecting Begemdir and Gojjam was built by the order of Emperor Fasil and Dejazmach Amoniyos was tasked with overseeing its construction.
Most of the bridges are constructed using limestone, and have a half-circle shape. Studies reveal it is “a manifestation of the art of construction then”. Most associate it with other historical landmarks of Gondar, too.
Alata, a bridge supported by eight arches, has an overall length of about 64 m and a width of 2 m. Its widest arch has a span of 8m. Guzara Bridge is located in Gondar Zuriya district, on the river to the east of the road that leads from Infiranz to Bahir Dar. Some claim it is the first bridge in Ethiopia.
As stated in the study by the educators, the Sebara Bridge is one of two stone bridges built over the Blue Nile River. During the Italian occupation, Ethiopian patriots deliberately broke parts of the bridge to restrict the movement of the Italians. Before the construction of another bridge after the war, people had to use a rope to cross from one side to the other.
Genfokuch Bridge, located on river Gilgel Megech, is formed by the confluence of the two main rivers of the city – Angereb and Qeha. The bridge is about 36m long and has about 4m width. The particularity of its design lies in the fact that one of its four arcades is larger than the others, with a height of about 5.8m.
The other bridge, Bambilo Chigasa, located in Dildiy Mariyam, connecting Wogera and Lay Armachiho districts, was ruined by the Italians while Rib Bridge was constructed over River Rib located 26km from the town of Addis Zemen. The bridge is 3 km from the dam under construction on River Rib.
“All of these bridges are facing common conservation challenges. Since the construction of the bridges, there has not been a single conservation work undertaken,” Engdu explains. Due to long service, the walls are cracking and the limestone is detaching from the stones. The detachment has formed holes that are holding water.
“The water is further aggravating the problem. It erodes the mortar and the water penetrates through and this penetration leads to the cracking of the bridges,” he elaborates. Bushes are also growing on some of the bridges, where farming takes place on Bambilo Chikaasa Bridge.
The research points out the major cause of the problem to be heavy traffic of people and animals. In new settlement areas in Gondar such as Kebele 18, people going to the nearby local market also cross with loaded animals. An example for this is Genfokuch Bridge.
Buses and heavy-duty trucks also affect bridges like Rib. Engidu says there had been attempts at artificial maintenance on some of the bridges such as Sebara and Rib. The bridges have been artificially maintained using steel and cement, which is not enough considering their heritage value.
“The history and current state of the Gondarian period bridges needs full-scale research, documentation and conservation projects,” Engidu recommends, and notes that the conservation management plan recommended by the university should be implemented soon.
He also points out that the heavy traffic must be stopped and an attempt should be made by concerned bodies to promote and use the bridges for tourism purposes. “Alternative bridges should also be built for the community in order to minimize the pressure,” he notes.
The tourism department is developing an application that will point tourists towards all the heritage sites in Gondar and the bridges are said to be included in the app once repaired.
Leul Yohannes, deputy head of the Amhara Culture and Tourism Office, agrees that the bridges had indeed been neglected. “When it comes to these bridges, we have not preserved our heritage as we are supposed to,” he admits.
He says they are now in the process of installing a limestone factory whose product will be used to repairing of the bridges. He also pointed out that they are working with Gondar University to form an action plan that will assist with preserving the heritage.
“Repairing the bridges is going to cost us millions. The factory and the action plan are expected to be finalized this year and we will start the restoring process in the coming year,” Leul confirms. For years, no one has really been in charge of preserving the bridges. However, the Gondar City Administration is now reporting the status of the bridges to the regional office.
Leul says for years the bridges have only been used as a road when in fact they should have been preserved as heritage sites. He says besides the tourism office, the road construction authority has a responsibility in preserving the bridges.
After a year, those bridges that can be used after renovation will be put to use while the rest will be heritage sites with optional bridges built nearby. “After repairing the bridges, they will be included in the list of sites to visit in Gondar, which will boost the local tourism too,” he explains.
Nonetheless, for Ephrem Asegid, the educators and the community at large, the question still remains – how much of the heritage will vanish before the action plan is implemented and the revamping actually takes place?