Hometown: Addis Abeba, Ethiopia Entry by Etsegenet Messele Kebede

Addis Abeba is a relatively young city that is currently in a large construction boom. It is bustling with buildings popping up everywhere. There is a sense of movement and activity that shows the optimism of a growing city. New businesses are opening up, new apartment units are being built, and new roads constructed. Looking at a typical street in Addis you would see, construction sites with building materials piled up and large trucks moving in and out, blue and white colored taxi vans parked on the street side, long lines of people waiting for public transportation, shoe shiners and street vendors selling along the pedestrian path, donkeys transporting grains sharing the road with cars, and flocks of sheep on their way to the open market. Moreover, a recent sight has been the light rail system that crosses the city from North to South and East to West.

Addis Abeba is geographically located at the center of Ethiopia. It has a pleasant climate with an average temperature of 72 °F[1].  It is situated at a minimum altitude of 7,500 feet above sea level[2]. It is a city that is surrounded by the Entoto mountain range in the North side of town and other hills in the South. Addis Ababa has an estimated population of 4.5 million based on the 2007 population census.[3]The city itself is the seat of African Union (AU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), as a result, it hosts many diplomats and it is considered as the political capital of Africa.

Figure 1 Addis Abeba, Churchill Street

The city, was established as the capital of Ethiopia in 1886 by the then Emperor Menelik II. It developed organically with portions of land, called sefer (neighborhood), being allocated to the Rases (warlords) of Menelik and their followers.  Following that, the sefers started to expand and connect with each other and gradually, the city became one whole town. The current planning of the city is based on the organic street patterns that were originally created when the city was being established. Addis Abeba had its own unique vernacular architectural style. The local architectural style was wood framed circular or compositions of circular and rectangular tukul structures with thatched roof. There were also two story wood or masonry supported buildings with decorated facades and wooden balconies. The detailed wooden carvings on their façade and balustrades are rich and one might associate them to Indian and Arabic styles of building. There are many surviving such houses that reminds us of the unique design and construction system of the day. There are also some houses which have Italian and Armenian influences. Piassa, the old town of Addis, is where those houses are mainly located and where I gained my passion for old structures.

Figure 2 The Vernacular style of Addis Abeba.

Currently, some of these buildings have been designated as heritages but this title fails to protect them from their day to day deterioration. Many of these houses are owned by the government, and are populated beyond their capacity. Besides, there isn’t a growing list of historical buildings being designated, when there are so many that need to be listed and protected as heritages. In addition, historic districts are not being nominated because that would limit the availability of land for new construction. Finally, the legal framework, with all its bylaws and selection criteria hasn’t been well established.

Figure 3 Historical building in the Northern part of Addis.

Practically, all the houses in the country were nationalized except personally owned residential houses during the previous government. This situation has not been reversed in the current government. Therefore, it has given the city authorities a free hand to dispose of the houses for whatever purposes they intended. Generally speaking, the activities of the city are geared towards new development and not necessarily towards preserving old heritage. Moreover, amid the growing demand for housing, there is a great pressure from the government to clear out old structures, as well as slums and build new condominium housing for the ever growing population of the city.

Figure 4 A partially demolished neighborhood

Where does the role of Historic preservation lie in this city? Does it come secondary to other issues? How can the field of historic preservation address these issues? These are some of the questions which should be raised by preservation advocates and create awareness in the general public so that the city administration give equal attention for the designation and protection of historical structures and to new developments. Transformation is good and to be encouraged. However, there should be certain things that we wouldn’t want to change such as, old heritages, thus our identity.

[1] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Addis Ababa, (accessed May 16, 2017)

https: //en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addis_Ababa

[2] Ibid

[3] Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia. “Census 2007, preliminary (pdf-file)”