The article explores how Ethiopia’s state history is told through buildings.
It discusses the ways ancient architecture describes key moments in an apparently pre-destined unfolding of the state; and how Ethiopian people read their history through ancient and modern buildings today.
Titled, ‘The histories buildings tell: aesthetic and popular readings of state meaning in Ethiopia’, the article is published by the Journal of Eastern African Studies and is available as a free download.
It was written by ASA team-members Julia Gallagher, Daniel Mulugeta and Jo Tomkinson, working with Ethiopian architect Atnatewos Melake-Selam, after a tour of some of Ethiopia’s iconic historic architecture.
You can read about the background to the article in our blog.
In this article, we attempt to understand the persistence of the ‘great tradition’ in describing what the state means to Ethiopians. We do this by examining stories about history, told by and about Ethiopia’s architecture. Within these stories we find two ideas in apparent tension. One is an attachment to state history as exceptional, unified and ordained by God. This is told through architectural continuities reaching back to the pre-Christian Aksumite aesthetic that continuously underwrites the notion of a teleological progression of the state; and in current nostalgia for the assertive certainty of exceptionalism expressed in ancient architecture. The other is an acknowledgement of hybridity and disruption. This is expressed in innovative architectural aesthetics and techniques; and in the ways that state buildings have been made to carry the marks of dramatically different types of regime, particularly in the last 50 years. Drawing on the sem-ena-werq (ሰም እና ወርቅ or ‘wax and gold’) tradition we show how these stories-in-tension describe ambiguities within the great tradition, a story of confidence and exceptionalism, but also one that is disturbed and shaped by rupture and compromise.