by Atnatewos Melake-Selam, Daniel Mulugeta, Joanne Tomkinson and Julia Gallagher
The story of Ethiopia’s state has been told through buildings for centuries.
One part of the story comes through its ancient monuments, churches and palaces. Here, the emphasis has often been on patterns of continuity: these underline how state authority is built on an uninterrupted lineage of leadership and Ethiopian identity.
But another part is a strong theme of disruption: the overthrow of ideas and regimes and the importation of new ideas and methods – often from abroad.
Last year a new light was shed on this in the brand new Unity Park where Addis Ababa’s imperial palaces have been opened to the public for the first time. Tracing the history of the last 100 years, from the time of Menelik II, one of Ethiopia’s great modernisers, and through two revolutions, the buildings At Unity Park describe Ethiopia’s dramatic political changes.
In this article we discuss how the Ethiopian state is manifest through buildings and pick out some of the architectural continuities and disruptions that go into describing its evolution.
Ethiopia’s ancient buildings – including the obelisks at Aksum, the stone churches at Lalibela and the royal palaces at Gondar – have long been treated as powerful material statements of country and state. They are used in both elite and popular discourses as a way to describe and define the country.
Aksum – originally the site of a powerful pre-Christian civilisation – remained the political and religious power base after Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century. Even as subsequent regimes established power centres further south, their kings, rulers of the land and protectors of the faith, returned to Aksum to be anointed.
Aksum’s obelisks and ancient royal palaces (one said to be the palace of Queen Sheba) represent the founding of the Ethiopian state and their visual elements have been used ever since to stress the political, religious and historical authority of subsequent rulers.
Symmetry, geometric formations and small towers drawn from Aksum and Lalibela echo through Gondar’s castles.
The account of Ethiopia’s state as rooted in the church is not just an elite narrative but popularly reproduced. The Lalibela churches in particular reinforce the narrative: built by a saint-king, they bring together the physical, the spiritual and the political, symbolically embodying Ethiopia as a chosen country, and revered as a site of holy pilgrimage by thousands of Ethiopians.
Lalibela’s churches do not dominate the skyline. Unlike the Aksumite obelisks, they make the observer look and travel down. Enclosed underground by earth, passages into and around them are marked by the experience of descending into the earth and walking through a subterranean maze of intersecting alleys and tunnels, infused with symbolism and cosmological allusions to heaven and hell.
At Gondar, the architecture is more monumental – a more explicit expression of political power. And yet the religious characteristics of the state are here too: the baptism pond and a number of significant churches are considered to be at least as important as the palaces – more perhaps as they are functioning buildings rather than museum pieces.
The narrative continues into the modern era, in commercial as well as government buildings. For example, the Aksum obelisk design was used in the Hilton Addis built in the 1950s, and in government administrative buildings endorsed by the military regime such as the Coffee & Tea Enterprise Building.
Even the EPRDF, which often sought to undermine continuities, supported them by incorporating historical motifs into state buildings – notably in local airports at Gondar, Lalibela and Aksum.
Yet Ethiopia’s architectural history is also one of change – not least because of the way the country opened itself to foreign ideas and methods. The Gondarian palaces (which drew on Portuguese expertise) as well as Menelik II’s Addis structures are examples of innovation and disruption as well as continuity.
In 2019 a new set of insights into the history of state-building and architecture in Ethiopia was revealed in the Unity Park complex in Addis Ababa.
The complex itself embodies a significant transformation in the relationship between the buildings of state and the population, with a compound historically shrouded in deep secrecy now open to the public.
Inside the complex, the official narrative strongly emphasises the continuities of state-building, as this quote from a display board reveals:
Though the history of modern Ethiopian began in 1855, the effort to build a modern state in a thoughtful manner started during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. All Ethiopian leaders who have administered the country since then have contributed to the creation of a modern state and political system. This palace has been serving as a principal centre of their administration.
But beyond the use by different regimes of the same physical site, on a high point of the city enjoying panoramic views across the capital below, the complex reveals the layering and repurposing of the space by the imperial, socialist and market-economy regimes that have all occupied the site during the last century.
The delicacy of Menelik’s own palace, for instance, which was constructed with technical assistance from architects and builders from south-east Asia, particularly Pakistan, embodies significant shifts away from the heavy footprint and grand imposing stature of older buildings discussed above. Using wood, rather than stone, the building seems to reinvent the idea of an Ethiopian imperial palace as an altogether more internationalist affair, in line with Menelik’s modernising vision and embrace of foreign experts.
The use of buildings within the compound for great state banquets under the country’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, reflects the continuities of the imperial order, as well as his deliberate and extravagant incorporation of decorative embellishments drawn from European palaces. Observing these rooms, one is left with an impression of imperial decadence which speaks to the popular rebellion which saw him unseated in the wake of a devastating famine.
The building people are invited to wander around to represent the transition to a socialist-militarist regime, in contrast, reflects an altogether different use. The cellars of the throne room were, under the Derg, dedicated to a prison for political opponents. This reveals a transformed function for Ethiopia’s subterranean state buildings, in contrast with those at Lalibela, which rather than seeking to invoke the depth and mystery of the state, uses depth to instil terror and fear.
The contemporary reimagining of the site, through the design of the park itself, reveals a further significant shift in the use of the built environment for the consolidation of regime power. The stress on ‘unity’ in the name, combined with the representative use of architectural tropes from the country’s ethnically defined regions, reflects an evident desire to achieve inclusivity through architecture.
Meanwhile, the landscaping of the Unity Park complex, in a city decidedly short of green spaces, signals the compound being offered to the public into a place of contemporary leisure as well as a bridge between the Ethiopian past and present, which reflects a particularly twenty-first century vision of modernisation and statehood.
Photographs by Julia Gallagher, Joanne Tomkinson and Atnatewos Melake-Selam