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Visualising Ethiopia’s airports from past to present by Joanne Tomlinson

Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport, located in capital Addis Ababa, has been markedly expanded in the last few years. It is now home to the largest airport cargo hub in Africa.

The new passenger terminal, inaugurated in 2019, has tripled the airport’s capacity from 7 to 22 million passengers, making it the second biggest airport (by capacity) on the continent.

These major milestones in the airport’s history are closely tied to the ambitious expansion plans of the country’s flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, now the largest and most profitable airline on the continent. But the country’s airport buildings not only illuminate the fortunes of the national airline; they also provide an interesting insight into both state-building efforts and international relations at different points in twentieth century Ethiopian history.

A look at some of images representing the history of aviation and airports in the country offers fascinating insights into these dynamics.

The first aircraft arrived in the country in 1929. Given the dearth of suitable landing places at this time, the plane landed on an improvised landing strip 20km northwest of Addis Ababa city centre. By the next flight, a few weeks later, the capital’s racecourse became the imperial capital’s airfield, and remained so until the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936.

The photograph below captures the scene of the first landing.

Regent Haile Selassie speaking with foreign observers to the country’s first flight (1929)

Then-regent Haile Selassie is seen here commanding the attention and deference of the scene’s foreign observers, one of whom later described the event as testament to the ‘progressive spirit and initiative [that] had caused this momentous step in the modernisation of Ethiopia’. The significance of the landing was such that it was later rendered into artistic form in a work by Hailu Woldeyes, an Ethiopian artist working in what some have called the antika art tradition (a branch of Ethiopian art which first in the late nineteenth involving the production of artwork for primarily commercial rather than religious purposes).

This painting also places Haile Selassie at the centre of the scene’s attention. Indeed, in-keeping with the deferential style of artistic works of the period, it is the future emperor, rather than the aircraft, that forms the main object of the spectacle, including from the (presumably foreign) photographer.

Painting of the first aeroplane landing in Addis Ababa, by Hailu Woldeyes (1935)

© Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt/Main

These images point to how intertwined the introduction of air travel and Haile Selassie’s (selectively) modernising rule would ultimately prove to be. Indeed, the introduction of aviation into Ethiopia provided Emperor Haile Selassie with new tools to both deepen domestic integration and the country’s international integration.

In 1945, in line with the now-emperor’s ambitious modernisation agenda following his return to the country following the Italian occupation between 1936-1941, a new state-owned national airline, Ethiopian Air Lines (now Ethiopian Airlines) was formed – in partnership with America’s Trans World Airline (TWA). In contrast to many African countries, where the first airlines were established by colonial administrations, Ethiopian Airlines was established at the urging of the country’s imperial administration.

By the mid-1950s Addis was connected to every regional centre of the country, as well as several international destinations such as Athens, Cairo and Khartoum. The airline thus quickly became a critical tool to connect the imperial capital both internationally and domestically, and to bear the Ethiopian flag beyond national borders. According to one imperial bureaucrat, in many isolated rural parts of the country the aeroplane arrived well before either roads or motor vehicles.

For the first decade and a half the airline operated out of an airfield at Lideta in the capital, which had been established during the Italian occupation. However, by the 1960s, the airline’s expansion required a new home to accommodate Ethiopia’s entrance into the jet age. The country’s new cutting-edge airport, located at the present site of Bole, is captured on the 1966 issue of the 5 Ethiopian dollar (or birr) banknote and depicted below.

Ethiopian five dollar (birr) bank note, 1966

The appearance of the airport on one of the country’s smallest denomination bank notes reflects the emperor’s use of Ethiopia’s national currency to project nationalist imagery, here centred around ideas of modernity and progress. Other bank notes from this period included other notable works of infrastructural and architectural progress, including the port at Massawa, the Koka dam, and the new National Bank building. Haile Selassie was also often photographed outside the new airport with foreign dignitaries in this period.

The timing of the construction of the new airport also proved to be highly significant in helping to cement Ethiopia’s role as a continental diplomatic hub. It was inaugurated in 1962, and a year later African leaders met in Addis to form the Organisation of African Unity, entering in many cases through the new airport.

Advertising for Ethiopian Airlines has long emphasised the role played by Addis as force for fostering new air links between African countries, as this luggage label highlights.

Luggage label for Ethiopian Airlines (undated)

Source: boacmarque

As historian Bahru Zewde points out, these pan-African routes, which emerged at a time when many African countries were gaining independence, made an important break with the past patterns of aviation within Africa, which to date had instead connected African cities to European colonial centres, rather than forging connections between territories on the continent. The following advert from shortly after the new airport had been constructed highlights that the airline’s routes were then largely within Africa, rather than outside the continent.

Advert for Ethiopian Airlines, circa 1963

Source: Adscetera

Today Bole airport, which remains dominated by Ethiopian Airlines, plays an increasingly significant role in the continent. As the image below shows, Addis is now connected to nearly 60 cities in other African countries, helping to connect African countries together through Addis Ababa, as well turning Addis into a gateway into Africa from the Middle East and Asia.

Ethiopian Airlines routemap, 2016-2017

The newly expanded Bole International airport therefore highlights the ways that Ethiopia is seeking to capitalise on the continent’s growing interest for foreign investment from Asia, including China.

As the image below from the inauguration shows, the new terminal’s design, whilst evoking the aerodynamics of flight through the expansive wing-like external canopy, has little to distinguish it at first look from the generic character of many other contemporary airports.

Source: @Zemedeneh via Twitter

Airport design has become incredibly standardised due to a variety of forces. In the 1960s airports were considered the equivalents of train stations with the singular purpose of moving (relatively small numbers of) people from the air to ground as swiftly as possible.

Yet as their functions have expanded, airport design has shifted. Most airports now obtain more revenue from the commercial services operating within them such as shops and restaurants, parking and other activities, than directly from airlines. At the same time, in step with the rapid increase in global flows of goods, people and information, passenger numbers have massively expanded. This means that whilst some airport architecture retains sufficient distinctiveness to be considered a visually striking expression of national pride, many others have embraced a ‘generic mega-mall look’.

The inside of the Chinese financed and constructed new Bole terminal reflects such standardised design motifs, and the effect is one of a global space, disconnected from its cultural or historic specificities, bar the flooring design which bears some subtle echoes of the geometric designs found in Ethiopian textiles.

Source: @fanatelevision via Twitter

This embrace of generic global airport design is in keeping with the country’s increasingly significant global position as a conduit for flows of goods and people.

Indeed, through the efforts to carve out a new continental position through Bole’s expansion, the airport structure continues to embody both national state building ambitions and the wider continent’s shifting international relations.


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