Ethiopian Business Review

Redevelopment activities damaging historical heritages in Addis Ababa

The rapid redevelopment undertakings of the city of Addis Ababa have caused many to question the steps being taken to preserve cultural heritage sites. The recent demolition of Ras Abebe Aregai’s residences near Adwa Bridge and many others heritages wiped out from the city’s new map are only some of the demonstration for the extent of damage.  EBR’s Menna Asrat investigates how the city administration plans to preserve Addis Ababa’s architectural and historical stories.

Due to massive redevelopment works, Addis Ababa is displaying feats of construction that are bringing the city into the 21st century. Even though this facelift is appreciated, the fate of cultural and historical heritage sites remains murky. 

Addis Ababa has a history that spans from 1886, when it was chosen as the capital of Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik II. During its 132 years, the city has been a microcosm of Ethiopia’s extensive story, narrating the identity and footprint of its society. Some cultural heritages such as Taytu Hotel and the Old Post Office, which recite the society’s march to modernization, have been preserved well. Indeed, 440 cultural heritages are recognized in the city. 200 of them are buildings, including the residences of Ethiopia’s heroes while the rest are parks, monuments, churches and museums.

Other tangible heritages, however, have been totally wiped off the city’s new map. Two such buildings are the two residences of the late Ras Abebe Aregai that were located short distance from each other near Adwa Bridge, in Yeka District. Despite being designated by local authorities as cultural sites, both were demolished only weeks apart in January and February 2018. Residences made of worked stone with wooden gables and balconies, that belonged to well known figures like Qanyazmach Belihu Degefu (popularly known as Shaka) also faced similar ends while the residence of Afe Negusse Nesibu as well as the Palace of Sheki Hogele are on the brink of destruction. 

This is happening amidst the pressing search for values and meaning in Ethiopia. In spite of their artistic and aesthetic values, these heritages have broad meanings, in terms of the values people draw from them and the functions they serve for society. 

Putting aside the physical aspects of heritages, for instance, the residences of Ras Abebe, a military commander known for leading the resistance of patriots launched against the Italian forces in 1930s in the absence of Emperor Haile Selassie I who escorted the Emperor back into Addis Ababa when he returned in May 1941, could have been a reminder of the way people behaved and organized themselves at a time when the country faced an external threat. Ras Abebe’s role as governor of various regions including Addis Ababa and Tigray, as well as his service in different positions, including Minister of War, the Interior, and as Prime Minister ascribed value to the heritage, which was worth preserving. 

However, in a city that has a history as varied as Addis Ababa, where many versions of the list of heritages have been made, their preservation doesn’t (and cannot) follow a one-size-fits-all formula.

Worku Mengesha, Communications Affairs Support Work Process leader at Addis Ababa Bureau of Culture and Tourism explained that although demolition is the absolute last resort, sometimes, these sites unfortunately have to be demolished.

 “There are criteria that have to be fulfilled,” Worku said. “For example, if the house is past the point of renovation, or if there is more than one of its type, or if it is decided that the location will better serve the city after redevelopment, even a building fulfilling all the criteria for preservation may be allowed to be torn down.”

The Addis Ababa Bureau of Culture and Tourism is responsible for maintaining and renovating the city’s heritages, as well as keeping a record of them. According to Worku, for a site to be designated as a cultural heritage, it has to fulfil certain requirements.  

The first consideration is the era the heritage was built.  A building would have to be 100 years old or older in order to be included in the list. 

Scholars classify the history of Addis Ababa into pre-Italian, Italian and post-Italian periods. Most of Addis Ababa’s tangible heritages that came into being during the pre-Italian period fulfill this criterion. But, those heritages that were built during the Italian and post-Italian periods also have their own virtues. Due to this fact, Worku says age is only the first factor, but by no means the most important. “Even if it is not 100 years old, if the other criteria are fulfilled, it can still be designated a heritage site,” he added.

The second criterion is the materials that were used to build it.  “These buildings can show the history of building construction in the city,” said Worku. “It ties in to the third point that we look at, which is the design and the architecture of the building, whether it is a good example of that time’s aesthetic, or it is something beautiful or innovative.” 

The final criterion is who the house belongs to, or what the house represents in Ethiopian history. 

The city’s rapid development has seen the demolition of many of the older ‘slum’ areas of the city. However, as useful as this is for the city’s development, scholars indicate that little room is given to heritage preservation.  

Fasil Giorghis, an architect with extensive experience in the area, is one of the scholars who emphasize that due attention has not been paid to preserving the things that matter the most, although the development of Addis Ababa is encouraging. “Urban preservation is getting more and more attention. However, the mechanisms and the expertise are not there yet,” stressed Fasil. As the development of the city goes forward, Fasil explainsedthere is a risk of demolishing places of real historical and architectural value. “Urban preservation is about maintaining and taking care of the parts of a city that show the evolution it has come through. In foreign countries, you see whole districts of historical architecture. Ethiopia started relatively late on urban development, so we should take other countries’ practices into account.” 

Worku say the preservation of historical areas and buildings will keep going strong in the future. “Instances of accidental or purposeful demolition of historical sites are punished through the available legal framework.”

In the past, Ethiopia has stipulated various proclamations in order to support the preservation efforts. However, they have their own shortcomings in terms of stating how and why these cultural heritages must be protected and transferred to succeeding generations. Presently, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage is also making effort to prepare a new cultural heritage preservation and standardization bill. The new bill is expected to provide a solution for various preservation activities that are complex to enforce. 

There is also a system that allows the public to submit suggestions for places that should added to the protected list. “We encourage members of the public to point out cultural heritages that they know of that have historical value. The Bureau will then investigate and if the buildings have merit, they are added to the list,” explained Worku, “The ongoing registration of historical sites will expand and the existing list will be revised constantly.”

Although a lot of damage has been done stakeholders stress that the time is not past to amplify the role cultural heritages play, which is crucial for building a shared national identity, reconciliation, tolerance and sustainable development. The virtue of a given city is not measured by the number of buildings it has, as the saying goes. Rather, it is measured by the happiness of its residents.

6th Year . April 16  - May 15 2018 . No.60



Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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