Preserving the old tracks in the New Flower
One of the most striking things about Addis Ababa is the beauty of its original architecture. Often hidden behind high walls, wedged between ugly modern multi-storey buildings or lost among tall trees, the city is dotted with elegant one and two-storey structures usually made from wood and stone whose design bears witness to the skill of the builders as well as to their various origins. Indians, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Arabs, French, Russians, Britons and Germans have all left their mark on the city established by Emperor Menelik in the 1880s. Indians and Armenians in particular had a strong influence on the construction and development of the new capital, working as builders, engineers, carpenters and craftsmen for the emperor and his noblemen. Their legacy can be seen in the finer details of construction: the use of cut stones, round arches and pyramidal domes for the Armenians, and of thick external walls, two-tier roofs, roof finials and decorations on the eaves for the Indians, for example.
Over 130 of these buildings are documented in "Old tracks in the New Flower", a guide in English to Addis Ababa (meaning "New Flower" in Amharic) from the time of its foundation in 1886 to the start of the Italian occupation in 1936 by Milena Batistoni, an Italian teacher who has lived in the Ethiopian capital since 1991, and Gian Paolo Chiari, an expert on land tenure in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia and who is also based in Addis Ababa. Organised as a series of itineraries following the seven major routes that once linked the imperial Ghebbi, or compound, to the rest of the city, it is the only written document attesting to the historical value of the old city centre as there is no official register of its buildings.
"The book began life in 1993-94 out of curiosity and as a form of entertainment," explains Batistoni during a free half-hour before presenting the guide at the Italian Geographical Society in Rome. "Gian Paolo and I would be walking around the city and we would notice old buildings hidden away behind enclosing walls and fences; and we soon found that there was no information available about them," she continues. "So we started asking around among the local population and taking photographs; before long we had accumulated a mass of information." Many of the buildings in question had been used to house numerous families under the Dergue military regime (1974-1991); little attention had been paid to the structures and they were in a poor state of repair.
Meanwhile, the prevailing cultural climate in Ethiopia had changed; Batistoni explained that residents were now more accepting of foreigners, while the state was keen to help the Italians in their research. "Soon it became a full-blown task," she goes on. The authors used a variety of sources in order to reconstruct the history of the buildings, including travelogues written by visiting foreign dignitaries and oral testimonies, particularly from surviving members of the original Armenian and Indian communities in Addis Ababa. "Many of these people have since died," says Batistoni. "Had we not spoken to them when we did their knowledge about these buildings would have been lost forever."
The authors decided to end their research in 2004 when the city council began to implement a new town plan involving the radical transformation of Addis Ababa on a western model, with open spaces being filled in, old buildings being demolished and new ones taking their place. Indeed, some of the structures documented by Batistoni and Chiari in "Old tracks in the New Flower" no longer exist. Batistoni says their destruction is partly due to a lack of awareness on the part of the owners and also to a conflict between different competent authorities, with the result that the situation got out of control.
At the same time, the authors also decided to establish their own publishing company, Arada Books, to produce their work. "Dealing with the necessary bureaucracy was easy," says Batistoni. "The problems were of a technical nature: getting hold of paper to print on, for example. We had to make do with what was on the local market at the time. Also, the quality of printing here is low." Indeed, the book with its glaring white pages - 192 in total - and poor black and white photographs is reminiscent of the kind of publication that might have come off the press in Europe two or three decades ago. However, Batistoni insists that the guide was printed and bound in Ethiopia by choice: "The idea was to promote local industry while at the same time stimulating a demand for a higher quality in printing," she explains.
Since publication in 2004 there has been a growth in awareness about the historical and artistic value of the city's oldest buildings, which Batistoni attributes partly to the book itself. "The guide has empowered several associations to intervene with plans to restore the historic centre," she says. One of these is Addis Woubet, a non-governmental organisation that is using private money to restore a number of buildings in Piazza (pronounced Piassa), the old market area and now the commercial heart of Addis Ababa. "Furthermore, after presenting the book to the city council we even managed to prevent some buildings from being pulled down," adds Batistoni, her eyes shining with satisfaction.
And where did the inspiration for all this come from? "When I started teaching in Addis Ababa I made a point of studying Ethiopian history," she answers. "I soon realised that Addis Ababa has a lot to say as an African city. It is the only city in Africa that was not built by a European power, and this is testified through its buildings."
However, her curiosity does not end there. In Italy on a teaching assignment until June, Batistoni will then return to Ethiopia where she plans to resume her research and publishing activities with the aim of promoting the countrys vast artistic, architectural and literary patrimony. She and Chiari have already started work on another research project involving the rock-hewn churches in Tigray, which could well become the subject of their next book.
For information see www.aradabooks.com