Making Addis Ababa the City of African Culture and the Arts



A new spacious and ultra-modern public library, known as ‘Abrehot’, was recently opened in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa which embraces elements of Ethiopian cultural and linguistic histories as well as African heritages, giving the entire place the allure of both a museum and a convenient place for reading and doing research in African arts and culture as well as in other fields of knowledge.

By the way, Addis Ababa was given the most prestigious accolade as the “diplomatic capital of Africa” as a gesture of recognition for the long struggles Ethiopia waged for the liberation of Africa from colonialism. Ethiopia owes this honor because of the battles it fought and the victories it scored as the first African country to escape colonial rule and protect its independence in the era of colonialism known as the Scramble for Africa.

Less known or rarely appreciated is Ethiopia’s role in Africa’s cultural and anthropological contributions to world history. Ethiopia is home to an ancient and original culture as well as “The Land of Origins” i.e. the place where the first human being appeared. These two factors are enough to entitle Ethiopia to a leading position in Africa’s quest for cultural and artistic renaissance.

Long before colonialism was born of European imperialism, Ethiopia was home to a great and original civilization: Axum, Christianity and Islam, being one of the 18 African countries to have a written alphabet, the great churches and cathedrals, the palaces of kings and emperors,…combined to make Ethiopia a great African civilization.

Addis Ababa is no doubt one of the fastest growing African metropolises, judging from the reconstruction and expansion of the capital that rose from a small village of a few thatched huts to be adorned with the state-of –the -art high rises culminating in the recent inauguration of the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE). History, modern architecture and science combine to produce what is considered the highest rising modern structure in East Africa.

The CBE HQ is symbolic in the sense that it came into being at a time when Africa and Ethiopia are rising from the depths of poverty and claiming their rightful place in the world. The aluminum and glass structure rising to the heavens from one of the business districts of Addis Ababa is also symbolic in a second sense: it foretells the future of the capital whose skylines are changing so fast that most Ethiopians from the diaspora who recently returned to their Motherland for the historic visit were baffled by the deep changes that they saw in the face of Adds, not wrinkles but rejuvenating signs and vigorous activities.

As we recently celebrated the 126 anniversary of the victory of Adwa, our thoughts inevitable go back to the times when the Ethiopian capital was founded by emperor Menelik and his consort empress Taitu who found a permanent seat for their government, leaving behind Ankober, travelling down the Entoto hills and temporarily settling on top of the escarpment where their old palace is now located and found a revival and renovation under the current Ethiopian government. The story of the founding of Addis could itself be the subject of a long fictional or non-fiction work. In a way, Addis Ababa is waiting the writers who would chronicle its many impressive lives and put them between the covers of books that will be handed down to eternity.

Addis Ababa was not only first imagined by the royal couple and saw its rise under their close supervision. It was also from Addis Ababa that the Ethiopian armies started their long journey of over 1000 km from Addis Ababa to reach Adwa where they fought the Italians and saw victory and returned triumphantly afterwards. The Ethiopian army that fought beneath the hills of Adwa came from all over the country, irrespective of ethnicity, languages, cultures and religions.

Although it is seldom mentioned, the Menelik’s army was an assortment of peasants, commoners as well as aristocrats who fought shoulder to shoulder irrespective of their family backgrounds and their social status. In fact, the army was the prototype of the modern Ethiopian forces who fought the Italians not only during the second anti-Italian war but also provided the model for the present day army that it composed of recruits from all over the country. The main contingents of the Menelik army left Addis Ababa and traveled to the north for months before they faced the invaders in the first asymmetrical military confrontation between, a European power and a traditional African army that was just born in what was then considered by colonialists as the “Dark Continent”.

Addis Ababa has indeed everything it takes to be a candidate for a modern capital city. It has new parks, broad avenues, amazing buildings, the largest market in Africa, the most amazing museums where the remains of the first human ancestor is kept, a Disney-like amusement park in its northern flanks, cathedrals, some of the best hotels on the continent and so on. When the capital of Ethiopia moved from the north to the center, at the beginning of the 20th century, it moved with the history of the country: the Axumite civilization, the wonderful structures of Lalibela and all the nitty-gritty of what makes a capital a true embodiment of history, tradition, modernity and progress.

Addis Ababa had also its darkest days under the 1936 Italian invasion and occupation, when a bomb attack against fascist leader Graziani led to the massacre of thousands of residents of the capital in a monstrous genocidal act that was never fully reported or analyzed. It was from the present Addis Ababa University compounds that the young patriots who led the attack fled to the north of the country to join the patriots who had earlier left for the bush. This historic event is annually observed as Patriots’ Day.

Addis Ababa has also witnessed political upheavals such as the 1974 Revolution, the failed military coup against the emperor earlier in 1953. It saw military rule and the bloody period known as red versus white terror in which the best and brightest of an entire generation lost their lives or languished in prisons. It went through student and workers riots and military mutinies that failed and cost the city and the nation so much that their reverberations are still felt everywhere.

Addis Ababa was also rocked by street demonstrations and bloody confrontations between supporters of various political parties during one of the bloodiest episodes in its history following the 2005 elections. It was also the city where the ideas of revolution and reform flourished and resulted in the current political transformations that proved quite bumpy but tenacious.

It is no wonder that Addis was chosen to become the political or diplomatic capital of Africa. This was not an accidental decision but a well-thought out plan to make Ethiopia and Addis Ababa representatives of the entire continent. Since the rise and fall of the Axumite civilization in Ethiopia’s north starting from the 4th century, no capital has found permanent seat or played sucha decisive political, economic and diplomatic roles as Addis Ababa did since its founding under Menelik. This is no exaggeration but a fact of history. The difference between Axum and Addis Ababa as the embryonic representation of the country, may be that the former was original, broader in reach and insight while the latter is far more limited in space, yet more modern with a great deal of foreign influences.

According to historian Adejumbi, who wrote a book about Ethiopia, a brief overview of Ethiopia’s ancient history would suggest that, “the Christian religion and the Ge’ez language—the language of the church— became the vehicles through which Abyssinian culture was spread to conquered peoples towards the southern region, the center of the plateau where a fusion of Aksumite and Cushite population resided and also the large population of Agaw-speaking people. The society that emerged was commonly referred to as Abyssinian. Ge’ez, the precursor of Ethiopia’s three major Semitic languages and the liturgical language of the church, as earlier indicated is no longer in popular use. The relation of Ge’ez to the Amharic, the modern lingua franca, is rather like that of Latin’s relation to Romance languages.”

Axum was also the cultural and artistic capital of the then reigning Ethiopian kingdom that extended from Axum and stretched well beyond the Red Sea and into Arabia. The artistic and cultural relics of the period are living testimonies of Ethiopia’s grandeur and originality. This was he time when Europeans were living caves, American was not discovered and the rest of the world was largely unknown.

Axum in its time was also the artistic capital of the world as we know it now with the art crafts that speak volumes about the time. Ethiopian author Paulos Milkias writes that, “Archeological finds, monuments, and some short inscriptions dating from the fifth or the sixth century B.C. have shown a succession of civilizations existing in northern Ethiopia even before the rise of the famous Aksumite civilization. Yeha in northern Tigre and Matara are examples of the several important sites where monuments, inscriptions, pottery, and bronze tools have been found. The craftworks of Yeha, like that of Aksum, and other historical cultural features of ancient Ethiopia, such as the monolithic churches of Lalibela and the castles of Gondar, were all works of local craftsmen.”

Without forgetting that Ethiopia is home to the first human being, the combination of anthropology and historiography give the country the right to portray itself as the origin of both a new civilization and a new human species. This in turn gives it the right to be the right to claim the mantle of African center of ancient culture, arts and the first human being represented by Lucy or Dinkinesh.

Addis Ababa is not only the political capital of Africa. It is also home to many international organization and serves as headquarter to the African Union and many United Nations agencies. What it is lacking thus far is the status and honor of serving as the cultural and artistic center of Africa. This may be the time for the Ethiopian capital to start hosting the headquarters of the “All African Cultural and Artistic Center” where all African countries would come together and work for the African cultural renaissance in a systematic way so that they would at the same time speed up the process of uniting the continent into a single political and economic entity. The All African Cultural Center can in this sense serve not only as a catalyst for articulating an African vision of its common future, but also as one of the most precious gifts that the present generation would handed down to coming generations.

The March 5/2022

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