A New Year in Ethiopia and an old house in the New Flower


The new year begins today in Ethiopia: 2011 in the Julian calendar. 


Also commemorated today is a gift of jewels to the mythical Queen of Sheba by her people when, pregnant by King Solomon with Menelik I, she returned to her homeland.  She had distributed everything she owned when abroad.



It was Menelik II, 1844-1913, the founder of modern Ethiopia who also founded the city.  1886. Late in the worldwide history of cities.


His influential wife, Taitu Betul, moved down from Menelik’s camp in the Entoto mountains high up in the East African Rift Valley to the Filwoha plains where thermal baths are still in use today. 



The empress Taitu Betul, (c. 1851-1918), 1904/05. 

Georgios Prokopiou, 1876-1940, Greek.  Court painter to Menelik II


Not, certainly, that cities were unknown to the peoples who lived in what is now Ethiopia: 


Aksum in the first century of the common era with its Sabean obelisks; and some with sqeuormorphic designs of wooden logs executed in stone.




Photo from Georg Gerster’s Äthiopien, Das Dach Afrikas, 1974. 

An Ethiopian Orthodox hermit addressing crowds on the occasion of a religious festival.



Harar, a city of the Moslem presence in Ethiopia since the 12th century.  Said to be the fifth most important city of Islam.


Lalibela the magnificent, a city of the Zagwe dynasty.




Lalibella (from ‘The Journey’ series), 2001.  Flashe paint on watercolour paper, acrylic and gold leaf.

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

An interpretation of both the rock hewn churches of Lalibela and of the Lalibela cross



Lalibella Cross-1 The Lalibela cross

At least one Ethiopian academic has interpreted the incorporation of bird and wing designs into the crosses of Lalibela as a designation of spirituality.


Gondar, the city of my mother’s father.  A superb natural environment surmounted by castles of historical mystery.




Photo taken from the net and of unknown provenance




But it is Addis Ababa which sits in the unofficially calculated geographical center of the country:  heart place.  Addis Ababa has tentacled its way down the mountain since her foundation and lies now spread into many of the valleys and plains below.



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Stamps issued in 1956 commemorating the 70th anniversary of the city’s founding 




Prophecy – from the tradition of the Christian princes  – accompanied the founding of Addis Ababa.  The city was sited where Christian kings had already ruled. 


The city is in the territory of the Oromo, my father’s people. 

All rivers, tributaries and natural formations have Oromo names, some of these now submerged under Amharic ones.  There have been significant political disturbances about the continuing appropriation of Oromo land by the encroaching city.


The time is coming for the study of Oromo prophetic traditions – which I have no doubt also existed and exist – for this siting of the capital city.


There is no Ethiopia without prophecy, divination, foretelling and the blessings of its peoples. 

A yellow-garbed Ethiopian Orthodox hermit in Axum, above, carries with him the duty of meditation, mediation, prophecy, prayer, blessing, warning and explanation.


Ethiopia is not in a position to prioritize the preservation of architecture over her development goals for her people.


Many of the old buildings in Addis Ababa have fallen into ruin.  Several public buildings remain.  Relatively few private dwellings. 


And one a house in which I would like to live.




‘Mussie’ Fassika’s house. 

A photograph included in The City & Its Architectural Heritage, Addis Ababa 1886-1941, by Fasil Giorghis and Denis Gerard, published in 2007 with the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Built for a man called ‘Mussie’ Fassika.  I know nothing more about him except that he does not seem to have a title. It is possible, then, that he was a merchant.






Watercolour of ‘Mussie’ Fassika’s house. 

Fasil Giorghis, Ethiopian architect, 1993.


On a foundation of stone, its ground floor of packed mud and its walls of wattle and daub-plastered onto wooden frame walls.  Wooden beams and joists carry the cupola. The walls painted with a limestone wash.





Detail of a watercolour of ‘Mussie’ Fassika’s house. 

Fasil Giorghis, Ethiopian architect, 1993.



Its roof of tin.

It is my understanding that the small-paneled glasswork of its main entrance door is a feature of some domestic Indian architecture and was brought into the country by Indian engineers and architects who came during the early years of the city.


The cupola of my coveted house, the architect Fasil Giorghis told me, is the work of  Armenians. 





Detail of a watercolour of ‘Mussie’ Fassika’s house. 

Fasil Giorghis, Ethiopian architect, 1993.




Armenians began to enter the country with the foundation of Addis Ababa and their numbers increased with the Armenian genocide in the last years of the nineteenth century and continued into the new century with continuing pogroms against them.


The house is surrounded by the fast-growing, but very thirsty, eucalyptus trees which Menelik II imported from Australia.






A larger house built on the same principles on a commercial street in Addis Ababa, 2015



The fragrance of eucalyptus was everywhere in my childhood in Addis Ababa and has lessened with the growth of the city and fears for its water table.  I carry always its essential oil and it restores my mother to me bending over a steaming bowl of eucalyptus leaves as balm for congested throat and lungs.



Cupolas, one room-sized, on old houses in the old city, 2012


The Armenians also brought the skills of filigree gold work. 




A neck ornament of 18 karat Ethiopian gold made in lost wax and ornamented with filigree work.  An old design still extant.



Until the importation of filigree work, gold and silver jewellery was made using primarily the lost wax method.




An Axumite wearing filligree gold work and the white, embroidered cotton of the national dress of Ethiopia’s northern peoples.

  She is celebrating the re-installation of a Sabean obelisk in Axum under UNESCO aegis in July 2008.  The obelisk had been removed by Mussolini’s troops and taken to Rome in 1937 and was the subject of reparation agreements between Italy and Ethiopia in 1951.  

Photo from UNESCO publication:  World Heritage No. 51 (UNESCO/Paola Viesi)






The empress Taitu Betul in late life wearing a crown, possibly silver, made up in part of circular disks of filigree work.  Photo of unknown provenance.




Menelik II and his empress would be impressed with the growth of their city, a few thousand in their time, a half million in my childhood and now approaching three million souls. 


The astute monarch would have been equally impressed by the country’s moves towards democratic processes as a preventative of civil war; with the return of political exiles and peace with Eritrea whose  people are the blood kin of Ethiopians.

A return gift of jewels this time from the Ethiopian government to her people.  Another new year.


Accompanied, as always, by blessing in a country most of whose boundaries (not Somalia, not Eritrea which have remained flashpoints) are Menelik’s.  It is Menelik’s borders which have held: established by war and negotiation.

With Addis Ababa as its capital.




Under rain, the equestrian statue of Menelik II placed in 1930 to celebrate his victory over Italian invaders at the Battle of Adowa, March 1, 1896.




3 thoughts on “A New Year in Ethiopia and an old house in the New Flower

  1. This was fascinating and much that was beautiful. I especially liked Lalibella!

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