African Landmark Lost

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Courtesy David Rifkind

The morning of January 12 brought the tragic news from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, that a fire destroyed the Itegue Taitu Hotel over the weekend. The significance of the building in the history of modern Ethiopia cannot be overstated; it was one of a series of significant structures commissioned by the Empress Taitu that established the global stature of Addis Ababa, the city she founded with her husband, Emperor Menelik II. If Menelik’s expansionist military campaigns in Harar, Galla, Sidama and Kaffa established the boundaries of the modern state, it was Taitu’s building program in the new capital that provided the physical locus and visual symbols of that state’s cosmopolitan engagement with the rest of the world. The Taitu Hotel, conceived as a grand hotel in the European tradition that would house foreign diplomats and merchants in luxury, was a linchpin in this strategy.

Historically, the Ethiopian court was itinerant. With the exception of extended residencies in Axum, Lalibela (the eleventh- and twelfth-century capital, and site of the extraordinary complex of rock-cut churches), and Gondar, Abyssinian kings relocated their courts throughout the Shoa, Amhara, and Tigray regions, often once per generation. Their mobility sometimes responded to foreign threats or the exigencies of military campaigns, but often they were motivated by environmental concerns. As the court—whose retinue of staff and courtesans often reached 40,000—exhausted local supplies of wood and livestock, royal advisors would select a new site and begin the process all over again.

In 1881, Menelik and Taitu moved the court from Ankober to Entoto, on a mountain slope above present-day Addis Ababa. However, the site’s chilly climate and limited water supply soon necessitated another move. With the Emperor away on a military campaign in Harar in 1896, the Empress ordered the court to relocate downhill, to a site near the hot springs at Filowa. She began construction of a palace complex (or ghebbi) on a hilltop above the springs, and named the new city Addis Ababa, Amharic for New Flower. The new seat of political power quickly attracted merchants and migrants from around the world, especially Orthodox Christians fleeing Ottoman-occupied Armenia and Greece, and Muslims from South Asia. While the court hosted envoys from major European powers for years, diplomats began arriving in Addis Ababa in large numbers during the decade following the Ethiopian victory over invading Italian forces at the battle of Adwa in 1896, the event that guaranteed Ethiopia’s unique independence from European colonial rule during the “Scramble for Africa.” Menelik’s modernization program included constructing schools, post offices, banks, hospitals and a railway line to the French port of Djibouti.

 

While Menelik consolidated power over a feudal empire larger than any territory ruled by his predecessors in the Solomonic dynasty, Taitu commissioned or supported buildings that represented the worldliness of the royal family. The empress’s patronage included the country’s first cinema—which still operates under the name, Satan Biet (or House of Satan), it earned for its shockingly phantasmagoric technology—and the thermal bath complex at Filowa (now called Finfinne, the Oromo name for the area surrounding the hot springs). And because no national capital could claim world city status without a grand hotel, Empress Taitu commissioned the hotel that still bears her name.

Built in 1907, the hotel reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the Abyssinian capital. Its Armenian-born architect, Minas Kherbekian, ringed the three-story building with broad verandas on two levels and capped the structure with a two-tiered hipped roof, which were both common motifs of Gujarati architecture brought to Addis Ababa by Muslim merchants and builders. Foundations of locally quarried granite supported the masonry walls and wood-framed floors. Despite cosmetic modifications during the Italian occupation (1936-41), the building retained its layout and details. The ground floor included lounge and dining areas, while the guest rooms enjoyed panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains from the hotel’s elevated position at the edge of the commercial district.

During the Italian occupation, the hotel was absorbed into the chain of CIAAO (Compagnia Immobiliare Alberghi Africa Orientale) hotels and renamed the Hotel Imperiale. A new entrance was added, and the grand stair received a new, streamlined balustrade. The Italians’ more significant changes were the addition of a new banquet hall and a variety of outbuildings. In 2011, the banquet hall was transformed into the Jazzamba Lounge nightclub, which was one of a number of venues supporting the revival of the 1960s Ethio-jazz pioneered by such artists as Mulatu Astatke.

The loss of the Itegue Taitu Hotel is heartbreaking for travellers who’ve spent time there, and for Ethiopians concerned about the rapid loss of the country’s architectural heritage as the current economic boom fuels an unprecedented amount of construction. As crowded and loud as the streets outside could be, the Itegue Taitu Hotel was peaceful and calm. The wood floors and grand stair of the central hall creaked underfoot, but the building felt solid. The verandas were fine examples of a dwindling vestige of the city’s South Asian building heritage, and the views they provided over Addis Ababa’s rapidly changing skyline offered a glimpse into Taitu and Menelik’s New Flower.

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