Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Addis Ababa in 1900: A “collection of villages” that was capital of an empire

At the end of the nineteenth century, Addis Ababa was a city of 100,000 and capital of a large empire. Emperor Menelik II was one of the most powerful rulers in the world. He had defeated the Italian army, and European diplomats and missionaries were beating a path to his door to win favor and make deals (figure 1).

Yet when safari hunter Percy Powell-Cotton visited the city in 1900 he was less than impressed with its the size and grandeur: “Dotted across the plain were clusters of huts, many stockaded enclosures—large and small—and several camps, but all very much scattered and more resembling a collection of villages and farmsteads than the capital of a great empire.” (Pankhurst 1985:213).

Aren’t imperial capitals supposed to be large imposing cities with huge stone monuments? Think of ancient Rome or Beijing or Tenochtitlan. If the idea that a low-density settlement in the jungle—without big stone buildings—could be a powerful capital sounds incongruous, it is because of two western biases. First, a century ago many people thought that “natives” in tropical areas of the developing world were incapable of building cities or large empires. Today most people know better because archaeologists have uncovered material evidence for the accomplishments of the kings of tropical cities like Angkor, Tikal and Great Zimbabwe.

The second bias is still with us: the notion that cities have to be large places with many thousands of residents living in dense residential quarters (see my earlier discussion of the demographic definition of urbanism). Low-density settlements are often seen as something less than urban, which would make the notion of a low-density imperial capital incongruous. This bias has a long history in western culture. More than two millennia ago the Athenian Thucydides disparaged the Spartan capital as follows: “Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation” (Thucydides 1972:41, book 1, section 10). The same metaphor was expressed by archaeologist William Sanders who made an effort to portray Maya cities as non-urban settlements in comparison with Teotihuacan. He called Tikal “a gigantic cluster of hamlets with intervening areas of light settlement” (Sanders 1979:397). It is hardly surprising that Sanders was for decades the leading archaeological proponent of Louis Wirth’s demographic definition of urbanism.
But if we take the functional definition of urbanism (that is, cities are places whose activities and institutions affect a larger hinterland), then a place like Addis Ababa in 1900 was clearly an urban settlement. It was not only a major market center and focus for craft production, but it was an imperial capital. It is a good example of the low-density city, a type of settlement common in many tropical areas prior to European expansion. Roland Fletcher (2009) has made the most systematic comparative study of these low-density cities. What were they like? While it is difficult to get a close appreciation of the urban feel of ancient Tikal or Angkor at their height, early photographs and descriptions of Addis Ababa allow us into one of the last great tropical low-density cities.

We can probably forgive safari hunter Powell-Cotton for calling Addis Ababa a collection of villages. Early photographs show that there was considerable open space within the city. Most of this land was not empty lots, but rather gardens, fields, orchards, and pastures (Gascon 1995:15). People lived in clusters of houses, typically grouped around the compound of important people. These clusters served as urban neighborhoods—places where people interacted on a daily basis and took care of many activities and affairs. Edward Gleichen visited Addis Ababa in 1897 and published an excellent map of the city (Gleichen 1971:endpiece). One portion of that map is included here. It clearly shows the clusters of huts that made up the neighborhoods; these were called sefer in Amharic.

While Addis Ababa as shown in these historic photos may not look very “urban” to us today, it is hard to avoid the labels of city and urban for a powerful imperial capital with 100,000 residents. Low-density cities like this show the variation in urban forms around the world and through time, and they occupy an important niche in the wide urban world.


Biasio, Elisabeth
2004    Prunk und Pracht am Hofe Menileks: Aflred Ilgs Athiopien um 1900 / Majesty and Magnificence at the Court of Menilke: Alfred Ilg's Ethiopia around 1900. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich.
Fletcher, Roland
Gascon, Alain
1995    La naissance du paysage urbain à Addis Ababa. In Fotografia e storia dell'Africa, edited by Alsessandro Triulzi, pp. 11-25. Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples.
Gleichen, Edward
1971    With the Mission to Menelik, 1897. Gregg International Publishers, Farnborough, England.
Pankhurst, Richard
1985    History of Ethiopian Towns From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to 1935. Franz Steinter Verlag, Stuttgart.
Pankhurst, Richard and Denis Gérard
1996    Ethiopia Photographed: Historical Photographs of the Country and its People Taken Between 1867 and 1935. Kegan Paul International, London.
Sanders, William T.
1979    The Fon of Bafut and the Classic Maya. In 42nd International Congress of Americanists (Paris, 1976), pp. 389-399, Paris.
1972    The History of the Poloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Penguin, New York.

1. Menelik's court (from the internet).
2. Addis Ababa, 1890, looking toward the palace at the top of the hill (Biasioi 2004: 76).
3. Addis Ababa, 1900, market (Pankhurst & Gérard 1996:114).
4. Map, redrawn from Gleichen (1971: Endpiece).
5. Menelik II (from the internet).

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