Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I am currently reading a fascinating biography of the late emperor Haile Selassie by the Italian historian Angelo del Boca, an author who has written extensively about the Horn of Africa and personally met the Emperor in the 1960s (The Negus, Life and Death of the Last King of Kings, Arada Books, 2012). Through his book I begin to understand better modern Ethiopia in the light of the historical developments which shaped the country, in particular the Italian Fascist occupation of the 1930s, the failed coup d’Etat against Haile Selassié in 1960, the creation of Addis as the new capital of the African continent in the 1960s and the revolution of 1974. The Author describes the sequence of events which led to the 1974 revolution and explains how the Emperor in his old age misread his own country’s repeated calls for in-depth reform. He remained the autocratic ruler he had been since the 1920s, even though he was eager to modernize his country and bring it to the international stage, which he successfully did with the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 in Addis. On a domestic level, he chose to ignore the deepening social and political crisis and the ever-increasing economic problems the Ethiopian people were facing.
Instead, he continued to grant privileges to his chosen elite, sending promising young students abroad and personally delivering degrees to all graduating students from Addis Ababa University, the University College he himself created. He personally greeted the pupils who obtained their Baccalaureat from the French Lycee Guebre Mariam, the school traditionally attended by the intellectual elite of the country and still a prestigious school today. He genuinely tried to nurture an intellectual elite for his country in the belief that it would be sufficient to set it on track for lasting development. But the times had changed, socialism was gaining ground as an ideology, something he failed to understand.
Reading the book, I was interested to visit again his old palace located in the grounds of Addis Ababa University. The Palace he built was part of the estate he inherited from his father Ras Makkonen, one of Menelik’s closest advisers and the hero of the Battle of Adwa. He himself gave his estate to the University in the early 1960s. Today, the former palace is the seat of the respected Institute of Ethiopian Studies and its extremely interesting ethnological museum, but it has kept some memories of the Emperor’s haydays. Haile Selassie’s personal bedroom and bathroom (with some personal effects) have remained as they were, and next to it, the Empress Menem’s quarters have been kept as empty rooms. Their respective bathrooms look quite out of date, but at the time it must have been the height of luxury in Ethiopia.
During the Fascist occupation from 1936 to 1941, after the Emperor had fled to England, the palace was momentarily occupied by the Italian governor and other high-ranking officials. They left a strange monument outside the main gate made of concrete steps crowned by the lion of Judah, each step supposedly representing a year of Fascist rule in Italy. However, I counted only 14 steps knowing that Mussolini was officially in power from 1922 to 1943, and the Italians were in Ethiopia until 1941, so I remained a bit puzzled by it. The lion of Judah on top was added later to symbolise the end of the Italian occupation.
The very pleasant grounds around the Palace are home to the ever growing University of Addis Ababa, which counts a number of Faculties in a number of different buildings scattered around the park. It is also the home of the well-known Kennedy Library, one of the landmark buildings from the 1960s designed by a group of American architects. It may still be one of the most beautiful and peaceful parks in the city, located at the footsteps of the Entoto hills.
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