The highlands surrounding the city of Gondar descend into a bowl in which lies a cluster of strange, austere edifices punctuated by incongruent rounded corners washed in ochre paint and with blue window frames. Gondar is better known for its 17th century castles and churches but the most immediately striking thing when you arrive is its architecture. These structures did not originate from the Gondaray: they were the creation of the Italians during their brief occupation of 1936-1941 before the Ethiopians delightedly kicked them out.
The Italians had a clear vision for Gondar: to become their capital for commerce, transport and administration and “to build ex novo a city worthy of the civilization of Rome.” The fascist-inspired architecture, designed by Florentine architect Gherardo Bosio, was built with the aim of symbolising the absolute authority and nationalism the invaders hoped to impose.
Ethiopia did not welcome this attempt at colonization, especially the Gondaray, described by one historian as being, ‘in a permanent state of revolt.’ The Italians therefore used architecture as one of the ways of imposing themselves. Overall urban planning reflected their conquest by means of the buildings relationship to one another. The tall, square towers of the former Commando Truppe (military command) and Circulo Militare (the social organisation for the military) – now the town’s administration – occupied the higher ground north of the Piazza with its commanding views of the surrounds; the towers representing the transfer of power from Emperor Haile Selassie to Mussolini.
Layout and the undulating topography was used to promote racial segregation. The Italians took the higher, more prestigious ground for their one-storey residential villas. Lower grounds were allocated to the Gondaray as well as the Yemeni and Sudanese expatriate community that resided there at the time. Racial segregation was justified on the basis that Gondar had centuries-old separate areas for Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims. Today, people of different religions mingle easily amongst each other throughout the city but the Muslim area of Addis Alem (”New Universe”) still exists as well as the Jewish village of the Falasha – now empty since the massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews during Operation Moses.
The open area north of the castle was named the Piazza del Littorio and was used for adunate: mass rallies where the Italians celebrated the ideology of their regime as well as re-enacting their victory over Ethiopia. The castle itself was taken over as the headquarters of the regime. Now this place has been reclaimed as Meskel Square, used to celebrate the Meskel Ceremony and, on a more daily basis for boys riding bicycles, kicking footballs around or general loitering around.
Today, the post office still dominates the central Piazza. The harsh, unforgiving facade of the postabet is the architectural equivalent of an unfriendly stare. The entrance is reached by a flight of stone steps and is guarded. Facing the towers of Fasil Ghebbi, the castle, the post office still holds the axis of power which the Italians envisaged for themselves.
Photo by Gareth Richards
Gondar’s 17th Century castles are protected by UNESCO, but these strange buildings left by the Italians, with their contradictory rounded corners or hard, flat faces have no protection, even though they are a distinctive part of the city. These days, Chinese construction springs up everywhere, often in garish shades and seemingly randomly chosen maroon or dark green. There are more places to live, in ‘condominiums’ as people call them, but many people of the town appreciate the character of the old buildings and find the new construction ugly.
The Italian occupation was short-lived, yet their architecture has been allowed to remain, fading with time and relaxing ever so slightly with a vaguely tired air. Doubtless the symbolism of power imposed by these buildings has suited many a passing ideology or regime. Although they were born out of everything the Ethiopians revolted against, the old Italian buildings have become part of Gondar’s identity, as much as churches, castles and mountains. I hope they will be allowed to remain.