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  • A History of Addis Ababa from Its Foundation in 1886 to 1910
  • Getahun Benti
A History of Addis Ababa from Its Foundation in 1886 to 1910Peter GarretsonWeisbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000. Pp. xxi, 226; maps. Cloth DM 128.00

Peter Garretson's A History of Addis Ababa from Its Foundation in 1886 to 1910 is a revised Ph.D. dissertation the author completed in 1974. While some of the findings are dated, the publication of this pioneering study of Ethiopia's first permanent capital is a welcome addition to the growing literature on urban studies in Ethiopia. The thesis of the book, stated in the preface, is that Addis Ababa is essentially an indigenous city because its founder, Menelik II of Ethiopia, had no plan to create a capital that would have lasting effects on the future social, economic, political, cultural, and military developments of the country.

Chapter one provides a background to the long history of Ethiopia's roving capitals, particularly those in the kingdom of Shewa during the period preceding the founding of Addis Ababa. Much of this chapter is devoted to the foundation and growth of Addis Ababa with emphasis on the major economic and political developments that led to its consolidation as a major national center for Menelik's incipient empire. The second chapter discusses the organization of the imperial palace and imperial titles and dignitaries, and makes a survey of the population of the city. The last chapter focuses on economic activities such as the operation of long-distance trade and the role of foreign and Ethiopian merchants, including Menelik, his wife Taytu, and the nagadras, or chief of merchants. The author also discusses the establishment and operations of the Bank of Abyssinia and the challenges it encountered when Taytu attempted to create competing financial institutions. The book concludes by outlining Addis Ababa's evolution as a predominant economic hub of the newly created empire. [End Page 143]

During the period covered by the author, Addis Ababa became a major military supply center for the yet unfinished campaigns to the southern provinces and for the 1896 campaign against Italy. Following the Ethiopian victory at Adwa, foreign countries opened legations in Addis Ababa, foreign businessmen flocked in to compete for concessions and trade, and small manufacturing and various construction firms were established. Financial reforms enhanced internal economic organization and facilitated the country's economic relations with the outside world. Addis Ababa thus became a permanent capital, ending the long tradition of Ethiopian roving capitals.

Unfortunately, the book has serious methodological shortcomings and interpretive lapses. The study is not anchored in any urban studies theoretical or conceptual framework because, as Garretson puts it, "comparative urban studies as a field is treacherous" (xvii). Yet he compares Addis Ababa with Islamic cities in the Middle East and West Africa (xvii-xxi), without providing any justification for doing so. In fact, Addis Ababa's early history bears more similarity to that of other African colonial cities such as Nairobi, Kampala, or Khartoum than to that of Islamic cities. In many ways, Addis Ababa was for the Amhara, the creators of the empire, what Nairobi was for the British, and its growth owes more to the forces of imperialism and the world economy than to any religion. The author's claim that the process of urbanization in Ethiopia and Addis Ababa "seems to be unique; and similarities are relatively few" (xvii) appears to be superfluous and a reflection of the typical Ethiopian view of their own uniqueness.

The rationale for the section on the "Imperial Palace and Its Officials" (28-57) is not at all clear. As a collection and description of imperial titles, presented in the form of encyclopedic entries, the section strikes one as entirely irrelevant to the history of Addis Ababa. Since imperial titles or the title-holders were ubiquitous in the empire, their presence or absence in Addis Ababa did very little to contribute to the growth of the city, despite the author's assertion that Habte Giyorgis "alone seems to have defined the role of the Fitawrari in Addis Ababa" (49). [End Page 144]

Garretson's presentation of the population of the city is...


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