Axumite Heritage Foundation Library and Cultural Center, Axum, Ethiopia
by Janet Lee, Regis University
Axum, the historical city
Axum is an ancient city that flourished 400 BC as a great trading partner in the region. In 1980 UNESCO added it to its archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites.
In 400 CE, a large segment of the population converted to Christianity, making Ethiopia one of the first predominately Christian nations in the world.
It is perhaps most well known for its stele, or obelisks, which date back to 5,000 to 2,000 BCE. The function is to serve as a marker for underground graves.
During the brief occupation by the Italians in the 1930s (Ethiopia having never been colonized by a European country), one of the major stele was appropriated by the Italians and shipped to Italy where it was reassembled and erected. After years of negotiations, an upgrade of the Axum airport, the stolen stele was returned to Ethiopia and placed in its proper place in the field of stele from 2005-2008.
Tradition has that the Arc of the Covenant is housed within the walls of the Church of St. Mary of Zion, thus the city is revered as a holy place. The Church is located within walking distances of stele fields.
Dungur Addi Kilte, popularly known as the remains of Queen of Sheba’s palace, but could also have been the palace of a wealthy Axumite. Excavated in the mid 1960s.
Tradition also has it that the reservoir pictured to the left is the Queen of Sheba baths. According to legend, Sheba had a tryst with Solomon, resulting in a child. From there is a long dynasty that included Emperor Haile Selassie. This story is repeated frequently in art work that is sold on nearly every street corner in major cities like Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has its own written language, based on the ancient Ge’ez script, a church language.
New Axumite Heritage Foundation Library
While I was on sabbatical in 2010, working in Mekelle, I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Tsehaye Teffera, the founder of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, headquartered in Silver Spring, MD. He came to the library in Mekelle because he was about to embark on a new library project in Axum. In previous years, he had opened up a library in the old Governor’s Palace, but it was beginning to outgrow its space. Denver and Axum are Sister Cities, part of the International Sister Cities, International program, celebrating 20 years in this relationship August 2016.
At the time that I began working with Dr. Tsehaye, I heard that there was another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, an engineer, who was working with him, also. By chance Dwight Sullivan and I were put in touch with each other and are collaborating on this project. I visited the new library building when it was in its infancy in 2013 and took this opportunity while traveling for another project to get an update. Each visit on this trip has left me in wonder at all that Dwight and Dr. Tsehaye have accomplished. No longer is it a shell of a building, but one that is very much nearing completion and at the stage where we can seriously start discussing library programming.
The concrete brick building has been faced with local stone from areas near Axum, including Adwa, the site of the infamous battle against the Italians, which Ethiopia won. Windows have been imported from nearby Dubai. Dwight has leant his mechanical expertise, and building skills, and shipped power tools to enable this project to be completed expeditiously. It is truly a work of art.
The entrance to the library is quite grand with two staircases leading up to the first floor. On either side of the staircases are accessible ramps that lead to the lower level and to upper floors. A rough in for an elevator is also available from the lower level to the third floor. This is significant because few buildings in Ethiopia are accessible for persons with disabilities.
The auditorium is nearly complete. It is accented with stone from local quarries. Dwight has found theatre seating, which is currently in a container ready to be shipped to Ethiopia and installed in the upcoming months. We discussed options for acoustics and will be creating cloth panels that will appear to be wall accents, but will serve to buffer the reverberations that were apparent in the room. The panels will have a version of Axumite crosses that are prevalent in this area.
A large room has been designated to serve as a set of classrooms that will have partitions to separate the larger area into four classrooms on an as needed basis.
The primary traditional area of the library is the Great Reading Room. It will contain the primary print collection and a range of seating and study areas for students and researchers. Dedicated ports have been installed around the perimeter and wireless access will be available. There is ample natural light and ceiling light fixtures.
Adjoining the Great Reading Room, is a computer room, complete with drop ceilings. It is anticipated that computer classes will be offered on a frequent basis.
The fourth floor opens up to a large balcony that can serve as an area for receptions. A small kitchen has been roughed in that will facilitate food service for the receptions.
Several bathrooms have been installed including one that will be accessible for persons with disabilities. Public bathrooms in general are few and far between. These will probably be restricted to staff and to guests. A separate outdoor bathroom has been proposed for the general public. An accessible ramp will allow access to the lower level and to the first and second floor. Only the balcony reception area will not be accessible.
A stone wall façade highlights the natural beauty of the new building.
Dwight commission art on animal hides that depict various historical events, such as the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians. Adwa is approximately 15 miles from Axum. These pieces of art are currently hung in the existing library in the Governor’s Palace and created by a local artists.
The children’s library is on the lower level. It will contain books, toys, educational materials, child-sized furniture, tiered seating for story hours and AV presentations. Dwight and I have been approved for a Returned Peace Corps Legacy grant, which will allow us to raise funds for the children’s library. For more information on donating to this project, click on https://eandeherald.com/rpcv-legacy-program/axum-childrens-library/
Although not yet opened, it is already being used for sign language tutoring, and sewing classes.
The current library in the Governor’s Palace is in the process of being renovated and will serve as a cultural museum. This worker is mixing cement for the façade of the former Governor’s Palace.
Although there has been great progress since my visit in 2013, there is still much to do, much of it dependent on fundraising. Significant donations have been received from the Ethiopian Diaspora, many who fled Ethiopia during the military regime. Fundraising is ongoing.
Dwight is preparing another shipping container that will contain the theater seating, computers, more building supplies, books, and other materials.
I met once again with library staffing and IT personnel at the University of Aksum (note the alternate spelling of Axum, a transliterated word). In my visit, in 2013, I had been informed that the online catalog had become corrupted with a virus. On this visit, one of the IT experts had just downloaded Koha, an open source online catalog platform. Thus, they have been without a catalog for this entire time. I was quite humbled when one of the Digital Librarians, pulled out my card from a prior visit. I provided them with forms for database access supplied on an individual basis by the American Spaces as part of the U.S. Embassy. The best I can determine, there is no access to commercial databases at the university. They have made great headway with their institutional repository, using D-Space, another open source product.
Libraries in Ethiopia are faced with many challenges including the lack of training, professional status, library education, and general infrastructure. During the last four days that I was in Ethiopia, the government-controlled internet was shut down, purportedly because of unrest in major cities in the country. Yet, everywhere that I visited, there was optimism for the future and a drive to improve their skills and better serve their constituency.
Got more information, contact Janet Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org