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Charting the History of Dessie

Assefa Balcha, PhD
“In my time, the follies of the town crept slowly among us, but now they travel faster than a stagecoach.” Oliver Goldsmith (1730 - 1774)

Dessie (also spelled Dese or Dessye), aged more than a hundred and ten years old, is a multi-ethnic city in north-central Ethiopia. Located on the Addis Ababa-Mekele road in South Wollo administrative Zone of the Amhara Region, this city has a latitude and longitude of 11’ 8°N 39’38°E with an elevation between 2470 and 2550 meters above sea level. According to CSA, Dessie in 2005 occupied an estimated area of 15.08 square kilometers, which gave the city a density of 11,213.79 people per square kilometer. The majority of its inhabitants belong to the two principal religions: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Dessie

A View from Tossa

Dessie Prior to Its Foundation

The Dessie area, called partly as Lakomelza, is one of the earliest inhabited regions in Wollo, previously known as Bête Amhara. Moreover, Wasal, first mentioned in an early 16th century Italian itinerary and now probably lost in the debris of time, was said to be the precursor of Dessie.

In 1855 Emperor Tewodros came to Wollo to bring the region under his full control. During his expedition Tewodros had his temporary camp on the Jemmie hill, later renamed Ayteyefe. After the death of Emperor Tewodros in 1855, King Menelik seeking to incorporate Wollo into his realm campaigned against Abba Watew and Mohammed Ali (the later Negus Mikael). During his military expeditions Menelik also chose the Jemmie hills for his campsite, the same location where Tewodros had camped earlier. After securing the submission of Amede Liben and Mohamed Ali, the two prominent chiefs of Wollo, Menelik reaffirmed the governorship of Mohammed Ali over the territories stretching from Wayat to Bashilo Rivers, constituting roughly the present Wadla Delanta, Wore Himano, Borena and Wore Ilu, while Abba Watew was allowed to retain Tehuledere, a generic name that constituted Dessie and its surroundings. Until his death in 1881, Abba Watew made Azwa Gedel his administrative headquarters.

Right after his coronation Emperor Yohannes IV (r. 1872-1189) saw the growing power of Menelik in Wollo as a direct threat to his authority. In 1878, Yohannes came to Wollo and camped on the plains of Boru Meda, about 10 km from the center of Dessie. At Boru Meda Mikael baptized Amede Liben and Mohammed Ali (renamed Ras Woldemariam and Ras Mikael respectively). Since Wollo was strategically important, Ethiopian rulers traversing from north to south or vice versa often used Dessie as a stopover.

Soon after he became emperor following the death of Yohannes IV at Matemma in 1889 Menelik led his army north to deal with those who did not acknowledge his hegemony. Empress Taytu accompanied him as far as Dessie. While Emperor Menelik was in Tigray, Taytu stayed at Ayteyefe. After returning from Tigray, Menelik joined Taytu and spent a couple of months in Dessie, at which time Negus Tekle Haymanot came to Dessie to pay homage to the Emperor.

Birth of Dessie

The year 1882 was a turning point in the history of Dessie. Annexing the territories of his contender Abba Watew, who died in 1881, Ras Mikael emerged as the sole governor of Wollo. With the advice of Menelik, as some sources indicate, Ras Mikeal left Tenta (Were Himano) in favor of Kuru Amba (at Hara Wobelo) around Gerado area, a few kilometers from Dessie. After some time Ras Mikael came to Dessie and constructed his permanent residence or Ghibi at the northern tip of the Jemmie hill. Ras Mikael’s settlement at Jemmie, which amounted to Dessie’s foundation, was a fateful decision. In early 1900s Ras Mikael built his palace buildings as well as a large banquet hall that came down in history as Ayteyefe Addarash (‘A Hall of No Segregation’).

Ras Mikael’s selection of Ayteyefe in Dessie as a seat of his regional government, which amounted to the actual foundation of Dessie, was due partly to its strategic location. His settlement at Ayteyefe enabled Ras Mikael to defend himself and control the movement of his adversaries from a distance. More importantly, the Tossa mountain chains to the west and Azwa Gedel and Doro Mezleya to the east made Dessie a naturally defended town. The fortified location of Dessie had greatly eased Mikael’s security anxiety. The five main gateways: Titaber and Qurqurber- a thoroughfare to Tigray; Kutaber – a vital gate to Begemider; Girarambaber- a doorway to the southeast; and Bilen-Geradober – an alleyway to Shewa and Gojjam conferred the town enormous strategic advantages. Ras Mikael’s effort to extend his rule over the eastern low lands from his previous distant administrative center of Tenta proved problematic.

Besides the availability of a permanent source of water (constituting numerous springs and a perennial river, Borkena, which flows from its source near Boru towards the East traversing the northern part of Dessie), fire wood, and food crops within a radius of few kilometers, there was a major economic reason that persuaded Ras Mikael for choosing Dessie as his regional capital. Even if Dessie by then was not an important urban center, a major trade route passed through it. The route from Addis Ababa to Massawa, one of the many trade routes that crisscrossed the country, passed through Wore Ilu, Borumeda, Samale, Magala, Adwa, and finally Asmara. There was also a major trade route passing through Dessie to Tajura; hence, the need to control the trade routes and trade centers was the major factor in Mikael’s choice for Dessie. In effect, Dessie fulfilled what Ras Mikael was looking for. Thus, in the context of the late 19th c, Mikael’s resolve to come to Dessie demonstrated his farsightedness and personal wisdom.

After settling in Dessie, Ras Mikael founded the Segno Gebeya weekly market in the southern part of the town. After that many people came to Dessie and settled around the market. In addition to the settlement of Mikael’s followers within a short distance from the palace complex at Ayteyefe, several merchants from Awssa, Tigray, Shewa, Gojjam, Gondar, and Yejju came to Dessie and permanently settled. As a result, not only the number of traders and inhabitants increased, but also the scene of the budding town began to demonstrate tangible socio-economic changes.

The origin of the name “Dessie,” according to tradition, goes back to the early days of Emperor Tewodros II, who had made several campaigns to Wollo during his reign (1855-1868). In one of these campaigns, he is said to have camped and pitched his tent at Qetema, located between Boru and Dessie. From Qetema the Emperor moved to the Dessie area and chose Ayteyefe as his camping site. In another account, the name Dessie is related to Emperor Yohannes. Emperor Yohannes IV came to Dessie repeatedly during his reign. In one of his visits in 1883, he spent sometime on the high grounds of Dessie. Being excited by what he saw Yohannes is said to have named the place ‘Dessie,’ meaning ‘my joy.’

However, as to how the name ‘Dessie’ originated, oral accounts have reiterated its association with Tewodros II. The first version is that Tewodros, observing the happiness of his men on the selection of the site, which was endowed with beautiful scenery, named the whole area delightful or Dessie. The second version is associated with the name of the Emperor’s tent, Desta, hence Dessie, a corrupted derivation of Desta. The third version is linked to the name of a tella-selling woman living nearby. Oral tradition has it that Tewodros asked her name, who happened to be Woyzero Dessie, after whom he named the area Dessie. Be that as it may, as emperor Tewodros conducted several military campaigns in the region after 1855, this period appears to be the most likely time for the origin of the name Dessie. With regard to the naming of Sefers or neighborhoods, the following ones are worth citing.

Arab Genda: this is a name of a locality stretching from Meriho Ghibi to the bus terminal. It was resided by Arabs nationals. These Arab residents, most of whom were Yemeni, came to Dessie in search of employment during the region of Ras Mikael. It is said that Ras Mikael being impressed by their craftsmanship and business acumen gave them land to build their houses; hence the neighborhood Arab Genda or ‘Arab Quarter’ emerged.

Atari Genda: a place between Segno Gebeya and Salayish. Atari Genda literally means ‘retailers’ quarter,’ indicating the initial settlement in the area of small merchants.

Berbere Genda: the name Berbere Genda indicated the presence of Mesheta Betoch or local taverns and the recurrent disturbance and noise that accompanied them. The emergence of Berbere Genda was also related to the presence of Stegna Adariwoch (sex workers), who either owned the local taverns, or attached to or worked in them. Due to this, there were recurrent disturbances and noises as a result of which the place bore the name Berbere Genda (pepper quarter).

Dawdo: a corrupted derivation of the name of a prominent resident of the locality, Sheikh Dawd.

Gimira Sefer: A small quarter situated between Medhane Alem Atbia and Wolayta Sefer. It was named after the war captives of Lij Iyassu taken from his Gimira campaign and gave some of them to his father as a gift.

Hararge Sefer: A neighborhood of army settlers who came from Harar and stationed in Dessie following the battle of Segele.

Hotie: It is a large meadow where celebration of epiphany and military processions had taken place during Ras Mikael’s time. Some informants claim that Hotie is a corrupted form of the Amharic word ‘watte.’ The name ‘Watte’ signified the largeness of the field and its capacity to accommodate a huge number of people at a given moment, hence the name ‘Watte’, which meant literally ‘a place that can swallow so many people.’

Medhanie Alem Atebia: Following the establishment of Medehane Alem, priests and officials of the church settled around it; and this special quarter came to be known as Medhane Alem Atbia or Medhane Alem Sefer.

Mugad: Mugad literally means ‘a place of fire.’ According to informants, it was the place where the bonfire was lit during the annual celebration of Mesqel. After the end of the Italian rule the area surrounding the modern shopping center for Italian nationals (now Gumruk or Mugad market) had to become part of Arada.

Segno Gebeya: A big locality around the Segno market. Segno Gebeya is an Amharic phrase for Monday Market. Since this market was a weekly market held on Mondays, it came to be known as Segno Gebeya.

Selk Amba: named after the first telephone station located at the south of Ras Mikael’s Ghibi and it began to be called Selk Amba or ‘telephone quarter.’

Wolayita Sefer: Ras Mikael joined Menelik II in the campaign against Wolayita in 1894 and he brought to Dessie many war captives, including king Tona, the last monarch of Wolayita. The war captives, who became Mikael’s domestic slaves, were given land to settle to the northeast of the Ghibi. This special quarter (formerly known as Chercharit) grew in popularity and took the name Wolayita Sefer (renamed as Menbere Tsehay after the 1974 revolution).

Zebengna Sefer>: a living quarter between Medhane Alem and Silk Amba that was largely inhabited by the retinues of Ras Mikael.

The Municipality and Development of Urban Services

It was during Ras Imru’s governorship of Wollo that the Dessie town administration was first established in the late 1920s. Its first Ketema Shum or chief, who presided over the seven Sefer Shums, is said to have been the Italian-educated Aleqa Mekonnen. The 1942 Imperial decree listed Dessie as one of the only six “schedule A” municipalities in Ethiopia. In 1945, Dessie was put under the jurisdiction of the Municipalities Department of the Ministry of Interior. Along with the restructuring of the municipality, the Dessie city administration was divided into eight Sefers (of which six were pre- Italian) with their respective Sefer Shums (village heads). This sub-division lasted until the institution of the Kebele administration in the 1970s. All the Sefer Shums were appointed to help the municipality in matters of tax collection and maintaining peace and order.

The first modern school was founded by the Seventh Day Adventist Mission when it started its mission station in Dessie around 1928. After the liberation the school was renamed Etege (Empress) Mennen primary school. Prince Asfa Wossen, the then Governor of Wollo, established the Woyzero Sihin primary school in 1931, named after the mother of Etege Menen. After the liberation this school originally founded in the precinct of the present Negus Mikael School was transferred later to its present location and eventually upgraded to a Secondary School, the first high school in the region. In 1950, the Memhir Akale Wold Primary School, named after the renowned cleric of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was opened.

The first clinic attached to the Italian legation was opened in 1911 in the premises of Meriho Ghibi. Dr. G.C. Bergman of White Memorial Hospital in California came to Dessie in 1925 to supervise the construction of the first Seventh Day Adventist Mission hospital, known alternatively as ‘Tafari Makonnen Hospital’ or ‘American hospital,’ which was completed in 1928. After a lapse of more than two decades, a new 50-bed hospital financed by the US government (USAID) was constructed in the 1950s to be followed by the Selassie Leprosarium at Boru Meda of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM). The offer of the lovely site at Boru Meda was made by the Crown Prince. Moreover, one of the two provincial Desert Locust Control headquarters inside Ethiopia, which was founded in 1953, had its center in Dessie. Dessie

Part of Mugad, one of the oldest quarters

In the early 1950’s there was a 200kw power station, which was reported to be too old and later replaced by a new steam turbine plant that produced 280 kW. A new diesel-powered electric power station, costing Eth $ 110,000 with a 14km power line from Dessie to Kombolcha, was completed in 1963. The capacity of this newly-installed generator was 635 kVA. It was in 1912 that piped water was first introduced from Ras Yazew or Dawdo area to Mikael’s palace at Ayteyefe. Ras Abate was responsible for its construction.

Road transport: The Italian Giuseppe Bonaiuti, the one who had taken part in the battle of Adwa in 1896, participated in the construction of the first Dessie-Addis Ababa road from 1904 to 1908. Before the occupation the Dessie –Maychew road was completed. The Italians had also begun the construction of the Dessie-Gondar road. The three oldest bridges of the city, i.e. Borkena Bridge, Dereq Wonz/Arab Genda Bridge, and the one in front of Meriho Ghibi, were built in this period. The Italian had opened additional inner roads and upgraded most of the existing ones, some to an asphalt level.

Air transport: The airport at Kombolcha provided an invaluable service since the early 1930s and continued to offer similar services during the Italian occupation. Around 1955 Dessie had Air transport service by Ethiopian Air Lines four times a week, with airport at Kombolcha.

Telephone Service: The years between 1902 and 1904 marked the installation of telephone line between Addis Ababa and Asmara. By virtue of its location, Dessie was one of the few towns to get access to telephone services. A telephone station was opened to the south of Ras Mikael’s Ghibi at a place called Selk Amba (telephone quarter). In 1906, the Italians put up a telegraph station headed by engineer Arnaldo Piga. In 1954, there were 87 subscribed telephone numbers in Dessie, which grew to 250 in 1966. This was an important indication of the growth of the city. In 1968 Dessie was mentioned as one of four towns outside Addis Ababa and Eritrea with an automatic telephone exchange. Around 1955 a public address system was installed in the central square of Dessie (and in ten other towns), used for receiving transmission from Radio Addis Ababa and re-broadcasting it to the public.

Postal service: A post office was opened in the period between 1923 and 1929. From 1931 up to the Italian occupation the office was delivering postal services to and from Dessie by air. The Italians opened post office on 9 May 1936. Its seal read: DESSIE AMARA (Dessie Amhara), but since 1 October 1940 the town was transferred to GOVERNO dello SCIOA (Governorate of Shewa) so that it was modified to DESSIE SCIOA (Dessie Shewa). After the liberation, a new post office in Dessie was opened on 22 June 1942.

Long after the establishment of Segno Gebeya by Ras Mikael, Crown prince Asfa Wossen had initiated another weekly market to be held on Wednesdays. This new market or Robit Gebeya was established between 1930 and 1936. During the Italian period a modern market for Italian nationals, Merkato Nazionale, was set up.

Dessie in the Early Twentieth Century

Ras Mikael transferred his seat from Tenta to Dessie. Dessie owes much to Negus Mikael and his choosing of Ayteyefe as his residential and administrative site. Attendants and servants of Mikael were given plots of land to build their own houses around Ayteyefe. The building of residential houses of the nobility facilitated the cropping up of new villages in Dessie such as Ras Yimer, Ras Yazew, Ras Ali Gebreyes, Ras Gebre Hiywot, and Liqa Mekwas Abegaz Sefers. Ras Mikael’s initiation of the Segno Gebeya weekly market played an important role in the development of Dessie town. In the ensuing years more and more people flocked to Dessie and settled. Traders from all over the country found the Dessie market an important trade center. Some of the traders built their own houses particularly around Segno Gebeya, an impetus to the mushrooming of shops, local beverage houses, and other service-rendering sites in the town.

The hard-won peace and tranquility of the post-Adwa period enabled the growth of commercial activity in the country. An Italian commercial agency, R. Agenza commercial, was established at Dessie following the signing of a treaty of commerce and friendship between Menelik II and Ferdinando Martini on 21 July 1906. It was managed for many years by Colonel F. Marazzani Visconti who was later replaced by Alberto Pollera. In 1907 an Italian consulate was opened in Dessie. Bank of Abyssinia and Bank of Ethiopia had their branch offices. In 1910 the Singer Company had begun to supply sewing machines to the lucrative Dessie market.

A company called Besse, an export-import firm founded in 1898, had opened an agency in Dessie in the Early 1930s. There was also a cinema hall that showed movies on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Other than M. Bazarah (an Arab) and Ato Yirghou, many Greek nationals such as Pagonis Freres, Harant Pagtikian, Nicolas Zambos (baker), Dimitri Paskos, Athanase Papadjiman, Astig Karabian (who owned a movie theatre and a cafeteria), Takakland Kolidas, G. Capellani (baker), Christo Cardaloupa, and M Paskos ran several small businesses and shops. Many residential houses and churches were also built during this time. At about 1907, the construction of Ras Mikael’s palace was completed. Ras Mikael built the St. Giyorgis, Medehane Alem, and St. Mariam churches in 1910, 1912 and 1914 respectively. St. Teklehaymanot church was constructed on the foothills of Dora Mezleya, to the east of Ayteyefe, in 1914. In the early 1930s, Dessie had few European-type buildings owned mostly by Greeks and Armenians some of whom produced/sold alcoholic drinks, shoes and other trading items. While a Catholic Mission of the Italian Franciscan fathers was founded in 1925, the American Seventh Day Adventist Mission was established in 1928. There was also a Zawiya of the Qadiriyya order in Dessie. The Qadiriyya is the oldest self-perpetuating and more widespread Sufi order in north-east Africa. During those early days Dessie had also served as a prison and a place of exile for the rivals of the regional lords as well as the king of kings. Negus Tona of Wolayta, Ras Abate and even Lij Iyassu himself were some of the royal prisoners in Dessie. In the early 20th century Dessie was an attractive town for both foreigners and local dignitaries; several of them made stately visits. In 1906, Ferdinand Martini, governor of Eritrea, paid an official visit to Dessie and met Ras Mikael, not to mention Lij Iyassu who traveled to Dessie to meet his father at the expense of government businesses in the capital.

Dessie after the Battle of Segele

Lij Iyassu did not stay in power for long. The conspiracy that dethroned Lij Iyassu resulted in the coronation of Empress Zewditu, daughter of Menelik II. Upon his removal from power Lij Iyassu came to Dessie from Harar. This event, which upset Ras Mikael and the Wollo hierarchy, created an unbridgeable rift between the central government and Wollo, which ultimately led to an open armed conflict between the forces of Ras Teferi and Mikael on the plains of Segele on 22 October 1916. Despite his initial victory at Tora Mesk, Negus Mikael suffered defeat at Segele and was taken prisoner. Surviving the Segele ordeal, Ras Yimer and Fitawrari Sirah Bizu had managed to meet Lij Iyassu and moved to Maqdala together to resist the triumphant Shewan forces marching to subdue Mikael’s Wollo. For some time supporters of Lij Iyassu continued to offer resistance against the central government.

Following the death of Menelik II, his grandson Iyassu, the son of Ras Mikael, was enthroned in 1913. After some time, Lij Iyassu dubbed his father king of Wollo and Tigray. Ras Mikael was crowned Negus on 31 May 1914. Though Lij Iyassu did not attend this extraordinary event, he sent his senior officials (foremost among them were Ligaba W/Gabriel and Bejirond Yiggazu) to Dessie. Ras Mikael was crowned by Abuna Petros, Emperor Yohannes’s own bishop, in front of a huge gathering of about 50,000 people and a highly orchestrated spectacle at a near by Mugad field. “The ceremony at Dessie appeared to have been culminated to accentuate [Mikael’s] historic transformation in stature,” and the sudden glare of fame of the region

Lij Iyassu did not stay in power for long. The conspiracy that dethroned Lij Iyassu resulted in the coronation of Empress Zewditu, daughter of Menelik II. Upon his removal from power Lij Iyassu came to Dessie from Harar. This event, which upset Ras Mikael and the Wollo hierarchy, created an unbridgeable rift between the central government and Wollo, which ultimately led to an open armed conflict between the forces of Ras Teferi and Mikael on the plains of Segele on 22 October 1916. Despite his initial victory at Tora Mesk, Negus Mikael suffered defeat at Segele and was taken prisoner. Surviving the Segele ordeal, Ras Yimer and Fitawrari Sirah Bizu had managed to meet Lij Iyassu and moved to Maqdala together to resist the triumphant Shewan forces marching to subdue Mikael’s Wollo. For some time supporters of Lij Iyassu continued to offer resistance against the central government.

Obtaining information on the capture of Lij Iyassu in Tigray Ras Teferi came to Dessie on May 21, 1921. The troops of the central government as well as Ras Gugsa of Begemider and Ras Hailu of Gojjam gathered in Dessie. They stayed for one month while negotiation with Ras Siyum took place. The confrontation ended without bloodshed. Ras Siyum, the main proponent of Lij Iyassu, surrendered on 17 June. Ras Gugsa Araya brought Iyassu to Dessie and surrendered the most wanted royal fugitive to Ras Teferi. Getting hold of Lij Iyassu Ras Teferi immediately returned to Addis.

After the battle of Segele, new governors were appointed to Wollo; they were responsible for the urbanization of Dessie before the Italian occupation. After the battle, Ras Wolde Giyorgis was entrusted by Ras Teferi to continue to pacify and govern Wollo until he was replaced in 1918 by Ras Kebede Mengesha. Ras Kebede governed the region for the next seven years and was later replaced by Dejazmach Siyum Desta in 1925. With the stationing of army contingents from Cheliya and Harar there evolved Ye Cheliya Sefer and Hararge Sefer in Dessie. The Selassie (Trinity) church was constructed during this Shewan dominance.

In February 1926, the whole of Wollo was made a personal fief of Ras Teferi upon which Ras Imru Haileselassie was appointed as its governor. Ras Imru introduced unprecedented infrastructural and administrative changes in Dessie. Right after his coronation as Neguse Negest on 2 November 1930, Emperor Haileselassie I (the former Ras Teferi) appointed his 16 year-old son, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, also great-grandson of Negus Mikael, governor of Wollo. The young Crown Prince with his adviser Dejazmatch Wodajo Ali resided in Dessie until the Italian occupation in 1936. For some time Asfa Wossen lived in the palace of Negus Mikael; and he later moved to the present Meriho Ghibi around 1935. Abuna Petros, who was later assassinated by the fascists during the occupation, and military commanders like Fitawrari Sahle Dinkie and Fitawrari Faris also resided in Dessie. During this time the Enderassie or Governor-General of the province was Fitawrari Fikre Mariam while the Dessie Ketema Shum was Blata Bekele Wolde Mikael with Ato Desta as director and Nagadras Tesfaye as customs’ officer. Head of public works at the municipality was Fitawrari Dejene with his assistant engineer Comte F. L. Bietry, and Ato Mekuriya Wolde Selassie as director of roads.

In addition to this, Italy had its consular office in Dessie. The Belgian military mission was also stationed in Dessie. There were also a number of foreign nationals living and working in Dessie. On the eve of Italian invasion there were about 850 foreigners of whom 50 were Arabs. Some of these foreigners were teachers, merchants, medical personnel, government advisers, bankers, engineers, journalists, writers as well as missionaries

Dessie on the Eve of the Italian Invasion and Occupation

Haile Selassie moved from Addis Ababa to Dessie on 30 November 1935. The Emperor used the former Italian consulate as his headquarters, which was the only place inside the town worthy of his persona. A radio station and a telegraph line was established within the premises of the new headquarter.

Dessie was bombed for the first time on 3 December 1935. At the time of this bombing incident, the Seventh Day Adventist hospital, where in about forty bombs fell on its compound, being transformed into a Red Cross camp had a big Red Cross insignia on its roof. In that day only a total of 7.5 tons of bomb was said to have dropped over Dessie. As bombing continued the next morning, many of the inhabitants fled their town. During this barbaric bombardment some 30 foreign war correspondents were in Dessie. At Meriho Ghibi Emperor Haile Selassie was photographed while machine-gunning the raiders. The hospital resumed its services after the expulsion of the Italians from Ethiopia in 1941. By 1949 it provided its service with two doctors and 100-hospital beds.

In February 1936 an Ethiopian Red Cross airplane was bombed near Dessie. The Emperor together with his two sons, the crown Prince and the Duke of Harar, had been in Dessie for over two months. The emperor and his military advisers: Ras Getachew Abate, Fitawrari Biru Wolde Gabriel, Dejazmach Haileselassie Abaineh, and Dejazmach Adefresew left Dessie and started their march towards the northern front on February 21, 1936.

Dessie during the Italian occupation: 1936-1941

On April 14, 1936, the Crown prince and his entourage, Dejazmach Wodajo Ali and Dejazmach Fikremariam, retreated hastily from Dessie due to the eminent danger posed by the advancing Italian force. The next day the Italians occupied Dessie. On April 20, 1936 Marshall Badoglio riding a horse entered Dessie and marched to the Italian consulate.

The Italians made Dessie the seat of the Commissariat of Wollo (Commissariato dell’Uollo), within the Federazione dell Amhara, one of the administrative division of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa). In October 1940 the town was made part of Governo Della Scioa or the Governorate of Shewa. The town also became the seat of the Prefettura Apostolica entrusted to the Padri Cappucini. Following their entry into Dessie, the Italians confiscated all the pervious government institutions; and they made, for example, the ghibi of Negus Mikael the office of the Commissariat. The Italian consulate, which was made the headquarters of Emperor Haileselassie on the eve of the war, was reinstituted. This building being renovated and renamed Villa Italia became one of the finest buildings in Dessie.

The Italians commenced a number of public projects aimed at developing the city in line with their colonial objectives. The preparation of the city’s master plan was one of the many tasks they initiated to implement. The plan was designed on the framework of fascist segregation policy that divided the city into black and white quarters. The execution of the master plan was a hallmark of fascist segregation policy. The northern part, constituting of the today’s piazza and its surroundings (previously part of Yeferenji Amba where some Greek and Armenian nationals had their businesses and resided before 1935/36), was designated for whites, while the southern part, which housed most of the old quarters, was allocated for the indigenous people. The central square was named Piazza del Littorio around which the post office, the Casa Del Fascio (House of the Fascists) and various shops and cafes were opened.

During the occupation the city had made considerable growth in terms of physical size, construction activities and infrastructural facilities. However, most if not all construction activities and infrastructural facilities were concentrated mainly in the piazza area and in the northern section of the city, which was planned to be a garden city for Italians northwards from Villa Italia where in several institutions and residences were found. An Italian residential quarter known as Casa Inches, named after the chief engineer, Inches, was set up in this area. The construction company, Instituto Nationale Casa Imiegati Statali, provided housing for government staff in Italian East Africa. Offices of the Fascist League, Banko di Roma, Banko di Italia, postal and telephone offices and the municipality were built around piazza. In between Medhane Alem church and piazza there was an Ospedole dermoceltico, dermatological hospital, and a VD Clinic. Along the street to the south of Piazza the municipality office, out-patient clinics for local and Italian nationals called Ambulatorio per nazionali e indigeni, and Queen Elena Elementary School (Scuole Elementari Imperatrice Elena) were set up.

Besides, a number of houses, hotels like Albergo C.I.A.AO. (today’s Ghion Ambassel Hotel), a cinema hall (Cinema Impero, the today’s Dessie Cinema), a printing press (Poligrafio del Impero), mills, schools, a hospital and a stadium were built north of piazza on the eastern and western sides of Dessie-Mekele road. Starting from piazza and taking the eastern main street northwards, there were mixed commercial units. There was a fountain, a sport field, Albergo Bella Milano, barracks of the Intendenza, a school (R.Scuolo), and the church of the Catholic Mission, built by Franciscan Lazzarists, which began its service only during the occupation period. There was also a small cemetery for the Italians. In 1938, there was an Italian workers’ camp of 18 wooden pavilions with a capacity of 200 persons. Still further north were a mill, a group of buildings, and the camp of the Milizia Forestale, and Casa Del Preti or ‘House of the Preachers.’ Moreover, manufacturing firms for soap and candle, and an oil producing factory were established. Wood-working, hollow block and brick factories were also founded. This quarter was also well supplied with clean water and electricity.

With regard to the southern part, the construction of food processing factories (for macaroni, biscuits, flour and oil production), a modern market center, and a mosque at Shewa Ber were among the projects the Italians consummated. Valle di Gerado, a modern farm in the Gerado area, to produce durum wheat for the food processing plant was made operational. As part of the construction activity, a number of minor roads were opened or even asphalted to connect the various parts of the city. The city’s main bridges built during Ras Imru’s time were maintained. The Dessie-Gondar road was stabilized and graveled for only 26 km by 1938.

The presence of the Italians in Dessie accelerated the town’s commercial growth. Because of its strategic location linking Addis Ababa, Asmara, Assab and Gondar, the Italians were interested to transform commercial activities in Dessie. In addition to a number of Italian firms engaged in different economic activities, the improvement of roads and transport facilities attracted a number of merchants to Dessie. Other than Giuseppe Bruno, a building contractor, another firm called Dioguardi & Figli was also involved in the construction sector. Soc. An. Salvatore dell’Oca was an enterprise registered for road transport. By 1939 Lsona-Fraschini, a motorcar enterprise had a sub-station in Dessie. Though the Italian master plan visibly divided the industrial and commercial zones in Dessie, the number of business establishments during the Italian period reached more than 150 (constituting of hotels, general merchandise, import-export firms, etc.).

Around 1938 there was a bus line to Asmara and an airport at Kombolcha. There were also several restaurants: Aquila, Berenice, Bologna, Faro, Gambrinus, Impero, Neghelli, Primavera, Salvietti, Stella D’Italia, Tringale, Venezia and 9 Maggio, as well as street lighting, and even shower (Ufficio d. Lavoro) and laundry services. In general, Dessie’s development was speeded up during the Italian occupation. It is often argued that there were unprecedented urban related changes in Dessie during this period.

Between April 17 and 27 1941, the Italians were forced to handover Dessie to the joint Ethiopian and British forces. The Italian garrison in Dessie was forced to surrender to Brigadier Pienaar’s 1st South African Brigade, which was assisted by 500 Ethiopian patriots (some of them were Abebe Aregai’s men) under Captain Campbell. Right after the war, a mixed war/civilian internment camp was established at Dessie which later became ‘definitive camp No. 410,’ a transit camp for evacuees awaiting repatriation.

Dessie during the Imperial Era: 1941-1974

In the immediate pose-liberation Ethiopia Dessie continued to serve as the political center of Wollo. Many of the Italian office buildings were made offices of the government. In a decree of 1942, Dessie is listed as one of the six “Schedule A” municipalities in Ethiopia. Later in 1945 Dessie was put under the jurisdiction of the Municipalities Department of the Ministry of Interior. This period also witnessed the restructuring of the Dessie administration in which the city was divided into eight Sefer (of which six were pre-Italian) with their respective Sefer Shums (village heads). This structure lasted until the Derg period and the introduction the Kebele administration in the 1970s.

There was an observable growth of the city’s population and its commercial activities. There were about 787 commercial establishments in 1968 against only 158 during the Italian period. Of these, 259 were retailers. Among the Dessie-based firms there was Azienda Agricola Del Ciaffa, for red chilies, oil seeds, and general merchandise. Arada, Segno Gebeya and Robit markets were expanded hosting traders from Asmara, Jimma and the coastal areas of the Empire. There was a dynamic public transport firm run by Wollo Feres Share Company. Choosing a white horse as its logo, Wollo Feres turned out to be the pride and informal symbol of the whole province. There were about 170 motor vehicles registered in Dessie in 1957.

The city’s population in 1965 was 39, 080 (of whom 1380 were foreigners), which grew to 97, 314 in 1994, and 169,104 in 2005 (of which 92.83% were Amhara, 4.49% Tigreans while other ethnic groups constituted 2.68%). During this time eight schools were built, including two secondary schools (now more than quadrupled). Water, electricity, and health services that had been introduced before or during the Italian period were maintained. Dessie in 1967 was among the forty towns selected at the national level to be covered by a Grand Master plan preparation project. On the whole, Dessie did not show significant changes during this period. As some observers reported, the town, clinging to the side of several steep hills and consisting of a jumble of buildings and rocky alleys, seemed to defy any effort to introduce an orderly town planning. Yet, its cordial and hospitable inhabitants made the city a much more preferred urban center to most other cities in the whole of Ethiopia.

The Derg Period: 1974-1991

During the Derg regime Dessie’s development, which became more and more dependent on governmental institutions, was greatly slowed down as most other towns in the country. There was a huge presence of the military in the town. Women from the rural areas flocked to the town to work in the informal sectors. During this time, the city’s main roads were upgraded; Teachers Training Institute was established in 1980; office buildings of Agriculture, Ethiopian Pharmaceutical factory, Development Bank, and the ruling party H.Q. (now Zone Administration office) were built; Shop buildings around Mugad were upgraded and makeshift structures at Segno Gebeya were also constructed; and a significant number of residential houses were built by the Agency for the Administration of Rental Houses (AARH); and three elementary schools (Bilen Mettero and Menbere Tsehay) were built.
Even if there were no remarkable changes in urban services in general, Dessie had begun to experience significant population and spatial growth. The proclamation of July 1975, which nationalized urban land and extra houses, enabled many people to build houses, which had been extremely difficult in the previous regime. During this period the city expanded in the direction of Teachers Training Institute, Dawe Meda, and Karagutu areas.

The Post –Derg Era: 1991-the present

There was very little change in the first five or six years of the post-Derg-period, by which time the city administration made every effort to upgrade the front lines along the main highway. Later on, the city administration invited private investors to demolish the old Kebele houses and build multi-storey buildings. As a result, several modern high-rise buildings have been constructed. The administration also undertook a rehabilitative works on infrastructures and landslide prone areas. In 1999, Wollo University, the first higher education institution in the province, was opened. Private colleges, kindergarten and elementary schools have been built. Preparation and upgrading of the city’s main roads have been undertaken. One of the main achievements of this period has been the setting up of an additional water supply system, the building of privately-owned residential houses. In addition to the physical expansion of the city into the surrounding rural areas, the development of apartment buildings is being vigorously pursued in different parts of the booming city, an invaluable measure that will help reduce the growing demand for housing. With the cropping up of new business centers, shops, cafeterias, hotels, and restaurants, the city’s landscape has been significantly changed.

There was very little change in the first five or six years of the post-Derg-period, by which time the city administration made every effort to upgrade the front lines along the main highway. Later on, the city administration invited private investors to demolish the old Kebele houses and build multi-storey buildings. As a result, several modern high-rise buildings have been constructed. The administration also undertook a rehabilitative works on infrastructures and landslide prone areas. In 1999, Wollo University, the first higher education institution in the province, was opened. Private colleges, kindergarten and elementary schools have been built. Preparation and upgrading of the city’s main roads have been undertaken. One of the main achievements of this period has been the setting up of an additional water supply system, the building of privately-owned residential houses. In addition to the physical expansion of the city into the surrounding rural areas, the development of apartment buildings is being vigorously pursued in different parts of the booming city, an invaluable measure that will help reduce the growing demand for housing. With the cropping up of new business centers, shops, cafeterias, hotels, and restaurants, the city’s landscape has been significantly changed.

Historical/Natural Heritages in Dessie

Negus Michael Ghibi: A large compound situated on the northern tip of the Jemmie hill, comprising of about seven historic buildings including Ayteyefe Hall, which were constructed during the early 20th century. All but St. Mariam church are in bad conditions.

Meriho Ghibi: A site where the first Italian Consulate (1907) was established. It later became the palace of Prince Asfa Wossen, heir to the throne.

Dessie Museum: Housing a wealth of cultural/historical and ethnographic materials the Dessie museum is believed to be the largest museum in the Amhara National Regional State. Bahil Amba Hall; the Tossa Mountain and the ruins of Abba Watew’s palace around Azowa Hills are additional heritages. Among the religious edifices Medhane Alem Church (1912); St. George Church (1910), Debre Betel Trinity Church (1920); Debre Selam, St. Mikeal Church (1919); Mezgebe Mehiret Mariam Church (1912); Abune Tekle Haymanot Church (1912); St. Merkorios Church (1940) , and Shewa Ber Mesgid (1937) are worth citing.

Dessie’s proximity to most historic sites of northern Ethiopia ought to have made it an important tourist destination center. Regrettably, this is not yet realized. Its moderate weather condition and its precious natural and cultural heritages, not to mention the surrounding chain of mountains, and above all, the amazing interfaith harmony and tolerance, interpenetration and coexistence of the different religious and cultural groups, are more than enough to deem Dessie as a historic city worth appreciating and visiting.

Dessie Today
Desiie Today

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With in its overall plan of alleviating wide spread poverty, Ethiopia aims to become a middle level income country with in a short period of time, but there is a shortage of skilled professionals. To further ensure sustainable growth,improve livelihoods so that we can More »

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