Evolution of Cultural Garden Design

Aksum Stelae and their legacy

The Aksum Stelae were massive granite monoliths up to 79 feet tall weighing 160 tons. They were skillfully quarried and expertly chiseled to resemble multiple stories of beam-and-daub houses, then carefully maneuvered with muscle and precision into vertical positions, early ‘skyscrapers’, generally 8 to 11 stacked-house representations tall. Unlike classical obelisks, they were carved on 3-4 sides and had semi-circular rounded tops, representing a connection to the heavens. In these tops there would be a metal plate inscribed with disc and crescent—sun and moon – harkening to their religious significance at that time. Unique to Ethiopia, they are the tallest monolithic carvings erected by Man and are designated by UNESCO as a world-heritage site. The Aksum Stelae became the favored choice of our Design Committee: unique to Ethiopia, and having transcended their original astral-religion origins over time, they had become powerful national symbols, synonymous with country, antiquity, magnificence, and pride. They have had a deep and enduring effect on Ethiopian art and architecture. Even the Orthodox Christian churches of Lalibela, carved in stone a thousand years later, featured deliberate copies of all aspects of the Aksum stelae, capturing not only beams, windows and doorways of these pre-Christian structures, but featuring windows and doors in the shape of Axum Stele the stelae domes themselves. To this day the stelae recur frequently in art and architecture. Stelae use in the context of this cultural garden emphasizes their over-arching significance for the oneness of Ethiopia.

Aksum Stele

Evolution of the Project Design

Having chosen to feature a Stele design for our garden, we found it was not a straight-forward thing to do. The difficulty became how to represent it. Our zoning height limit is 30 feet. Shrinking a stele model from 79 feet to 30 feet makes it too small, and its majesty is lost. Seeking guidance, we contacted the Fine Arts Department of Addis Ababa University and through the Department Head were referred to internationally known Artist Zerihun Yetmgeta, who eagerly agreed to assist our efforts. Presented with our quandary, he thought about it all one night, and the solution came to him: the depiction of a Stele in silhouette for the cultural garden. He described his thought process as follows:

“I understood that it should be everlasting and monumental. After thinking again and again, it automatically came to my mind: Axum’s gateway to our civilization. I opened a gate to show the distance of years that we have travelled and that enables us to peep through and see that we are living in the age of computers and globalization: ‘The Gateway of Civilization’. ”

Ato Zerihun therefore depicted a stele as a silhouette, an arch, gateway to Ethiopia’s first great civilization more than 2,000 years ago, inviting a look through to the past, to the future, and definitely all-inclusive of Ethiopia. Thinking about the inversion of this iconic symbol, and noting this had been done by Lalibela stone-carvers a thousand years later, we decided to feature Zerihun’s Gateway Stele Silhouette for our garden. There it will be seen as a large, 60 ton stone arch, 30 feet tall, much more impressive and inviting in our garden setting as an arch than a solid stele. In addition to this gateway arch as a centerpiece, the Design Committee chose to feature a replica of a Lalibela Church doorway, which echoes this silhouette pattern, and a 5-panel heritage mural by Zerihun representing periods of Ethiopian history and ethnic diversity, described below in detail. Once the Zerihun-inspired garden concept was formulated, his hardscape design began with a rendering by Reuben Shaw of Kent State University, advanced by architect Rory Turner, then completed by Landscape Architect Heidi O’Neill. It was approved in the Spring of 2017 by the Design and Preservation Committee of the Cleveland Cultural Garden Foundation (CCGF), chaired by Architect Berj Shakarian, followed by approval by the CCGF Executive Committee and a general vote of Garden Representatives. Then after approval by many municipal bureaus, including the Landmark Commission and the Bureau of Public Works, in December 2018 we were finally cleared to begin construction.

Lalibela Door Way

A third structure in the Garden, but the one to be constructed first, is be a 13 foot high wall in five panels to depict Ethiopian history and cultural heritage. Originally conceived by the late Johnny Thomas, committee member and Kidist Getachew’s husband, it evolved into a five-panel historical-cultural mural in a style of artist Zerihun Yetmgeta, who painted these using traditional images. This mosaic of glass tiles has been applied to a steel reinforced concrete form by our mosaicist Ernesto Spinelli. (Historical note: Ernesto, as a youth, helped his father, commissioned by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1940’s, to construct a new Orthodox Church at Kolubi, Ethiopia.)

Heritage Mural -- Five Panels, Mosaic – Zerihun Yetmgeta

Panel 1 - Origin of Humankind in Ethiopia. 3.2 million year old hominid skeletal remains were discovered in Ethiopia by paleoanthropologist Johanson from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in1974, and her remains were at the Museum for 5 years of study, less than a mile from our Cultural Garden site. Popularly known as ‘Lucy’, her Ethiopian name is ‘Dinknesh’(“You are amazing”). More recently Yohannes Haile Selassie, current curator of anatomy at CMNH, made the discovery of a 3.6 million year old ‘grandfather’ of Lucy, again in Ethiopia: ‘Kadanumuu.’ Cleveland remains on the forefront of paleoanthrpology. Also shown on this panel are 400,000 year old pictographs on stone – ancient stone paintings from an Ethiopian site. Many other ‘origins’ of Ethiopia, not depicted here, would include coffee, cereal grain T’eff, the Blue Nile River (whose alluvial sediment gave rise to Egyptian Civilization), and the Afro-Asiatic tribe in Cush, mentioned below.

Panel 2 - Development of Diversity. Diversification of ethnic groups, 80 in all – a multitude of distinct cultural groups, over time widely intermingled, but each group with its own language. One example is depicted here – the Konso people (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) who in primitive times first developed terraced farming, and also skillful weaving techniques. Here they represent but one example of the 80 Ethnic groups throughout the country, all originating from that single group in Africa to the north of Ethiopia 3,500 years ago called the Afro-Asiatic Tribe. From this initial tribe three major linguistic groups of evolved: Omotic, Cushitic, and Semitic. (Note: The Semitic languages began in northern East Africa and gave rise to Ge’ez, Tigrinya, Ago, Amharic, Guraginia and several others in Ethiopia, and spreading out like spokes of a wheel across the Red Sea, gave rise to Aramaic, Arabic, Babylonian, Hebrew, Phoenician and others).

Panel 3 - Early Civilizations, Aksum, Lalibela, Religions, Art of stone-carving. The periods of Axum – Pre-Christian stelae; Lalibela –11 amazing stone-carved churches of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Not as well-known is an Ethiopian Christian Emperor’s having given political asylum to many of the Prophet Mohammed’s persecuted early followers as Islam arose about 700 a.d., and that by around 1200 the Ethiopian city of Harar was settled by a group of Muslims who built 99 mosques in the city,at about the same time that the stone churches of Lalibela were being carved, and Harar has continued in the top 4 of Islam’s holy cities. Now, almost half Ethiopia’s population is Muslim, living for the most part in peace with Christians. Judiaism most likely came to Ethiopia 500 years before Christ, and it is believed the Ark of the Covenant was taken to Ethiopia for safe-keeping, where legend has it that it remains today in Aksum, guarded by Priests. Most Ethiopian Jews ( Bet’e Israel), were transported to Israel 20 years ago – few remain in Ethiopia.

Panel 4 - Neguse negest, “King of Kings”. The government institution in Ethiopia was monarchy. Emperors wer known as the King of Kings. The last Emperor, Hailie Selassie, is said to be the 225th in an unbroken line going back to the first Emperor of Ethiopia – Emperor Menelik the First, the son from the legendary Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. But not a matter of legend is the fact that the last 5 of Ethiopia’s emperors each saw the evolving patterns of European colonization, and each took steps to prevent this from progressing in Ethiopia, culminating in the battle of Adwa in 1896 when Ethiopians defeated an Italian invasion army, thus preserving independence for Ethiopia. By so doing, they were sounding the death knell of colonization in Africa and giving subjugated peoples around the globe pride and confidence that they too could throw off the shackles of bondage. Then after Haile Selassie, this section shows the Emperor’s thrown is empty. The Emperors’ times had come, feudalism had to come to an end, hence the empty throne in panel 4.

Panel 5 - Technology, Globalization, with the eye indicating Tibeb or ‘Wisdom’. The first eye is Wisdom. The second eye is the globalization, with moon landing. Flowers are shown as part of the Ethiopian proverb: “Today’s Flowers are tomorrow’s Seeds”. In this age of computers and advances in science, it remains important for the Arts to continue, to flourish, to keep speaking truth. So as Ato Zerihun says, we must keep ‘knocking on the door of the visual arts’ to accomplish this.The door to open the Visual Arts is in the lower part of the panel.

Mosaic Art on the Back side of the Wall. This is a daunting painting from 1987 by Zerihun Yetmgeta, with an environmental message. Title: “The Sun Gets the Moon”. Even though humans developed technology to land on the moon, on Earth we see forests destroyed, birds with no place to land, the Earth over-heating from the overly hot Sun. “Despite modern technology, the earth is being devastated” by destruction from humans. This mosaic wall therefore takes us full circle: from the dawn of humankind, great ethnic diversification, unity under Emperors whose time had come, to heights of achievement by humankind, now to the potential for destruction of life on earth by our own hand. This painting is a plea – from the land of the origin of human beings – for humans, who have the technology, to work together for the preservation of an environment which can sustain life on earth.

Mosaic on reverse side “When the Sun Gets the Moon” 1987, Zerihun Yetmgeta

Thanks to a stalwart group of our supporters in Addis Ababa, the ‘Friday Club’, an apro-po quotation from Michael Higgins, President of Ireland on his visit to Addis Ababa, 5 November, 2014, will be incorporated on the mural: “In the very long term, in the multi-secular temporal horizon which is that of Lucy, we are but migrants in time and space – transient travelers who must do our best to pass on to the next generation a hospitable ground on which they can flourish.

The Stele-silhouette Arch being beyond our means to start with, we began with the Heritage Wall for our ‘Phase One’. This January, 2019, we began with pouring of the concrete wall structure – after critical structural revisions under the perceptive scrutiny and direction of our Board Member, Contractor Tom Krivos. Menna Asrat, Ursaline College Art Therapy student, made a beautiful painting of the overall project, based on Reuben Shaw’s rendering and Ato Yetmgeta’s paintings for this Heritage Art Wall that is Phase 1. How to show fabricate it became the issue, when amazingly, an expert mosaic artisan, Ernesto Spinelli, serendipitously arrived in Cleveland. Mr. Spinelli, of Ethio-Italian heritage, was raised in Ethiopia. His father, a released prisoner of war, married an Ethiopian, and having skills as a builder, was commissioned by Emperor Haile-Selasssie to build the new Orthodox Church at Kolubi. As a young teen-ager, Ernesto helped with this construction. Later he developed his skills as an artist and mosaicist. With this talent on hand, we decided to fabricate the Heritage Wall in mosaic format. Also, we made the decision, endorsed by Ato Zerihun, to put a mosaic version of his 1987 environmental painting “When the Sun Gets the Moon” on the backside of this Mosaic Wall.

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Menelik Hall Foundation

1060 E. 62nd St.

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