The restoration of the Yohannes IV Imperial Complex at Mekele in Ethiopia

The restoration of the imperial complex of Yohannes IV, whose construction dates back to the years 1881-84, was a long (2010-13) and sometimes tiring process, but certainly of great interest: not only for the technical aspects faced and the difficulties encountered - foreseeable in a city located at an altitude of over 2000 m on the northern Ethiopian plateau, not far from the (closed) border with Eritrea and connected with the capital, Addis Ababa, practically only by air - but also for those of more broadly cultural character. However, relations with the local authorities responsible for monitoring the works and with the Ethiopian technicians and workers have always been very good and marked by a great spirit of collaboration.

The passage from the design phase to the executive phase involved, as often happens, a revision of the first: for example, some modifications to the holes improperly carried out in the past were discovered, now restored to their original dimensions. We also discussed for a long time the two external staircases of the smaller building, both probably added at a later time to the first construction phase. This means that the upper level was probably originally only reached using makeshift wooden stairs. In the end, the decision was made for the demolition of the staircase on the southern side of the building, severely damaged and the result of a later addition, and for the maintenance of the one on the northern side, necessary for the functioning of the building as evidenced by an old photo.

The restoration of the wood was particularly delicate. The author of the whole complex, the Italian Giacomo Naretti, was primarily a carpenter. The wooden parts are already noteworthy on the outside: for the large loggias on the second level of the main building, for the beautiful fixtures and for the characteristic ordering applications on the facade. But wood is above all the main responsible for the quality of the interiors: for the spectacular roofing of the rooms, whose soffits appear strongly characterizing, and for the excellent workmanship of some particular pieces such as the entrance door, the throne (signed and dated by Naretti himself), the grand staircase, etc. Our consultant for the restoration of wood has created a real workshop, involving a large number of local carpenters on the construction site: all the components have been carefully detected, disassembled, numbered, restored (with the possible replacement of parts that are too damaged to be reused) and finally reassembled. The recovery of the exceptional material quality of the wooden floors on the first floor has prompted us to propose similar ones on the ground floor as well. Originally there was no finish here: the servants of the last members of the imperial family who lived in the residence until the 1970s testified that, before the concrete casting we found at the time of the survey, there was simple rammed earth .

The consolidation of the wall parts - urgent both due to the poor static conditions of the two buildings, in particular the smaller one, which had a corner with a high risk of collapse, and due to the necessary seismic adaptation - was carried out with seismic works, with the assembly of metal chains and the general realization of a sandwich of metal mesh.

The new building has taken the place of one of the many pre-existing buildings with no historical-artistic value that have proliferated over time and have now all been demolished, with great advantage for the recovery of the original image of the park. The only one proposed to replace made it possible to house a cafeteria, a library - gift shop and, from a separate access, the necessary services. It is a simple parallelepiped covered in dark gray local stone slabs. The façade, made almost invisible by a pre-existing green backdrop, nevertheless helps to enclose the square formed by the two major buildings, giving it a more intimate space and suitable for hosting official outdoor events and ceremonies.

The park, the only one in the center of Mekele, has been reopened to the public. Many open spaces have been paved with local stone slabs of different colors. The historic buildings have also been the subject of an accurate lighting project, both outside and inside. Overall, the restoration was a great opportunity for the Ethiopian Heritage: the main historical building of Mekele, after having regained its original image, will now be able to contribute to the cultural and tourist renaissance of Mekele and the Tigray region. But, above all, it has been an extraordinary scientific, professional and human opportunity for all of us designers and executors who have worked on it.