The nineteenth century in Ethiopia saw the shaping of a modern state and a modern nation. Addis Ababa, the country's capital, served as the crucible for and signifier of this formative process, a critical space in and through which a modern state/nation was imagined, constituted, reinforced, and reflected. Ethiopia's emerging urbanism, centered in the capital, was thus inextricably linked with its most important political “project” of the century—modernization and nation building. This quintessential city was the site of Ethiopia's modernist “project” that included innovations in the spheres of politics, economy, education, and culture, which were in turn adopted, and in some cases adapted, in the rest of the country.

Nevertheless, the reinventing of Ethiopia as a modern state in the spaces of its capital, Addis Ababa, was a process that was pioneering but also exclusionary and contradictory. The fundamental fault lines of the project included the failure to reinvent the capital (or cities in general), and by extension the nation, as democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spaces. The capital and the towns that eventually evolved after a century or so of urbanization were urban centers in tension, shaped more by the practices of ordinary residents than by the designs of architects and politicians.

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