Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
11. Menilek, and the Founding of Addis Ababa
Emperor Menilek’s Conservative Courtiers
Though Menilek was reputedly a firm friend of progress, most of his courtiers are said to have been old-fashioned in attitude. Thus a British scientist, J. I. Craig, reporting on a visit to Ethiopia, said of the Emperor, “He is highly intelligent, and … ready enough to avail himself of the advantages of western civilisation to such an extent that he is probably the most liberal statesman in his country and has frequently much difficulty in persuading his council to follow his wishes.”
Menilek’s consort Empress Taytu, according to the British traveler Herbert Vivian, belonged in particular to the “old school”, which “opposed all innovations and mistrusted all foreigners.” This opinion of the queen was shared by most observers, including the French envoy Klobukowski. He records that on one occasion, when talking of the Europeans in Ethiopia, Taytu exclaimed, “The Emperor is too good. He believes everything people say to him.”
The difference in attitude between the Emperor and his spouse is also alluded to by the French traveller Hugues Le Roux. He states that Menilek on one occasion said to him, “The Ethiopians and I, we like progress. The Empress, my nobles and my clergy, make war on us.”
Ras Makonnen and Ras Mika’el
Ras Makonnen, on the other hand, was clearly interested in innovation. It is not without significance that he alone of Menilek’s Rases used French and Arabic on his seal, as well as Amharic. His attitude was in part molded by his residence in Harar, which afforded him greater foreign contacts than were elsewhere available, and in part by his visit to Italy, in 1889, which gave him, alone of Menilek’s principal Rases, a first hand knowledge of developments in other lands. For these, and other reasons, many foreign observers, such as the Frenchman Charles Michel, believed that Makonnen was “the only person ” able to continue the Menilek’s modernising work. This opinion is shared by another Frenchman, Rene Pinon.
It is, however, interesting to note that the Italian, Arnaldo Cipolla, recorded that Ras Mika’el of Wallo later observed to him that Menelik owed his greatness to the fact that he knew Europeans and learnt from them. The Ras added that he himself wished to visit Europe, and that Ethiopians should travel abroad.
From Ankobar to Entoto and Addis Ababa
Some of the most notable events of Menilek’s reign centred around the establishment and development of Addis Ababa, the most important capital in the country’s history. Having abandoned his old capital at Ankobar several years previously, Menilek settled at Entoto, in 1881. He at once set to work building a palace and a church. The construction operations were accompanied by a certain amount of innovation. Workmen from Gondar, where a good building tradition remained, were employed to build the palace and the church of Mariam, while timber was transported on five or six ox-carts constructed, according to specifications prepared by the German missionary Mayer, who had previously worked for Tewodros.
The use of the wheel, which that monarch had attempted to introduce a generation earlier, was thus successfully reintroduced.
Entoto, however, soon proved an unsatisfactory capital. Menelik therefore founded Addis Ababa in 1887 which was soon established in its stead as the capital of the realm.
Addis Ababa, Site of Innovations
The new settlement of Addis Ababa, which was destined to be the site of numerous innovations, sprang up around the palace. In building this edifice Menelik followed the innovating tradition of so many previous rulers by employing foreign craftsmen. Part of the work was thus entrusted to an Indian, Haji Kawas, who was assisted by half a dozen or so other Indians, as well as a number of Arabs. Part of the work was undertaken by the Swiss craftsman, Alfred Ilg, part by the latter’s French friend Chefneux, and part by the Italian engineer, Capucci.
The principal church, that of St. George, was later rebuilt according to the design of a Greek architect Orphanides, and was constructed by an Italian engineer Castagna.
Construction work by foreigners, it should be emphasised, was characteristic of this period, as of former times. Thus Ras Makonnen employed Indian and Arab workmen to build his palace at Harar, and the Italian engineer Robecchi-Bricchetti in the construction of the nearby Church of Medhane Alem.
In the erection of his palace at Addis Alem, Menilek used Indian craftsmen (who on one occasion incurred his displeasure by the then novel procedure of staging a strike).
Popular Attitudes to Innovation
Numerous innovations at the capital were initiated in this period. These almost inevitably aroused conservative opposition from one or other section of the Ethiopian people. Vivian, who visited the palace grounds at the turn of the century, records that Menilek had erected a rail to carry building materials to the construction area. The workers, the Englishman adds, were, however, “too conservative” to employ it to any extent. The Emperor similarly introduced wheel-barrows, but “the labourers only made use of them when they were under the master’s eye. Directly they were left to their own devices, they hastened to their old accustomed method of carrying things on their heads.”
The Palace Water System
Another innovation, in Addis Ababa, was that of piped water, which Ilg installed at Menilek’s palace in 1894. The Swiss craftsman recalls that the project met with widespread derision at court. Many people considered that it was impossible for water to be made to flow uphill. Others suggested that the whole affair could be nothing but a financial swindle. The scheme, however, received Menilek’s full support, and was carried to fruition despite the scoffs of the critics.
The palace’s piped water was considered sufficiently remarkable to justify a lengthy description in the official chronicle of the reign. The surprise occasioned by Ilg’s invention may be further illustrated by two contemporary poems, collected long afterwards by the Italian scholar Enrico Cerulli.
The first, referring to Menilek by his “horse-name” Abba Dagnaw, reads:
We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa,
Water worships Emperor Menelik.
O Dagnaw, what more wisdom will you bring?
You already make water soar into the air.
The second declares:
King Abba Dagnaw, how great is he becoming ! He makes the water rise into the air through a window, while the dirty can be washed and the thirsty drink. See what wonders have already come in our times. No wonder that some day he will even outdo the ferenge (i.e. Europeans).
The establishment of Addis Ababa in fact symbolised the advent of a new era. This was clearly realised by Menilek himself. It is related that the British envoy, Rennell Rodd, told him that he had brought some X-ray equipment, but feared to present it, because of possible opposition by the clergy to innovations. The Emperor at once replied: “You should have brought it; you know we have not been here in Addis Ababa more than twenty years.”
An Expanding City
Addis Ababa grew steadily in size. It soon acquired the characteristics of a boom city. By 1910, it was estimated to have a resident population of about 70,000, together with some 30,000 to 50,000 temporary inhabitants.
A town of such dimensions, as we shall see, was destined to assist the forces of change.
The Eucalyptus Tree
An acute shortage of timber and fuel existed in the early days of the city, but this was solved, at the turn of the century, when Menelik introduced the eucalyptus tree, which came from Australia. Though the new tree was very useful, in improving the capital’s hitherto short supply of wood, it was at first by no means popular. Its strong smell caused it to be regarded with suspicion, and it was referred to as the “itan”, or incense, tree.
Opposition to the tree was maintained for a number of years. As late as 1914 a notice against the eucalyptus tree was issued by the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture. It stated that when the capital had first been founded “the soil was void and had no trees whatsoever.” The eucalyptus tree had been imported because it was quick growing, and could make the area “beautiful and pleasant to the sight.” The tree, however, was without any utility, and had the characteristic of “destroying the plants and earth which it eats. If there be a spring in the vicinity, it dries it up, and sucking and drinking the bottom of wells it dries up the water. Its wood is of no use and its fruit is not eaten.”
“Pull Up Two-Thirds of Them”
Orders were therefore given for everyone owning eucalyptus trees to pull up two-thirds of them, and to allow only one-third to remain. The Government promised to supply young trees of a useful variety in place of whatever eucalyptus trees were removed.
Though the dislike of the eucalyptus tree was in part a result of its novelty, it was not wholly so. A British scientific mission of 1920-1 reported that it was widely held that “these trees dry up the ground, lessening the yields of springs, or have even deprived them of their supplies completely.” The report commented:
“In our opinion there can be little doubt that the eucalyptus trees must have an effect of this kind, and the present small yield of Ras Makonnen’s spring is one of the results.” The eucalyptus tree, however, was by this time already too well established to be eliminated by decree. The tree grew so fast that its cultivation yielded rich profits that the city’s Georgian pharmacist, Dr Merab, states that landlords owning several hectares planted with eucalyptus trees hoped to be soon selling the wood for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The profit motive was unleashed!