Ethiopia has a long tradition of moving capitals. This found expression as late as 1885 when Menilek,then king of the south-easterly Ethiopian province of Shawa,
moved his headquarters from Entoto, a high mountain which was often cold, and suffered from tropical storms, to the nearby lowland plateau of Finfini, also known as Fil Weha, literally, Boiling Water, which enjoyed a pleasant climate. The site of the new settlement was also particularly attractive to Menilek’s consort, Queen Taytu, on account of its hot thermal water in which she and her courtiers loved to bathe.
This shift of the capital’s location, which involved the abandoning of the old capital, Entoto, and its replacement by the new one, Finfini, involved extensive deforestation, for timber and fire-wood were both heavily expended in enhanced building operations.
Shortage of Wood
Contemporary observers agree that one of the results was a great dearth of wood.
Faced with this shortage Menilek rode frequently to Mount Managasha, a forest some 20 kilometres west of the capital, whence he and his men carried back timber for his palace as well as for the capital’s two principal places of worship, the churches of Ragu’el and Maryam, both of which were almost entirely made of timber.
The importance of Menilek’s involvement in the search for timber was underlined by Thomas Hohler of the British Legation in Addis Ababa. He observed that if the monarch “sent out his men to fetch wood they did not bring much back, but if he went himself, every Ras and dignitary had to go as well, and all their troops; and if the Emperor carried a piece of wood, everyone in the huge concourse had to carry a piece too”.
By the turn of the century foreign travellers to Addis Ababa were reporting an acute shortage of wood throughout the surrounding area. Herbert Vivian, an English visitor, noted that for “two or three days before reaching the capital we had to do without wood in camp, for there was scarcely a tree to be seen. Every shrub that could possibly be used for firing had been cleared... Such is the scarcity of fuel all about here that the peasants are in the habit of collecting cows’ dung and making it into round flat cakes which they sell for a fair price”.
The above practice was confirmed by another British traveller, John Boyes, who observed that fire-wood was “an expensive item”, though cakes of cow and mule dung were also used for fuel”. Hohler likewise states that wood for the capital had to be transported from a “considerable distance”, and adds that “once a forest was destroyed, there was no hope of its growing again, for the cattle would be put to graze, and in the dry weather the Abyssinians would set the undergrowth on fire in order to have more wood for their beasts, or to clear the land for cultivation”.
The Coming of the Eucalyptus, and the Founding of Addis Alam
The Great Shortage of Wood in the Entoto area resulted in the founding of a new settlement as an alternative to Addis Ababa. This is clearly stated by Maurice De Coppet, the editor of the French translation of Menilek’s chronicle, who observes:
“It was because the immediate environs of Addis Ababa had been deforested that Menilek dreamt of establishing a residence at Addis Alam, which is surrounded by immense forests”.
The new settlement became for a time so important that the French author Hugues Le Roux writer referred to it as ‘Menilek’s Versailles”.
Building activity at the new site was recorded by the British envoy, Captain John Harrington in a report for November-December 1900 in which he observed that Menilek had gone to Addis Alam “for the making of a new capital” – and was so preoccupied with this activity that it was “impossible to talk to him” on any other matter.
The proposed move of capital was, however, far from popular in all circles. Several prominent nobles – and most of the foreign Legations –were reportedly critical of the idea. Having already invested in substantial building work in Addis Ababa, they were naturally reluctant to divert resources in further such constructions in Addis Alam. Harrington expressed this opposition most forcibly in a report to the British Foreign Office in which he anticipated the Emperor “thinking the time has come for building another Addis something’’, and added: “The prospect of having to keep up two separate and distinct establishments [i.e. one in Addis Ababa and one in Addis Alam] and of flitting to and fro between them is not a very attractive one”.
Empress Taytu was moreover believed to be opposed to the Addis Alam project. She, it will be recalled, had originally given Addis Ababa its name, and reportedly felt that its palace, in which she lived, was the finest in the entire land.
Attraction of Finfine?
Ethiopia had moreover by now entered the Railway Age – and the Addis Ababa-Jibuti railway needed a fixed terminal – it could not operate on the basis of frequently moving capitals.
And Menilek knew as much.
Two years after first visiting Addis Alam, where his Indian and other craftsmen had instructions to build a fine, and very unusual, palace, Menilek returned to the site, and, to the surprise of many, told the workers to convert the newly erected structure into a church. Explaining this change of plan he declared that the Kingdom in Heaven was worth more than the Kingdom on Earth; and that the church he proposed founding would lead his people to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The result of this declaration was that the Addis Alam project was immediately abandoned. The craftsmen, as instructed, dutifully completed their building as a church rather than as a palace – and Addis Ababa was retained as Menilek’s Kingdom on Earth.
And now, dear reader, you are invited to drive off to Addis Alam. There you will see a church, which because of its history as a sometime palace, is unlike any other Church ever seen in the country.
The First Modern Road
Though abandoning Addis Alam the Emperor continued to take an interest in that settlement, and a year or so later, when building the country’s first modern road, he orders that it should be made to link Addis Ababa, his capital, with his newly established settlement of Addis Alam - and hence with the latter’s plentiful supplies of timber.
This road, a major innovation for its time, was duly constructed, and was used by Menilek’s famous steam engine which had been imported by the distinguished Armenian entrepreneur Sarkis Terzian. The vehicle, imported in a period of French linguistic influence, was known as Babour, a corruption of ‘Vapeur’, the French for Steam [Engine] and the road was in consequence sometimes referred to as Babour Mangad, i.e. Steam-Engine Road, the term used for it in Menilek’s chronicle.
All went well – until the famous Babour broke down – and for many months – Armenians or no Armenians – could neither be repaired nor removed. The area where it lay came to be popularly known as the Safar, or area of the Sebera Babour, or Broken Steam-Engine.
Two other developments deserve to be chronicled by way of conclusion.
Firstly, Addis Alam was named by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a Place of Asylum and thus enjoyed a status comparable to that of Aksum.
Secondly, on abandoning Addis Alam, Menilek established another new town between it and Addis Ababa. Situated at a place called Holata it was renamed Gannat, i.e. Paradise, by Menilek, and, like the other settlements with which we have been concerned in this article, grew with considerable rapidity to a population of perhaps 50,000 inhabitants.
There, Haile Sellassie founded a pre-war Military Academy, whose graduates were to fight in the Ethiopian resistance of 1935-6, and subsequently a today little known statue to the Ethiopian Patriots – both today worth a visit.