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The Dramatic History of Addis Ababa PDF Print E-mail
By Professor Richard Pankhurst   
Monday, 18 February 2013 10:25

Part 5: What did she look like, Menilek and Taytu’s New Flower?

We do not know exactly what they looked like, dear reader, because we were of course not there in those days, over  a century or so ago – but there are records, letters and memoirs from which there is much we can learn.
What did you look like, O New Flower?
To try to answer the question  let us turn to the memoirs of a young British officer, Captain Montagu Sinclair Wellby, who visited Ethiopia in 1898 – and was shortly afterwards to be killed in the South African Boer War.
The Addis Ababa Palace – and a Court Banquet
Wellby was much impressed with his visit to Ethiopia. He recalls, in his posthumous autobiographical work ‘Twixt Sirdar and Menelik(London, 1901)that, as he and his party drew near to Addis Ababa, the capital, they met “many people coming and going. Soon we were in the midst of little round huts with their compounds protected by low mud walls, dotted here, there, and everywhere, but all alike. In the very centre of the whole scene, and completely occupying a separate hill, stood the king’s red-tiled palace, surrounded by a plantation of sycamore trees. On all sides we saw extraordinary numbers of mules, ponies, and donkeys grazing on the excellent pasturage, and in the most suitable spots, villages of canvas [i.e. tents] had been patched, all indicative of the king’s impending march”.
Subsequently invited to breakfast in the Palace Wellby recalls that “as might be expected, there were crowds of attendants around and about the king’s tents. We passed under an awning, and then entered a very fine circular tent, where we found the king seated on a low, cushioned sofa ornamented with two wings or arm-rests. Placed in front of him was a large decorated basket, holding a pile of thin round pieces of bread, called injerras, of which he occasionally ate. In front of this was a long row of baskets  covered with cloth, holding bread and little dishes of spices. On either side, seated on the ground, were the governors of the provinces, the generals, and other grandees. Amidst this select company stood attendants, dangling before their noses yards of raw, quivering meat… From these appetizing joints, the guests themselves, armed with long thin knives, cut off pieces, each according to his taste, which they forthwith proceeded to devour with great gusto. By the side of each guest stood a decanter of tej [mead, or honey wine] which was always refilled as soon as emptied”.
The banquet, Wellby explains, was a remarkably quiet and dignified affair; “I was surprised”, he says, at the silence which pervaded the gathering. Occasionally Janhoi [an affectionate reference to the Emperor] would make a remark: otherwise there was very little talking, all being bent on eating and drinking, an operation over which they in no way hurried themselves”.
Wellby’s description of court life in Addis Ababa, the newly established capital, also discusses the way in which camps were set up – a question which we considered in our previous article. He states that the site selected was “as flat as a billiard table, and intersected by clear, running rivulets”. Turning to camp formation he continues:
“no tent was seen until the king’s had been pitched, and the same procedure followed as on the previous occasion, the entry to the king’s tent as usual facing the direction of the morrow’s march. Then tents sprang up and around with wonderful rapidity, each general knowing well enough his own correct position. No orders were issued, there were no tedious measurings with lines and little flags, no dressing of flags, no trumpets sounding, no arguments, no talking. There was no noise whatsoever; every man knew exactly what to do, with the result that in an incredibly short space of time the deserted plain was converted into a sort of Abyssinian Aldershot”.
***
The Addis Ababa Market
Addis Ababa, Menilek and Taytu’s New Flower, was also an important market. Our best description of it around the turn of the last century is to be found in Percy Powell-Cotton’s Sporting Trip through Abyssinia (London, 1902). Recalling his visits to markets all over the world he declares:
“… of all the strange emporiums I have inspected, I think the great market-place of the Emperor Menelik is the most interesting. There one obtains a truer notion of the productive powers of the country, both in raw material and manufactured articles, and can learn better what foreign goods find a ready sale among the people, than in many of the markets I have seen in the four continents”.
Summing up the commercial situation as he saw it at that time he continues:
“To the market-place at Adis Ababa come grains and spices, peppers and condiments from every corner of the kingdom, coffee from Harrar and Lake Tana, cotton from the banks of the Blue Nile, gold from Beni Shongol, and civet from the Galla country, while salt from the far north of Tigre is the current change for a [Maria Theresa] dollar. Fine cotton shammas, heavy burnouses of black blanket-like cloth, jewellery and arms, saddlery and ploughs are all here. In fact here you can feel the commercial pulse of Abyssinia, gain some insight into the present state of her civilisation, and gather what she wants from the foreigner and what she has to offer in exchange”.
And to learn still more, dear reader, we invite you to visit the Powell-Cotton Museum, in Birchington, Kent, in the U.K.
***
The Addis Ababa market in those days, before the Italian occupation (which changed things very materially), was situated on the upper slope of a hill immediately opposite, and north-west, of the Palace. Trade, Powell-Cotton explains, was carried out every day, “but the largest gathering takes place on Saturdays, and when the Emperor is resident in the capital”.
Toward the north of the market the vendors, he relates, were nearly all women, who rode in with jewellery from the neighbouring villages. The chief commodities in this section were thick silver rings, for wearing round the neck, women’s ear-rings, solitaire studs, generally gilt, and curious ear-rings for men who had killed an elephant. Also hair-pins with filigree heads, and many other things, too numerous to relate.
Near the top of the hill our author, good chauvinist that he was, reports that “one long alley” was “devoted to cotton goods from America, India, and Manchester”, but adds: “Lancashire, I regret to say, supplies by far the smallest quantity, for the English manufacturer will neither make the quality nor supply the lengths required in Abyssinia”.
Beside all such merchandize Powell-Cotton reports seeing coffee-beans, tej and talla (i.e mead and beer), iron ploughshares, knives and spear-heads, rhinoceros-hide whips, bamboos for tent-poles, bundles of split wood for hut-building, fagots for fuel, snuff, and “every kind of grain for bread and condiments for flavouring”.
And on the southern side of the market he saw the mule and horse area, where animals were being galloped to show their speed and prowess. The Abyssinians, Powell-Cotton tells us, had the “excellent rule” that “before a bargain is complete, the vendor and purchaser must together lead their beast before an official, who registers their names, witnesses the paying over of the money, and exacts a fee from both parties to the contract. No horse may be sold for more than fifty [Maria Theresa| dollars, but a mule may go up to three hundred”.
Thus was it at Addis Ababa market in the olden days. Very different from today: no radios, no tape-recorders, no computers!
(To be Continued)


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