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Tradition has it that in the early 16th century Emperor Lebna Dengel, the last of the great medieval rulers of Ethiopia, had his capital in a stretch of mountainous countryside known as Entoto.Support for this view was found by the late 19th century British envoy, Count Albert Gleichen, who saw the ruins of what must have been “an exceedingly strong fortress” consisting of “some broken walls” and “the remains of a large round tower with two parapets which dominate the height”. At about the same time, the English big-game hunter Percy Powell-Cotton, reported that “many” of the “massive walls” of this fortress were still standing at the turn of the century and “gave an idea of its ability to withstand all attacks except those of artillery”. This wall was reinforced by an encircling trench which Powell-Cotton estimated was 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

The remains of this or another considerable trench may be seen to this day near the summit of today’s Entoto. Check this out for yourself, dear reader!


The wider Entoto area was also the location of several religious sites dating back to medieval times .These most notably included the important monastery of Debra Libanos and the impressively situated monastery of Zeqwala which was known to Venetian map-makers; also the 16th century capital of Barara, the exact location of which still eludes us; the remarkable rock-hewn churches of Adadi Mariam and Yekka Mikael (on the latter, see the writings of its enthusiast, our American friend Bruce Strachen), as well as not a few man-made caves – on which, see our article on caves in Ethiopia Observer for 1973.King, later King of Kings, i.e. Emperor, Menilik II was reportedly much interested in such antiquities, and when moving his capital southwards from Ankober, chose to establish his new capital at Entoto in 1878 because it was believed to have been the capital of his forefathers. When rebuilding the greatness of Ethiopia, as he perceived it, he thus wanted to rule from a locality where his predecessors had reigned.
The monarch, according to the French traveller Jules Borelli, had camped on the mountain of Wechecha in 1878, and, proceeding southwards, was shown the remains of Entoto, the old former capital -precisely where it was, we do not know- in 1881. This seems to be confirmed by Menilik’s chronicler, Gabre Selassie, who reports that his master was “very happy” at the discovery of  the historic settlement of Entoto, and declared that “Since God has permitted us to find the true remains of Emperor Dawit’s [i.e. Lebna Dengel’s] town in our time, it is our duty to rebuild it”.
All this, dear reader, may be true, but there would at the same time seem no denying that Entoto was also strategically well situated -particularly for a ruler such as Menilik- whose soldiers were at first poorly armed, but despite this, was still planning major expeditions to the south of the country.
Having chosen the new site of Entoto, Menilik gave orders for construction work to proceed there without delay, probably in 1882. Later, by the turn of the century, the British traveller, Herbert Vivian, estimated that the settlement had a population of no less than 50,000 souls, many of whom, we may suppose, had previously been attached to his predecessors’ courts at Ankober.
The first building to be erected at Entoto, as was customary elsewhere, was that of the Palace, the foundations of which were officially blessed in January1885. This structure was put up, according to the chronicle, with the assistance of a master builder from Gondar, which had retained its earlier building tradition, and was helped by nine assistants. The Swiss engineer, Alfred Ilg, and two of his compatriots, Zimmermann and Appenzeller, were also involved in the building work at the Palace, while the nearby church of Raguel, which stood within the Palace compound, was erected by a group of Indian Muslim craftsmen led by Haji Khawas from Peshawar. His descendants are still to be found in the capital.
Another early building was the favourite of Menilik’s consort, the redoubtable Queen Taitu. This was the large church of Entoto Mariam, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the foundations of which were blessed in 1884. It was largely built with huge beams of timber which Menilik’s followers carried from the great forest of Menagasha, located west of the present-day Addis Ababa – on which, see the following article in this series.
Buildings at Entoto included the usual Palace structures: the elfegn, or monarch’s private apartment, the segenet, or royal tribunal, and the addarash, or reception hall. Circular in design, the latter was no less than 12 metres high and 28 metres in diameter.
For the first royal banquet held there, no fewer than 5,315 cattle were slaughtered and dispensed -the delicacy of delicacies- as raw meat.