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Menilek’s Palace in Addis Ababa, which was substantially larger than that of any previous Ethiopian ruler, was constructed with considerable foreign expertise, and embodied a number of innovations and other unusual features. Perhaps the most impressive building in the Palace complex was the Aderash, or main reception hall, which was completed around 1898. This was a vast rectangular structure with six gables overlooking the town and was large enough, according to the Emperor’s chronicle, to hold no fewer than 6,987 persons in the main hall, not counting the chiefs to the right and left of the monarch, and several others.
Also noteworthy was the installation at the Palace by Menilek’s Swiss engineer, Alfred Ilg, of a system of piped water. This was popularly considered miraculous – or, alternatively, a swindle – in that rainwater from high Entoto, which had ordinarily run down the mountain by the force gravity was also forced up to the Addis Ababa hill by capilliary action . Few people in the country were yet familiar with this possibility.
The near-magical success of the Palace water supply was commemorated in several Amharic poems. One of them, in rough English translation, proudly declared:
“We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa
Water worships Emperor Menilek
O Dagnew [Abba Dagnew, the name of Menelik’s horse, by which he was popularly addressed] what more wisdom will you bring?
You already make water soar into the air!”
And another piece of verse went further:
“King Abba Dagnew, how great is he becoming!
He makes the water rise in the air through a window;
The dirty wash, and the thirsty drink.
See what marvels have already come in our time
No wonder that some day he will even outdo the Faranje [Europeans|.
Addis Ababa’s first electric light installations were also first installed at the Palace, and were subsequently overhauled by German technicians attached to the Felix Rosen Diplomatic Mission of 1905.
The Palace was similarly the site of the country’s first bank, the Bank of Abyssinia, which was established in 1905, and moved in the following year into its own specially erected building nearby.
Notable Palace builders, in addition to Ilg, included an unnamed specialist from Gondar, who came with a group of assistants, as well as an Italian builder, Luigi Capucci, a notable Armenian, Sarkis Terzian, and Haji Khawas, an Indian from Peshawer, whose descendants can still be encountered in the capital to this day.
These or other workers introduced novel construction methods, including the use of a rail, and wheel-barrows to which, we are told, the more traditionally –minded did not always take kindly.
Other Developments in the Capital
The last years of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th witnessed significant economic and social development in and around the capital. Institutions established in this period included the first of a number of short-lived cinemas, popularly known as Saytan Bet, or House of Satan in 1898; an imperial race-course, much frequented by the foreign diplomatic community, in 1906; the Etege Hotel, established by Empress Taytu in 1907; the Menilek School, an important fulcrum for modernising ideas, in 1908, the Menilek Hospital in 1910, which owed much to an earlier short-lived Russian Red Cross hospital; a state printing press, which published Menilek’s modernising decrees, in 1911; and sundry hydro-electric installations, about which relatively little is known, in 1911-12.
Mention may also be made of a small observatory, in which Menilek, an honorary member of the French astronomical society, took great personal interest, and the Addis Ababa mint, at which Menilek’s fractional coins were struck, one birr ones being exclusively minted in Paris; and an arsenal, with many fire-arms purchased from abroad or received from abroad as gifts – in which likewise much fascinated Menelik.
Addis Ababa was also the point of departure of one of the country’s first two modern roads – which led westwards, as we have seen, to Addis Alam. The capital was also the terminal of the Addis Ababa-Jibuti railway for which Menilek granted a first concession in 1894. Work on the line, however, advanced slowly, with the result that the railway did not reach Dire Dawa until 1902. The country’s foreign trade, both exports and imports, were nevertheless thereafter much expanded.
Modern-style road and bridge building in the Addis Ababa area began towards the end of the 19th century, and became important in 1902 when several were given names.
In the capital’s early days movement within the city was rendered difficult by fast-flowing rivers and mountain torrents, but the coming of bridges greatly facilitated inter-city transport. The first stone bridge in Addis Ababa, situated between the Russian Legation and the Russian Hospital, was constructed when a Russian was drowned trying to swim across the Kebena River. The next important bridge, called after Ras Makonnen, was built in 1908.
Several brick factories were also established at around this time.
The Great Transformation
A Great Transformation, virtually independent of Government, was also taking place in the field of building, as well as clothing, food and drink.
The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed the erection in Addis Ababa of several hundred rectangular houses, many of them with corrugated iron roofing, which became prominent after 1902 when the railway reached Dire Dawa. Such houses were inhabited by members of Menilek’s Cabinet, which came into existence in 1907.
Local spinning and weaving was increasingly replaced by imported factory-produced material; Arab and other immigrants meanwhile served at the Palace as tapestry-makers, while Singer sewing machines became increasingly prominent in the tailoring trade. Another innovation was the increasing manufacture and sale of soap.
Other innovations included the first mechanical flour-mills, abbatoirs for the slaughter of cattle and other livestock; and separate butchers’ shops, for Christian and Muslim customers. Also noteworthy was the commercialisation of enjera, or traditional pancake-like bread, and the production and sale of European-style baked bread. Increasing quantities of brille, the traditional glass containers for serving tej, honey wine, were imported, and enamelware came into greater kitchen use. No less important was the establishment of restaurants, hotels and drinking houses and the consumption of coffee (but not yet sugar!).
On the diplomatic side several foreign legations and consulates came into existence – and contributed in their way to the modernising process.