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Menilek’s Craze for Road-Building

Addis Ababa, in the last years of Menilek’s reign, is said to have still looked more like a military camp than a town. Such was the opinion of the British geographer Henry Savage Landor. In his reminiscences, Across Widest Africa (London, 1907), he observes that the Ethiopian capital “cannot be called a city in the proper sense of the word”, for it was occupied by “thousands of white tents, but few permanent houses” and “really impresses one, more as a big encampment, than a town”.
The country, as Savage Landor notes, was, however, ruled by a monarch passionately interested in innovations. After his rise to power in the 1870s he emerged as a keen road-builder. Following traditional Ethiopian custom, earlier practised for example by Emperor Tewodros, it was not unusual for him when riding through the countryside, to stop and order the track to be cleared of brambles or other obstacles to ease communication. Alternatively he might pick up a stone or clot of earth and have it placed by his chiefs and followers where needed for road-making.
The result was that several relatively good roads were established in the capital, as well as wooden and other bridges constructed over the many streams which, in the rainy season, isolated many parts of the town. At such times, People were exempted from court hearings.
Later, after the Italian defeat at Adwa in 1896, the victorious Ethiopian monarch recruited a number of Italian prisoners of war as road-builders. The British traveller Augustus B. Wylde reported seeing many of them “hard at work” on the northern road between Addis Ababa and the Eritrean frontier, blasting away rocks and boulders to make a “fairly wide and level” track with a low wall on the precipice side.
Menilek was subsequently much occupied in building the country’s first modern road which ran westwards from Addis Ababa to Addis Alam. This was partly conceived by the Italian engineer Castagna, and utilised the traction engine imported from Britain by the Emperor’s Armenian aide Sarkis Terzian. Report has it that, at one point, no less than 800 Ethiopians could be seen dragging this heavy machine to bring it into service.
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Testimony to Menilek’s interest in such road-building is provided by Savage Landor who writes:
“Of late years, Menelik has been bent on making good roads in the capital and bridges over the many streams which intersect the town, and which are impassable during the rainy season…
‘Since the arrival of two traction engines in the capital, Menelik, followed by many Abyssinian grandees, spends most of his time walking behind these engines while they are at work crushing stones upon the road. Menelik himself gets on the platform of the engine and takes the keenest interest in its working, including the stoking. Thousands of soldiers and a great portion of the population form a procession behind the Imperial chauffeur…
‘Menelik certainly gets a deal of amusement out of the traction engines. He uses them for all sorts of purposes besides road-making. I have seen the Emperor sawing wood with a circular saw driven by one of these engines upon the racecourse where a stand was being erected. When he did not actually work, hours were spent by the Emperor watching the saw at work and he did not restrain his admiration at the evenness of the divided planks”.
Landor also notes an interesting feature of road-building in Ethiopia, which resulted from the need to economise scarce resources:
“I noticed on going up the main road past the palace”, he writes, “that nobody walked on the road itself, but all crowded into the gutter at the side. Not knowing the laws of the country, I rode in the middle of the road upon my horse, much to the amazement of the crowd, many of whom made remarks which I did not understand. It seems that when roads are made and well-metalled … nobody is permitted to tread on them, so that they may be kept in good condition for the time when the rainy season arrives.
The gearing of transport facilities to climatic conditions, also applied to bridges. The British traveller Herbert Vivian (Abyssinia, 1901) states that the great bridge over the Awash river could be used only when the nearby ford was unpassable.
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Meanwhile, at the Russian Legation…        
Savage Landor’s visit to Addis Ababa coincided with a sad, but interesting, event: the sudden death of the Russian Minister to Ethiopia – which gave our British traveller the opportunity to catch a glimpse of some of the country’s funeral customs. Describing the event, he relates:
“Menelik, preceded and followed by thousands of warriors, hastened in great state to the Russian Legation… the soldiers in their white robes – … most impressive and formidable … ran before him … then a swarm of horsemen in brown burnouses, quite a picturesque sight. Here and there upon the white clothes of the soldiers, were touches of red, which added brilliancy to the striking scene…
“The crowd approached … the chiefs, mounted upon their horses, were noticeable above the sea of heads – most of them with their hair tightly bandaged in a white shash, others sporting cheap grey or black felt hats. All the infantrymen, thousands of them, carried Gras rifles, but the chiefs, only revolver-belts. It was not easy to recognise the Emperor among the horsemen unless his face were familiar to one, as he was garbed like other people, and like some other chiefs he wore a cheap, large-brimmed felt hat with a green lining under the brim. It was only after one identified the Imperial figure in a black silk burnous that one had time to cast a glance at the magnificent mule he rode with its gorgeous harness and gold decorations…
“Outside the house, a choir of Abyssinian priests chanted plaintively, waving to and fro censors of silver and brass. A youthful priest, who wore a gilt mitre over a silk kerchief upon his head, was the center figure of this picturesque group.”    
Addis Ababa in those days, immediately preceding the Italian Fascist invasion was, however, changing fast. The very careful Hungarian journalist Ladislas Farago (Abyssinia, 1935), writing in 1935, recalls: “I have spoken with people who have returned to the town after being away five years, and they could hardly recognise it.” And he added: “it has fully earned the title of capital”.