Half a millennium ago the renowned Portuguese traveller Father Alvares wrote his famous contemporary account of medieval Ethiopia as he saw it in the early 1520s’.
In this work he described the country as it then was – a land virtually without capitals of any size, but with the institution known to historians as “moving capitals”.
The prevalence of such “moving capitals”, which were essentially impermanent settlements, was later observed by the notable Florentine trader Andrea Corsali, who wrote in 1512 that the Ethiopian royal retinue and army combined were so considerable that it could not remain in any locality for more than four months, nor return to the same place in less than ten years.
Timber and Firewood
This picture was confirmed two centuries later by the Portuguese Jesuit author Manoel de Almeida, who observed that changes in the location of Ethiopian capitals were made “especially because of lack of firewood”, and added:
“They choose particularly a place where firewood is found in plenty, but as they have no method in cutting down forests and groves the neighbouring hills and valleys are bare in a few years. It is then a question of moving the site to another place where there is firewood”.
The tradition of moving capitals was so deeply engrained that the Chronicle of the subsequent Emperor Galawdewos declared that it was the custom of the country former kings to move from country to country until the time of their deaths, the hour of their eternal repose.
Ethiopia’s long tradition of moving capitals found expression as late as 1885 when Menilek, at that time king of Shawa, moved his headquarters from Entotto, a high mountain which was often cold, and suffered from tropical storms, to the nearby lowland plain of Finfini, which enjoyed a balmy climate. The site was also particularly attractive to his wife, 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 involving the abandoning of the old capital, and its replacement by the new, required extensive deforestation, for timber and fire-wood were both heavily expended in the enhanced building operations.
Contemporary observers agree that the Ethiopian capital at the turn of the century was suffering from a great dearth of wood. Faced with this shortage of wood Menilek travelled frequently to Mount Managasha, a forest some 20 kilometres west of the capital, whence his men carried back vast amounts of timber for his palace and the capital’s principal places of worship, most notably the churches of Ragu’el and Maryam, both of which were almost entirely built of timber.
Menilek’s importance in the search for timber was underlined by Thomas Hohler of the British Legation in Addis Ababa. He noted that if this 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.
Visitors to Addis Ababa were almost unanimous in reporting a considerable shortage of wood. Herbert Vivian, a British Traveller, wrote 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 picture was confirmed by another British observer, John Boyes, who notes 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 exploitation of the Managasha forest, which had been begun by Menilek and his followers, was continued by professional wood-cutters, large numbers of whom, according to the French traveller Jerome Vanderheym, were under the direction of a Frenchman appropriately known as Dubois. They were so active that the Georgian pharmacist Dr Merab expressed the view around 1914 that Managasha would be completely deforested within the next quarter of a century,
Menelik Proposes Abandonment of the Capital
The shortage of wood was so great by the beginning of the Twentieth Century that most foreign observers were of the opinion that Menilek would soon be obliged to again move his capital. “Some nine years ago”, wrote Vivian, “Menelik’s capital was at Entotto… Now only two churches and a few brown ruins remain… The reason for its abandonment was that all the wood had been exhausted for building and fuel. The Abyssinians are most improvident in the matter of wood, cutting down forests in a haphazard way and never troubling to replant. The consequences of this are already felt in Addis Ababa; wood is now brought thither from a distance of sixteen miles and it is certain that in a very short space of time Menelik will be obliged to shift his capital once more to the neighbourhood of fresh woods”.
The British envoy Rennell Rodd took a similar view, declaring that the “ever-increasing distances which separate the present settlement from the forests under Mt. Managasha will no doubt eventually entail another move”, while the author Augustus B. Wylde wrote that “This immense straggling settlement has seen its best days, and some new place will be chosen as head-quarters, as it is now nearly impossible to procure firewood for the wants of the inhabitants… As long as a large standing army is kept up, the settlement is shortly doomed”
Gleichen agreed, declaring “sooner or later a new spot must be chosen, for gradually all the wood is being cut down and consumed, and when the distance from the forest becomes inconveniently great, the capital must be removed elsewhere”.
Such prognostications ignored Menilek and the eucalyptus tree.