Emperor Menelik was a pioneer to Ethiopian modernization

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Atse Menelik and photography

Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913), one of the most documented and beloved figures in Ethiopian history, made an impressive attempt to change Ethiopia and its feudal system for ever. From his capital of Addis Ababa, founded only a few short years before he became emperor, Menelik directed the process of changing Ethiopia from a traditional to modern polity. His period of rule saw the introduction of electricity, telephone, telegraph, cinema, public schools, printing press, and hospitals. The Emperor employed European advisors to modernize his army, to introduce modern communications and transportation. He was savvy enough to embrace the new technology of his time—photography— as he was well aware that a picture with the insignia of his office could only enhance power. The emperor was introduced to the new technology by his Swiss councilor, Alfred Ilg. Elisabeth Biasio in her book Majesty and Magnificence at the court of Menelik, Alfred Ilg’s Ethiopia around 1900, related how the emperor came to discover photography inadvertently after an informant told him that the Swiss expatriate had “put him in a black box”. Quoting Konrad Keller, who was on a German diplomatic mission to Ethiopia, Elisabeth wrote at that time the emperor knew nothing about photography. “The emperor summoned Ilg one day and told him: “I have heard something about you, that was very bad of you. I have been told that without me knowing anything about it you made me very small and put me in a little black box with my whole castle, houses, people and mules. And most incredible of all, apparently in this box I was standing on my head with my legs in the air.”

Afterwards, when Ilg had explained the most important rules of optics to the emperor, who was absolutely fascinated by all technical innovations, and when he understood what happened inside the camera, he frequently allowed his portrait to be taken, Elisabeth stated. The emperor instructed the photographers on just how he was to be portrayed. Here are some photos taken at the time by Ilg which I scanned from Elisabeth Biasio’s book.

(In the first picture, the emperor and empress in their luxurious private quarters, furnished in western fashion, at an informal, western-style dinner.

Menilek’s (but not Taytu’s) daughter Zewditu sits to the left behind the empress.

Zewditu was empress from 1916-1930. This photograph shows that Ilg knew the imperial family well and that he was admitted even on private occasions.)

The picture was taken 1896 after the battle of Adwa was won. Menilek poses as the victorious monarch with all his insignia: with the lion’s hair crown (anfarro), the symbol of the valiant warrior, the imperial Kabba lanqa and the scepter. The lion, as regal animal, is an illusion to the verse from the Apocalypse (5,5) “Behold, victorious was the lion from the lion of Judah”.

This photograph emphasises the emperor’s function as supreme military leader as he is wearing the crown of lion’s hair and carrying a rifle.

Emperor Menilek and Empress Taytu. In this rather informal photgraph the emperor is wering the kerchief and a balck cape (kabba). The empress has draped her tobe around her.

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