The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

In the Footsteps of Kings

Retreating to Ankober to relive its history.

Standing on the mountain that used to house Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II is a bit like perching on the top of the world. The ridgeline of jagged mountain peaks extends outward as far as the eye can see, forming blue ribbons of color against a sky punctuated with thin cloud threads. Below, houses and people remain concealed by the rolling hills and forests.

Reaching this post was not easy. To get here, I drove four hours outside of my home and Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Although I’d been living in Addis for more than a year, few locals or expats had suggested Ankober as a historical weekend trip, instead advising the classic visits to Lalibela and Gondar. But after stumbling across a blog post that mentioned how Ankober once served as the seat of authority in Ethiopia, my curiosity took over.

The first known ruler to utilize Ankober as an administrative center was King Yekuno Amlak, in power from 1270 to 1285. The city later became the capital of the Shewa Kingdom in 1745, hosting five different kings, including Haile Melekot. In 1865, his son Menelik II triumphantly entered Ankober after defeating Emperor Tewodros II in a battle at Gadilo-Meda. Only 22 years old at the time, Menelik II oversaw the Shewa Kingdom from Ankober until moving the capital farther south to Addis Ababa in 1886 (where he was crowned emperor).

Ankober’s geography played a critical role in its selection: It was relatively close to the coast (now modern Djibouti); well-positioned to expand Menelik II’s territory to the south; and located on an important trading route. From the Red Sea, merchant ships delivered arms and other goods inland and sailed away with loads of coffee, ivory and gold. Ankober and the nearby town of Aliyu Amba served as customs offices for the caravan route, adding additional revenue to Menelik’s administration. The surrounding wood forests of Wef-Washa also offered endless building supplies and fuel.

Intrigued by the area — and armed with a smartphone, Google Maps and an old Land Rover — I headed northeast toward the Highlands. Although I could only stay one night in Ankober, I hoped the experience would allow me a glimpse into Ethiopia’s history beyond what I could read.

A few hours later, after winding through fields studded with cattle and feeling every pounding of the rock-strewn road, I watched the path begin to ascend, pulling away from the plains. Suddenly, the mountains appeared and the air turned cooler.

Ankober is a relatively small and quiet town, with a population of roughly 2,300. A hospital and police station sit on the main street, alongside ramshackle stands offering spices, lentils and glass bottles of soda. Boys play foosball by the side of the road.

All that is left of Menelik II’s former fortress is a stone wall, but an ecotourism hotel has been constructed on the site, just a few minutes past the town’s center. As I pulled into the parking lot in the late afternoon, I glimpsed the Ankober Palace Lodge from below but quickly realized that the only way to access it is the old-fashioned way: on foot. A tattered sign tacked to a tree at the beginning of the trail read like an omen: “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”

The path upward was steep, passing through a dense stretch of trees. Pale white butterflies fluttered about the walkway. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged from the shady darkness to the base of the lodge and climbed the rest of the way on stone stairs.

At the summit, I paused to catch my breath. At 2,870 meters above sea level, I watched the cliffs of the Rift Valley below tumble downward, a patchwork of verdant green farms and forests. The surrounding highlands formed a seemingly unending series of plateaus. From this vantage point, I understood why different political dynasties would have claimed Ankober as their own.

I checked into the lodge — my sleeping accommodation a room with a high, thatched-roof ceiling and a cement floor. The main attraction in this isolated setting is the chance to experience where Menelik II — now widely considered the founder of modern Ethiopia — began his imperial journey, and to revel in the solitude. The lodge has re-created the building style utilized by Menelik, constructing them with locally sourced materials.

On the palace grounds, tiny turquoise birds swooped in and out of sight. Sounds from below — children shouting, a goat herd migrating toward pasture — mingled with the stillness. Although I only saw birds during my stay, other wild animals such as the colobus monkey and gelada baboon, as well as hyenas and leopards, can be glimpsed in the surrounding hills.

During Menelik’s reign as King of Shewa, people flocked to this area; one 19th-century travelogue estimated that 10,000 inhabitants lived in sprawling settlements surrounding the palace. Diplomats from Britain, France and Italy established missions in Ankober, in hopes of influencing Menelik from his imposing perch. The city also established its reputation as a center of learning and the arts, attracting clergy members, writers and medicinal healers. Menelik even owned the first telephone installed in Ethiopia.

It is rumored that French poet Arthur Rimbaud passed through here once to transport arms to Menelik, only to find that the king had already abandoned Ankober. Perhaps Rimbaud also sat outside at dusk as I did, witnessing the sun drop behind the blue ridgeline, stars appearing like freckles across the dark sky.

After Menelik moved to Addis, many of Ankober’s residents also trickled away. A new rail line between present-day Djibouti and Addis bypassed Ankober, and many people migrated to be near the railway. Menelik also moved on to other feats; during his governance as emperor of Ethiopia (1889 – 1913), he successfully headed off an attempt by the Italians to conquer parts of Ethiopia, defeating Italian troops in 1896 at the infamous Battle of Adwa.

Ankober was later used to house political prisoners. When Mussolini’s Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Ankober resurfaced as a hub for the Ethiopian resistance movement. Many of the area’s churches and settlements were destroyed as a result of battles, and the majority of the remaining residents fled to Addis, walking the 130 kilometers in a few days’ time.

Ankober’s military past and the subsequent migrations were eerie subjects to contemplate in the darkness.

The next morning, coffee at the lodge was prepared the traditional Ethiopian way: Beans were roasted over the fire, turning their exteriors from pale green to a deep brown. They were then pounded into powder, filtered through boiling water and served in a clay pot. The coffee was smoky and slightly bitter, leaving a light residue of grit on the tongue. I ate breakfast on the restaurant’s patio, then meandered around the palace grounds before departing back to Addis.

Travel is often about coming into contact with the new or different. But experiencing history through travel brings a new shade of understanding to our world: For a brief moment, you are transported to a coffee caravan, nights illuminated by candlelight, the decisions of a long-gone king. Retreating to Ankober is a vivid reminder that history is often most alive when standing on the ground of its ghosts.

Caitlin L. Chandler is a freelance writer and health and human-rights advocate. She blogs on development, culture and media at Africa Is a Country, and her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Global Public Health and other publications.