The Engineer and the King
The legacy of Alfred Ilg, Menelik’s trusted advisor.
Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg stood before Menelik II, the emperor of Ethiopia, perplexed by his accusation. The emperor had summoned Ilg, saying, “I have heard something about you, that was very bad of you and of which I surely would not have believed you capable. At the same time it is so ridiculous, so improbable, that I would not have believed it at all had I not heard it from trustworthy people.
“I have been told,” Menelik continued, “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.”
Taken completely by surprise, Ilg then began the process of explaining to the emperor — who knew nothing about photography — the principal laws of optics.
Now more than a century after his reign, Menelik II is celebrated not only for his historic victory over the Italian invaders in the battle of Adwa, but also for bringing countless modern inventions — including the camera — to Ethiopia. Behind him, though, stood the less renowned but no less instrumental Alfred Ilg — the mastermind credited with bringing several innovations to Ethiopia, from the first piped water supply to Addis Ababa to the country’s first postal system. Indeed, leading historian on Ethiopia Richard Pankhurst notes Ilg as “one of the most important Europeans in Ethiopian modern history.”
Ilg was born into a poor family in Frauenfeld, northeast of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1854. After training as a mechanical engineer at Zurich Polytechnic, he worked for the Marquardt Company in Bern, Switzerland, for two years. It was there that Ilg heard that the Ethiopian king was looking for European engineers.
Menelik II, then King of Showa, had asked a Swiss coffee trader named Conrad Furrer to find him some talented Europeans to train Ethiopian workers in craftsmanship. Ilg jumped on the chance offered to him by Furrer and departed from Marseille, France, at the age of 25 in May 1877.
Soon after Ilg arrived in Showa, the king asked the young man to make him a pair of shoes. Delighted with the handiwork, Menelik then asked Ilg to make him a rifle — despite Ilg’s admitted ignorance of gun-making. Having made a passable rifle that pleased the monarch, Ilg thus gained Menelik’s goodwill and was appointed a craftsman, responsible for all sorts of work for the king.
In 1886, Empress Taitu convinced the king to shift his capital from the desolate, freezing hills of Entoto to Finfinne, the site of hot water springs. As an engineer, Ilg contributed greatly to the construction of this new capital, Addis Ababa (“New Flower,” in Amharic). He oversaw the construction of the new palace as well as of roads and bridges in the city. He equipped the emperor’s palace with piped water, a telephone line and electrical power, and he later supervised the design and construction of the first piped water supply to the capital.
In 1894, Ilg traveled to Rome, where he met members of the Italian Cabinet. Afterward, he returned to Ethiopia and warned Menelik II, now emperor of Ethiopia, of the Italians’ ambition to occupy Ethiopia. That warning helped Ethiopia to better prepare for the invasion at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, especially as it led Ilg to spur local production of weapons and ammunitions. Ilg also played a prominent part in the negotiations with the Italians at the post-Adwa Peace Treaty of Oct. 26, 1896, in which Italy recognized Ethiopia’s full independence.
The king was so pleased with Ilg’s comprehensive achievements that, in 1894, he granted him the authorization to construct and operate a railway line running from Djibouti to the capital. Ilg would not witness the finalization of the line, which only reached Addis Ababa in 1917, but his role initiating the project and overseeing initial stages is still considered instrumental. Ilg likewise oversaw the construction of several public buildings and churches, and he is even credited with creating both a unified national currency and the country’s first postal system.
Ilg then held responsibility for the country’s foreign affairs for the decade between 1897 and 1907. In response to the great expansion of Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations with the outside world, Menelik II appointed Ilg as a “Counselor in the rank of an Excellency” in 1897. He also received the highest order of the country: the Star of Ethiopia, which Menelik II founded to honor both civilians and military officials for their service to the country.
When German delegates established several treaties between Ethiopia and Germany in 1905, Ilg’s influence at the court began to dwindle. He retired from the emperor’s service in 1906, just when the monarch’s health was beginning to fail. Ilg returned to his native Zurich, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 61 on Jan. 7, 1916, Ethiopian Christmas Day.
“I loved him like a father,” Ilg is quoted as saying about the king. And indeed, during his 28 years of uninterrupted service to Ethiopia, Ilg proved himself as a committed engineer as well as a devoted technician and diplomatic advisor. Beyond that, though, he also left behind a remarkable documentary heritage of his time in Ethiopia — all thanks to his enthusiasm for that “little black box.”
“Addis Ababa, which was once visually planned by Ilg, is currently transforming so fast, the only remnant we have [of the old city] is the pictures taken by Ilg,” explains Ahmed Zekaria, curator at Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies. Totaling roughly 1,600 images in all, Ilg’s existing collection of photos gives great insight into the capital at the time of its emergence.
A man of many talents, with a willingness to embrace what others deemed “ridiculous” or “improbable,” the Swiss engineer built a lasting legacy that will continue far into the future.