Mekdela tries to win tourists
Emperor Tewodros’s mountain capital, Mekdela is often overlooked by local and foreign visitors. Situated between Amara Saynt region and Delanta plain, in the north-west of the country, the high-flat topped mountain has mostly been an off-the-beaten-track experience. Lack of proper road and tourist facilities have for long made the area inaccessible. But that could be about to change. The region’s tourism bureau, local business owners and heritage enthusiasts are investing considerable time and effort in a bid to boost visitor numbers. The 140km road from Desse to Tenta, the nearest town to Mekedela, is recently surfaced and renovated. A 17-kilometer tarmac road, from Tenta to Mekdela is being constructed and a part of it is already opened for those wishing to visit the place associated with one of the most important and enigmatic figures of Ethiopia.
Head of the Tenta Woreda’s tourism and culture bureau, Kassahun Feleke says the region is doing its best to attract local and foreign visitors and is engaged in building facilities. “We want to put Mekedla on the map – it has failed to make the most of what it’s got here. It is an extraordinary place – yet it is rarely visited by travelers,” he said. The townsfolk are proud of their heritage, he says. “We would be happy to welcome tourists to introduce them to the region’s rich history.”
A community-run lodge is being constructed and would be inaugurated at the end of June. Kassahun says the small-scale lodge is being constructed with materials from the local area and comprises ten individual cottages, which will have common shower. The lodge would arrange trekking as well as visits to traditional communities.
At Mekdela’s natural fortress Emperor Tewodros, a charismatic ruler who reigned from 1855 to 1868, established a headquarters, after abandoning Gondar, the old early 17th century capital of Ethiopia, and his camp to Debre Tabor. Tewodros stands out in Ethiopian history as a great protagonist of modernization and unification. From Mekdela he mounted a series of military expeditions, which brought many areas of the country, including Tegray, Wollo and finally Shawa, as well as Gondar, under his control.
The Emperor constructed a palace, which stood in the center of the Amba, a large two-storey rectangular building.He kept his library, treasurey and captives, both European and domestic there.Separated from the palace by an open field stood the thatched and sizable Medhani Alem Church. Much of the edifices are in ruins today as Mekedla has seen some turbulent history. The historic confrontation between Tewodros and the British expedition led by Sir Robert Napier left the area in a desolate condition. Tewodros’s army succumbed to the superior fire-power of the invading force. The citadel of Mekedela fell to the British on 3 April 1868, when Tewodros committed suicide to avoid capture. British troops, according to historian Prof. Richard Pankurshut, looted and destroyed the citadel and carried off two royal crowns, 400 religious manuscripts, innumerable crosses, and not a few other treasures.
Today the ruin of the Medani Alem (Savoir of the world) church, the fortification erected by Tewodros, ruin of the palace, Sebastopol, a bronze canon built by the missionaries, the place where the Emperor shot himself, the Emperor’s tomb, two main gateways of the Amba, known as the Koket-Ber, and Kafir Ber, battle field of the 4000 Ethiopian army led by Fitawrari Gebreye and the British troops, the tomb of Fitawari Gebreye could be seen.
The surrounding countryside is lush and verdant, the scenery is a particular treat to discover and enjoy. Work had also been done to improve the “look” of the village with new street signs “drawing attention to local attractions,” the tourism bureau said. Entrance fees are helping pay for a restoration project and visitors help support many local businesses in the surrounding area, he added.
However, the biggest prospect remains to reclaim dozens of the regions’ most treasured artifacts from museums abroad. Before leaving, the British took 400 manuscripts back to Britain, together with the crowns, tabots and other booty. A manuscript of the Kebre Negest was subsequently returned IV, a royal crown to Empress Zewditu and a seal and cap to Emperoro Haile selassie. Other retuned items of loot were given to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Museum and the Ethiopian National Museum. Demands for the return of other loot have been voiced by an Addis Ababa and Edinburg based society, the AFROMET (Association for the Return of Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures), founded in 1999.
(My trip to Mekdela was sponsored by the Addis Ababa-based Francophone Tour company, Monpays Tours.)