post Alfred Ilg

February 5th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 12:16

Foreign Involvement in Ethiopia’s Progress
By Richard Pankhurst

Alfred Ilg was a Swiss craftsman, who emerged as Emperor Menilek’s principal diplomatic adviser, and ranks as one of the most important Europeans in Ethiopian modern history.

A. Ilg travelled to Ethiopia with Three Compatriots.

In the meantime we can say that Ilg was born in Frauenfeld, north-east of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1854, and studied at the local Zurich Polytechnic. Later, in 1878, he set forth for Ethiopia, in the company of two of his compatriots, by name Appenzeller and Zimmermann. They came at the request of Menilek, then King of Shawa, who had asked a Swiss trader at the port of Aden to find him some European craftsmen able to act as engineers and train Ethiopian workers.

On his arrival in Shawa, Ilg, we are told, was asked by Menilek to make him a pair of shoes. The young Swiss dutifully complied with this request, and Menilek was enchanted with the visitor’s handiwork.

Emperor Menelik II, photographed by Alfred Ilg in 1880

Menilek, who doubtless recalled
how his predecessor and sometime master Emperor Tewodros had persuaded European missionaries to cast him cannons and mortars, then asked Ilg to make him a rifle. The Swiss, like the above mentioned missionaries, protested his ignorance of gun-making, and declared that an imported weapon would be much superior to anything he could himself produce.

Like Tewodros
Like Tewodros before him, Menilek, however, insisted. He declared that he wanted to see what Ilg could do. The latter accordingly did as he was asked, and duly made a passable rifle. This greatly pleased the monarch, who ordered it to be given an honoured place in his armoury. Ilg had thus gained Menilek’s good-will, and was never to lose it!

Emperor Tewodros

He was therupon appointed a craftsman, attached to Menilek’s staff, and was granted a monthly salary, payable in Maria Theresa thalers, of seven or eight pounds Sterling per month. He was soon engaged in all sorts of work for Menilek.

Bridge-building: One of Ilg’s first achievements was building a modern bridge over the Awash River, in 1887. Describing this work, he writes to a friend: A few weeks ago I completed the first bridge… It spans the river Awash. The beams had to be carried 15 kilometres on human shoulders. For the bridge-heads I had to square up the stones on the spot. I even had to burn charcoal in order to forge the nails, rivets, screws and bolts required. Add to this the tropical sun with all its dangers, heavy rains with resultant dysentery, intermittent fever, cyclones which almost pulled out my beard and carried the tent in all directions. At night the hyenas almost stole our leather pillows from under our heads; jackals and other rabble plundered the kitchen and obliged me to obtain respect with strychnine”. A few years later Ilg erected a palace for the monarch at his then capital, Entoto, situated, as most readers know in the mountains above present-day Addis Ababa.

Piped Water: Later again, in 1894, Ilg installed the water installations for the Emperor’s palace at Addis Ababa. This created something of a sensation, as the water, obtained from a spring in high Entoto, had to flow down to the Addis Ababa plain beneath it, and then make its way up again to the Palace compound, which was located on a smallish hill. People in the capital had never seen anything like this, and could not believe that water could ever, under any circumstances, flow upward. Menilek, however, was a great believer in innovation, and insisted that Ilg should proceed with his project, if only to see whether it would work. When the great day for inauguration arrived, the tap was turned on - but nothing happened. A European “friend” had secretly stuffed cotton into the pipe, as Ilg later discovered. This obstruction was duly removed, after which Ilg - and his project - were widely acclaimed. At least two Amharic poems were composed in honour of the event.

One declared:
“We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa.
Water worships Emperor Menilek.
O Danyew [i.e. Menilek] what more wisdom will you bring?
You already make water soar in the air!”

And the other ran as follows:
“King Abba Danyew, how great is he becoming!
He makes the water rise into the air through a window.
While the dirty can be washed, and the thirsty drink.
See what wonders have already come in our times.
No wonder that some day he will even outdo the Ferenje {i.e. Europeans].”

The Railway Project: Menilek himself was so pleased with his Swiss technician’s success that he granted Ilg a concession, on 9 March 1894, to build and operate a railway line from the French Somaliland port of Jibuti via his capital (Entoto) to the White Nile, on the western borders of the realm. The railway project faced almost insuperable difficulties, technical, financial, political, and diplomatic, but Ilg eventually succeeded in establishing a railway company, which constructed the line from Jibuti to the then new town of Dire Dawa (reached in 1902), after which a successor company continued the line to Addis Ababa. The latter town had by then replaced Entoto as Ethiopia’s capital. The projected line of the Nile was, however, never built: why don’t we build it now?

The Addis Ababa Palace: Ilg also helped in the construction of Menilek’s main palace at Addis Ababa, which was begun in 1897. Testimony of his involvement is provided by a contemporary British traveller, Mrs Pease, who reported seeing “many signs of Swiss work”, including paintings of a Swiss lake, and William Tell’s chapel.

Expeditions: Ilg accompanied Menilek on several of his expeditions, including one to Tegray, in 1889-90, and another to Lake Zway, in 1893. He also attempted, though without success, in 1887, to purchase bullet-making machinery, and equipment for a mint. He likewise travelled to Rome, in 1891, where he met members of the Italian Cabinet, and then, after a second visit in 1894, warned Menilek of Italian ambitions to annex Ethiopia.

Diplomacy: After Menilek’s historic defeat of the invader, at the battle of Adwa in 1896, there was a great expansion of Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the outside world. Menilek appointed Ilg as a Chancellor of State, and gave him the exalted title of Bitwoded, or Beloved. He was made responsible for Ethiopia’s foreign relations. His duties were to interview foreign diplomats arriving in the country, and to conduct correspondence with foreign Powers, and envoys, on Menilek’s behalf. Ilg was linguistically well equipped for this work, as he was able to write in German, French, Italian, and English - and also in Amharic. He corresponded, over the years, with several important Ethiopians. Besides Emperor Menilek and his consort Empress Taytu, these included Negus Takla Haymanot, the king of Gojjam; Ras Makonnen, Menilek’s governor of Harar; Abba Jifar, the semi-autonomous ruler of Jimma; and Abuna Matewos, the Coptic head of the Ethiopian Church. Ilg also exchanged letters with such prominent Ethiopian personalities as Ras Gobena Dachi, Dajazmach Mashasha Workie, and the renowned interpreter Ato Yosef Negusie. Ilg, in his diplomatic capacity, played a prominent part in the negotiations with the Italians, leading up to the post-Adwa Peace Treaty, of 26 October 1896 (in which Italy recognised Ethiopia’s full independence), as well as with the subsequent treaties with Britain and France, signed on 14 and 20 March 1897 respectively. And subsequent agreements with other Powers, including Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Trusted: Though a foreigner Ilg was well trusted by Menilek, who was of course fully aware that Switzerland was a small neutral, and land-locked, country without colonial ambitions. An essentially safe country to do business with! Ilg served Menilek, with loyalty and devotion, for twenty years, but retired from the Emperor’s service in 1906, just when the monarch’s health was beginning to fail. After he left Addis Ababa his house, situated near the Emperor’s palace, was for a time used to accommodate Ethiopia’s first modern school, the Menilek II School, which was founded in 1908, but soon afterwards removed to its present site at Arat Kilo.

Ilg meanwhile returned to his native Zurich, where he lived on until 1916. He died that year of a heart attack on 7 January: Ethiopian Christmas Day.


  1. We can not overemphasize the job this dear man of Switzerland did to our beloved Ethiopia.

    I hope we as a people should be aware of his immense contributions to us. It is my suggestion that we should coordinate the construction of his statue to be erected in Addis Ababa. If one digs deep, one would find this noble person to be a man behind lots of modernizing achievements at home.

    May we get inspired by what he did to Ethiopia and may we follow his footsteps

    Comment by Emans — 16. May 2008 @ 22:53

  2. i like you

    Comment by abebe — 27. June 2008 @ 19:50

  3. we have to do something to remeber the beloved & dedicated ilgs
    contribution for our mother land, i hope one day in my life i will see his statue in addis ababa.

    Comment by mitiku adane — 22. July 2008 @ 13:27


    Comment by MITIKU — 30. November 2009 @ 11:14

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