The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is the most important of the 12 hills surrounding the capital city of Antananarivo and is regarded as the embodiment of the Malagasy cultural identity. It is home to important palaces and sacred sites dating back to the 17th and 19th centuries. Located in a quiet neighbourhood just outside the city there is much to explore and experience in this royal city compound which until recently was closed to foreigners. It still holds special spiritual significance to this day as local Malagasy still make small animal sacrifices on the hill, as well as obey superstitious customs such as never pointing a finger directly at the tombs or the palace itself.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was first settled in the 15th century and was established as a fortified political capital and royal palace during the reign of King Andriantsimitoviaminandriana in the 18th century. In the 19th century, French colonial authorities tried to undermine the significance and national symbolism of the city but were unsuccessful in their efforts.
King Andrianampoinimerina is the most legendary king of the Merina dynasty. His name is loosely translated to “the king who is not like the stupid” or “the one, who will always stay in the Merina’s hearts” He was committed to unifying the Imerina people after 77 years of civil war. During his rule, he introduced many revolutionary innovations to the benefit of his people. Some of which include rice storage facilities for widows and orphans, which were aided by rules and improvements to rice cultivation, he also introduced laws on street cleaning and social life.
King Andrianampoinimerina’s palace was one single room without much pageantry or ornamentation. The King had his own bed and there was another bed where his wives slept. In the palace is a raised wooden platform halfway to the roof where the king would hide when guests arrived, from his perch he would eavesdrop on the conversation below and decide whether he wanted to interact with the visitors, if they were welcome to stay he would drop a small pebble to the right side of his wife. This palace can still be visited today on a cycling trip around Ambohimanga. If you visit today you still need to enter with your right foot first and exit backwards with your left foot first, as was custom during his reign.
King Andrianampoinimerina’s son Radma I succeeded him, he moved the government capital to Antananarivo and kept Ambohimanga as the spiritual capital. His reign was rather (mysteriously) short and after his death, his wife took power by killing every other potential ruler (wives, sons, and mother). As it was considered taboo to spill royal blood they were killed either by strangulation or starvation. Her reign was long and treacherous. For 30 years she tortured and murdered foreigners and locals, anyone who she deemed a threat, didn’t agree with her views or didn’t respect local Malagasy custom. She was a staunch fundamental traditionalist and vehemently opposed colonial influence and Christianity, making it her life’s mission to drive these forces out. She even went so far as to place the heads of murdered foreigners on spikes by the coast to warn approaching Europeans. She died peacefully in her bed at the age of 80. Her weekend cottage still stands in the compound.
In the 19th century, a row of royal tombs was desecrated by the French as a show of force, they instead built a military garrison over this area which has since been removed. Ancestor worship is an important aspect of Malagasy culture, disrespecting the tombs in this way was a tactical move by the French to attempt to break the spirit of opponents to their rule. To this day some Malagasy believe that true power and wisdom can be gained from the highly sacred ground of Ambohimanga, they believe that only Ambohimanga possesses the ancestral benediction (Hasina) to serve as the national capital and imbue national leaders with the legitimacy and wisdom needed to correctly govern the country.
Explore the Royal Hill during a cycle tour around the King’s palace. Read about the experience here: