What is Ambohimanga?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Ambohimanga is a collection of ruins on a hilltop in Madagascar. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2001. Ambohimanga contains a variety of sacred spaces, which span centuries.

Ambohimanga is a collection of ruins on a hilltop in Madagascar.
Ambohimanga is a collection of ruins on a hilltop in Madagascar.

Madagascar was first settled by people who traveled from the Malay archipelago, nearly 2000 years ago. The new inhabitants of Madagascar broke into various tribes and small kingdoms, and for centuries fought wars with one another to expand their kingdoms. One of these clans, the Merina, stayed relatively isolated in the highland through much of this time, living as rice farmers and holding on to their territory.

Beginning in the late-18th century, however, the Merina began to spread out over the island. The kingdom rapidly conquered neighboring kingdoms, and unified the tribes. This process was begun under the incredibly adept King Andrianamoinimerina, and continued under his son, King Radama I. By the 1820s, after just a bit more than three decades, the Merina held dominion over most of Madagascar.

The Merina palace was at Ambohimanga, a sacred hill, and ruins of the palace still remain. Eventually, the Merina moved the capital to nearby Antananarivo, where it remains to this day. Ambohimanga, however, remained a retreat for the ruling family. The royals continued to use Ambohimanga until the French invasion at the end of the 19th century, when they were exiled to Algeria and never able to return to their kingdom.

Madagascar is not a particularly popular tourist destination in general, so travelers used to flocks of other visitors will be pleasantly surprised here. Even those that do come tend to come primarily to see lemurs and otherwise experience the amazing natural beauty and unspoiled flora and fauna of the island. All this means that Ambohimanga, even though it is just a bit more than ten miles (20km) from the capital city, rarely has more than a handful of visitors, and it isn’t unheard of to be entirely alone at the site.

The Rova is the key point of interest on Ambohimanga. It is the palace of King Adrianamoinimerina, and is a well-fortified example of 18th century architecture. There are a number of interesting features about the Rova, aside from its basic architecture. Inside there is an enormous piece of wengé wood, which it is said was cut down and brought all the way from the coast by a huge contingent of slaves, of whom more than 100 died. The construction of the palace used a cement made of the whites of eggs, and it is estimated that all told more than 16 million eggs were needed simply to build the outer wall.

The large pole made from the wengé wood is one of the major attractions at Ambohimanga, and is carved in the shape of women’s breasts near the top. Also of interest are the large baths behind the Rova, where the king performed his holy ablutions each year. Once he was done bathing, the water was given to petitioners, who considered the water sacred.

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    • Ambohimanga is a collection of ruins on a hilltop in Madagascar.
      Ambohimanga is a collection of ruins on a hilltop in Madagascar.