Madagascar: cyclone devastates historical site

Uprooted trees have damaged royal artefacts at sacred 'Bleu Hill' Photo/ RIVONALA RAZAFISON  

The intense tropical cyclone Giovanna that hit Madagascar in mid-February has swept away a significant part of the nation’s heritage.

The storm seriously gutted the sacred hill of Ambohimanga, branded 'Bleu Hill', a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site located about 20 km north of the capital Antananarivo, once inhabited by the greatest King Andrianampoinimerina (1787-1810).

This jewel of the nation’s cultural heritage is in a pathetic state of disrepair and it will require reforestation with indigenous species to ensure its sustainability.

UNESCO and the Office of Cultural Service of Ambohimanga Rova (OSCAR), the national authority charged with managing the site, are now struggling to restore the devastated site which hosted 97,847 visitors in 2011.

For security reasons, the site is temporarily closed to visitors, due in part to debris. Trees have been ripped up and various historical buildings and burial monuments have been severely damaged. Tree branches and trunks have also destroyed a bank of stones which gave evidence to the local ancient practices of soil conservation.

The tiles of the Mahandrihono King's palace have been torn off which risks water seeping in, endangering artefacts displayed there. The cyclone also destroyed a vast proportion of medicinal plants which have covered the beautiful hill for centuries. Authorities have also to rebuild the fence made of the sacred wood ambora in order to protect the royal enclosure.

Tree species

Amongst the victims are the amontana trees (ficus baroni') which have for centuries shaded a "camp site" called Fidasiana; here sovereigns used to address their subjects and ceremonies dedicated to the royals continue to be held at this spot. One amontana tree which was completely uprooted shaded the 'scratched stone', a place used for oaths of allegiance towards the throne.

“We intend to plant another substitute tree there,” the head of OSCAR, Ms Marie Hortense Razafindramboa, told Africa Review.

Meanwhile, the fate of another tree kept inside the zebu (cow) pit was undergoing examination by local scientists to assess whether its roots could hold out. This tree was a living anchor demarcating a site for zebus to be offered, as a gesture of allegiance, to the country's sovereigns.

Historical research says that these 'royal' tree species like the amontana have been growing on the Ambohimanga hill since the 17th century. Sadly, the uprooted jacarandas to the west of the royal palaces are beyond salvation.

For historians, this introduced species was a link between the kingdom of Madagascar and the French colonisation era from 1896 to 1960.

Traditionalists have also now stepped in demanding full respect for the sanctity of the Ambohimanga hill and called for enforcement regarding the prevention of the consumption and transportation of porch, tobacco, cannabis, alcohol on the sacred site.

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