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Royal Hill of Ambohimanga and Ambohimanga Rova. Outstanding Universal Value

Tana is surrounded by the “twelve sacred hills of Imerina”, the hilltop villages of the old Merina clans before they became a single kingdom. Some of these sites have been obscured by modern developments, but one, the UNESCO World Heritage Site the Ambohimanga Rova, is a significant and fascinating historical site. Although less well-known than the Rova in Antananarivo, it is in many ways more impressive.

The town remained forbidden to foreigners up until 1895, a date which corresponds to the beginning of the French Governorship over Madagascar. The sacred wooden houses, symbol of the royal tombs demolished by the French colonial authorities, were rebuilt in 2008 by the Malagasy State respecting the rites, the construction regulations and traditional materials (for the choice of wood essences in particular), due to their symbolic importance. Thus, the mortal remains of the sovereigns removed from the site in 1897 have been replaced in their original tombs to consolidate the sacredness of the site.

The layout at the summit of the Hill of the royal enclosure with its buildings is in conformity with the Imerina tradition, in particular, and of Madagascar in general. The sacred character of the site is manifested in the pilgrimages and sacrifices to which it is witness. The different elements that comprise it are representative of the traditional skills and beliefs: the homes of the living are made of wood and vegetation (living materials), while those of the dead are in stone (cold and inert materials).

The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga consists of a royal city and burial site, and an ensemble of sacred places. It is associated with strong feelings of national identity, and has maintained its spiritual and sacred character both in ritual practice and the popular imagination for the past 500 years. It remains a place of worship to which pilgrims come from Madagascar and elsewhere.

The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga constitutes an exceptional witness to the civilization which developed in the ‘Hautes Terres Centrales’ in Madagascar between the 15th and 19th centuries and to the cultural and spiritual traditions, the cult of kings and ancestors which were closely associated there. The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is the cradle of the kingdom and the dynasty that has made Madagascar a modern state, internationally acknowledged since 1817. It is associated with strong feelings of identity and emotion relating to the sacred nature of the site through its venerated royal tombs, its numerous holy places (fountains, sacred basins and woods, sacrificial stones) and its majestic royal trees.

Ambohimanga, now heavily forested, was originally one of four embattled Merina regional capitals, embroiled in a war of succession that lasted most of the eighteenth century. Only with Andrianampoinimerina’s military success in capturing the Rova in Tana from this stronghold was the empire united and most of Madagascar subdued under Merina rule. In 1780s a local ruler Andrianimpoinimerina began to consolidate neighbouring territories in the high plateau country. His gradual rise to power led to the formation of the Kingdom of Imerina, which introduced a unique modernization process in Madagascar in the late 19th century, even intending on industrialization. With the baptism of Queen Ranavalona II in 1869, Christianity was made the state religion. Obligatory school attendance was introduced in 1880, earlier than in most European countries. The last royal Malagasy Head of State was Queen Ranavalona III, exiled by the French in 1897.

Religious capital and sacred town of the kingdom of Madagascar in the 19th century, the Royal Hill was the burial ground for its sovereigns. The site retains clear archaeological proof of the former exercise of power and justice. It is still today the center of the religious practices for many Malagasy people and constitutes a living memory of the traditional religion.

The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga comprises a system of fortifications with a series of ditches and fourteen fortified stone gateways, a royal city consisting of a coherent suite of buildings divided by a royal enclosure and associating a public place (the Fidasiana), royal trees, a seat of justice and other natural or built places of cult, an ensemble of sacred places as well as agricultural lands. The royal city comprises two palaces and a small pavilion, an “ox pit”, two sacred basins and four royal tombs. In addition, the designated property shelters vestiges of a primary forest conserving numerous endemic and medicinal plant species.

The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga constitutes an eminent example of an architectural ensemble (the Rova) and the associative cultural landscape (wood, sacred fountain and lake) illustrating significant periods of human history between the 16th and 19th centuries in the islands of the Indian Ocean. The particularly high elevation of the Rova indicates the political importance of the site and gives it a very significant place among the fortified groups of the Imerina (region of Antananarivo). Because of its geographical position, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga offers a complete panorama, determining it as the strategic choice for a defensive residence. Thus, Ambohimanga bears witness to a strong royal power, a decision-making center serving as a model for the future. The recognizable traditional Malagasy and European style of architecture of the royal city bears witness to the diverse political phases in the history of Madagascar.

The landscape of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is associated with important historic events (Malagasy place of unification), as well as with traditions and living beliefs having an Outstanding Universal Value (ancestor worship). The site constitutes a remarkable testimony to the austro-indonesian culture (Indonesia) through ancestor worship and agricultural practices, notably irrigated stepped rice paddy fields on the one hand, and the African culture (west and southern Africa) through the cult of the royal person, on the other. The Malagasy nation accords primary importance and absolute respect of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, that they visit to imbibe the spirituality of the place, for renewal and request blessing and protection for all that they undertake in life. It is also a cult and pilgrimage place for the nation, as well as for numerous foreigners, and has been so for centuries.

Watch more photos about Royal Hill of Ambohimanga and Ambohimanga Rova here.