The historical neighbourhood that occupies the long, high ridge on the south side of Tana contains most of the city’s significant monumental buildings and is Madagascar’s pre-eminent monumental site. Although the Rova is most visitors’ priority, it’s best to visit the Musée Andafiavaratra first, before walking on to the royal palace area, which will then be easier to comprehend. The area is about a 2km walk from Analakely or Isoraka, and you should allow at least half an hour to take account of the steep climb.
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The Palais Andafiavaratra – the palace of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, who effectively ruled the Merina empire from 1864 to 1896 while kings and queens came and went – is a pompous colossus of a building, with a turret at each corner, built by the missionary architect William Pool in 1872. The upper storeys are closed to the public, but the ground floor now serves as the Musée Andafiavaratra, also known as the Prime Minister’s Palace Museum, which mostly displays items rescued from the 1995 fire that destroyed most of the Rova’s buildings. The collection will eventually transfer to the Musée Rova Manjakamiadana when the royal palace restoration is complete, which could take years.
The Merina monarchy room
Devoted entirely to the Merina monarchy, the first room chronicles the dynasty in portraits, photos, gifts and regal ephemera – plus an assortment of royal treaties. Take a moment to pause in front of the fascinating painting of Malagasy ambassadors visiting Queen Adelaide, the wife of William IV of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1837. Portrait copies of all the old Merina kings and queens line the walls, including the traditionally robed, spear-wielding founder of Tana, Andrianampoinimerina (r. 1787–1810), his son King Radama I (r. 1810–28), and his first wife, the “Cruel Queen” Ranavalona I (r. 1828–61), who became notorious for ejecting the missionaries and condemning Christians to be hurled from the nearby cliffs. She was succeeded by her son, the Napoleonically attired Radama II, whose short and injudiciously non-traditional reign (r.1861–63) ended in his assassination at the hands of associates of the future prime minister, Rainilaiarivony, who had been Ranavalona’s private secretary. Radama II was succeeded by his wife, Queen Rasoherina (r. 1863–68), who married Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony and was the first constitutional, rather than absolute, monarch in Madagascar. Her mementoes include a clock showing the hour and date of her death. Queen Ranavalona II (r. 1868–83) also took Rainilaiarivony as consort and invited the Protestants back to Madagascar to help with industrialization. In the latter part of the century there were regular royal visits to Europe (see the press photo of Malagasy ambassadors apparently on a trade mission to Berlin with Queen Victoria in 1883).
Main hall and side rooms
The palace’s main hall and side rooms include a collection consisting largely of photos, documents and paintings (or copies of paintings). One of the most impressive exhibits is the striking fossil skeleton of a Majungasaurus, a fearsome dinosaur from the Berivotra fossil fields near Majunga. Also worthy of scrutiny are the fascinating nineteenth-century photos of Tana scenes, captured by William Ellis (note the photo of the 15,000-strong crowd assembled by the royal palace on the accession of Queen Rasoherina in 1863) and a series of ethnic paintings of tribal representatives. Look out, too, for the very fine portrait copy, with wonderful eyes, of the evidently charismatic Queen Ranavalona III, the last queen of Madagascar, again with Rainilaiarivony as her consort. Kept in a dark room to one side, the bizarre, glass-encased model monkey orchestra seems somehow entirely in keeping with the rest of the eclectic show.
If you get a good guide and understand French (some guides also speak English), the tour of the Rova – meaning “hill fort” – can be fascinating. Even without the history it’s a worthwhile visit: in every direction, this 10,000 square-metre compound offers stupendous panoramic views – to the north and west over the heart of the city and south and eastwards over the pastel-coloured suburbs, rice paddies and mountain ridges beyond.
You enter the Rova (“No fire, No smoking, No dogs, No pigs”) through its northern gateway, a stone arch topped by a French bronze eagle and a stone phallus.
Palais de la Reine
Soaring above its hilltop foundations, the Palais de la Reine (Queen’s Palace) you see across the square today is a reconstruction – the original was destroyed by fire in 1995, and its restoration, built over the ruins, was still unfinished at the time of writing. The original palace, made of wood and known as Manjakamiadana (literally “A good site for reigning”) was built for Queen Ranavalona I in 1841 on the site of former royal palaces. Its designer, the French Catholic engineer Jean-Baptiste Laborde, used his technical skills to overcome the queen’s suspicion of Europeans. In 1867, the Scottish missionary James Cameron clad the palace in stone for Queen Rasoherina, and it was this structure, still wood-framed, that was razed to the ground in the 1995 fire, along with most of the other buildings in the densely built Rova compound. At the time of writing, you couldn’t enter the palace, but once the restoration is completed, it will house the museum collections currently displayed in the Musée Andafiavaratra.
Royal tomb houses and Tranovola
On the northeast side of the Rova are the royal tomb houses of Queen Rasoherina and King Radama I. The remains of other kings and queens of the Merina dynasty were also interred in these tombs; severely damaged in the fire, they have since been restored.
To the south is the site of the Tranovola house. This handsome building, lost in the fire, was a graceful avant-garde blend of Creole and Merina designs, constructed under Radama I and one of the first of a new multistorey, pillar-and-veranda architectural style that spread through the highlands after the 1830s and is still in vogue today.
Behind the Tranovola site stands a reconstruction of the home of Andrianampoinimerina (or at least of his first wife) – the wooden Mahitsielafanjaka or Mahitsy, with its stone statue of a Sakalava royal eunuch standing guard at the rear. Walk inside, and you’ll see how beneath its steeply pitched roof a spy ladder enabled a servant to hide in the eaves and check who was visiting. Built in accordance with traditional building rules, the northwest corner is the kitchen area, with its hearth stones (and hence associated with fire), while the other corners are linked to water in the southeast, wind in the southwest, and spirituality and the ancestors in the northeast, where the queen’s high bed platform is located.
Walking south, you cross the rubble-strewn site of the Manampisoa or Lapasoa (meaning “Beautiful Palace”), built in the form of a cross for Queen Rasoherina, and judging by the guides’ old photos, a very pretty residence.
At the south end of the Rova stands the Fiangonana or royal chapel, Madagascar’s first Protestant church, built in Italian style in 1869, by William Pool of the London Missionary Society (not the bushy-faced librarian, W.F. Poole, in some of the guides’ photo packs). The restored interior has been beautifully done out in rosewood, and most of the fine stained-glass windows were replaced in 2006: the originals are inscribed “LMS + R”, with the R denoting Ranavalona II, Reigne or Royal.
If you look down from the south wall of the Rova compound, you’ll see a corrugated-iron-roofed building below, which was the first colonial post office, while the stone-roofed building to the southeast was the first medical school in Tana.
In the southeast corner of the Rova are the foundations of the old Masoandro or Sun Palace, commissioned by Ranavalona III but never finished. The small, delicately naturalistic 1895 statue of her, sitting on the ground with characteristic Hauts Plateaux hairstyle, was carved in the year she was exiled from here to Algiers, only to be returned to the royal tombs after her death.