Antananarivo (formerly known as “Analamanga” and “Tananarive”) is the capital of the Republic of Madagascar and its largest city. It is located on a high plateau overlooking the Ikopa and Besiboka Rivers. In the southern part of the city lay Lake Anosy, an artificially designed lake. In 2012 Antananarivo had a population of 1.4 million and the Merina are the majority ethnic group in the region. In addition to being a political center, Antananarivo is Madagascar’s economic and cultural center.
In the Malagasy language Antananarivo means “town of a thousand.” It received its name from King Adrianjaka (1610-1630), whom many consider the first major political leader of the Merina people. In the early 1600s he established a fort and town comprised of 1,000 soldiers and their families at the location. Before the Merina army settled there the land was known as the “Analamanga” or “Blue Forest” region, which accounts for the earliest name of the town. As the Merina kingdom grew Antananarivo became an important military and agricultural center. The city’s high plateau allowed the Merina to establish a heavily militarized defense in central Madagascar. The city’s surrounding wetlands produced rice.
By the early 1700s the Merina kingdom had fractured into competing groups. To consolidate power and reunify the warring tribes, Chief Andrianampoinimerina, the king of one of the groups, attacked Antananarivo in 1794, successfully ending the rule of his uncle, the city’s leader. Andrianampoinimerina’s son, Radama I, completed the uniting of the various groups after taking control in 1810. Under his leadership the city’s population grew to 15,000 and he amassed an army of 13,000 soldiers.
By the early 1800s the Merina were aware of both European encroachment and political threats from other Madagascar kingdoms. To protect Antananarivo they briefly banned foreigners and prevented the building of roads to the city. In 1895, when the French army arrived and conquered the area following the Partition of Africa, over