top of page

58. Woodwork in Ethiopia during 1450 to 1750CE

SEP. 15, 2022


Pete takes Ryan to the Horn of Africa to discover woodwork in Ethiopia between 1450 and 1750CE. Discover the resting place of the ark of the covenant, the ambassadorial journey that took over 10 years and find out how to honour a hero of your village.

This episode took us to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a country also historically knows as Abyssinia.
This is a country in the Horn of Africa, landlocked by Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west, and Sudan to the NorthWest.
The country has a total area of 1,100,000 square kilometres (420,000 sq mi) and 123.5 million inhabitants, making it the 12th-most populous country in the world and the 2nd-most populous in Africa (after Nigeria).
It has a highlands, mountainous area in the North and a high central plateau which slopes down into lowlands to the south and west.
The capital city is Addis Abbaba, and the flag consists of a green, yellow, and red horizontal stripes with the National Emblem, in the middle, a golden pentagram on a blue disc, like a star emitting rays.
The star is Ethiopia's bright future, while the yellow rays which it emits are equidistant and are said to represent the equality of all Ethiopians regardless of race, creed, or sex
Ethiopia is a transition economy meaning it’s moving from a command economy to a market economy and is heavily agricultural – accounting for almost 40.5% of GDP, 81 percent of exports, and 85 percent of the labour force.
Foreign currency brought in in particular by coffee exports, partly as Ethiopia is the country where coffee first originated, but if you want to know more about that, you’d better check out the Yemen episode.
Over 80 ethnic groups live in the country, which explains the many official languages, but it’s notable is there is not a European language on that list. This is because Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power.
Ethiopia is also home to all of us, in a way. It is famous for one of our ancient ancestors, Lucy aka Australopithecus afarensis. She was discovered in 1974 in Hadar in the North of the country and allegedly got her name from the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" which was played a lot in the expedition camp. Lucy is 40 percent of a female who stood about a meter (3.5 feet) tall and is estimated to be 3.2 million years old.
But Lucy isn’t our oldest relative in Ethiopia. There’s also Ardi or Ardipithicus ramidus found 1994 who is a remarkable 4.2 million year old.
More recent famous Ethiopians include Hiele Selassie, the one time emperor of Ethiopia born Tafari Makonnen, who gained the title Ras which translates as "head" becoming Ras Tafari – who is believed by some rastafarians to be the messiah.
Ethiopia is also famous for long distance runners, including the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, and Tirunesh Dibaba the Baby Face Destroyer.
Finally, Ethiopia claims to be the home of the Ark of the Covenant, which is claimed to be being held in Axum, in the North of the country in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.
Ethiopians also use a different calendar to us, dividing the year into 13 months, 12 months of 30 days each and a final month of 5 days in a common year and 6 days during leap year. But the Ethiopian calendar also differs on Jesus' Birth Year, having been based on a different calculation which gives a start year 7 to 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar. So 2022 in the western calendar is 2014 in the Ethiopian.
Also the home of Tej a honey wine, like mead, that is brewed and consumed in Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever produced and it is made of honey, water and a medicinal shrub called gesho. Considered the national drink of Ethiopia it is often served in a flask-like pitcher or bottle, called a berele.
Prior to the 1900s, Tej was only consumed by the King and others in his presence and it was only produced in the houses of ruling classes. In fact honey was received as a tax and land rent from the other working classes during that time period. Nowadays though there are no such restrictions, and having tasted it on the show we can confirm, it’s very tasty.
History of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is considered one of the earliest sites of the emergence of anatomically modern humans. The oldest fossil finds, the Omo remains have been dated to the Middle Paleolithic, around 200,000 years ago.
So Early Man survived there for centuries, until 10th century BCE sees the rise of the kingdom of D'mt.
This was followed in the first century CE by the Aksumite Kingdom which rose to power in the Tigray Region in the far North of the country in the Highlands of Ethiopia. They established a capital at Aksum – which is still a city today – and grew into a major power on the Red Sea, dominating Yemen across the red sea.
In the early fourth century Christianity was declared the state religion, but a little later, across the Red sea, Islam starts to really take off in the Arabian Peninsula. as that becomes successful, the Aksumite kingdom starts to decline.
Around 960, Queen Gudit destroyed the remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum and eventually the Aksumites gave way to the Zagwe dynasty, who established a new capital at Lalibela.
They were notable for building The Church of Saint George and 10 other churches in Lalibela, carved from the stone of the ground.
But all good empires come to an end, and for the Zagwe this was at the Battle of Ansata in 1270 CE.
Time for a new dynasty! The Solomonic Dynasty came next, claiming to have a direct line of descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and expanding their territory to dominate the Horn of Africa.
They didn't have any fixed capital, but rather moved around the empire in mobile camps but they cemented legitimacy through their link to Solomon – recorded in the 1300s in the Kebra Negast, an vital and important account of the origins of the Solomonic dynasty.
Trouble then brewed between 1528 and 1540, with the Adal Sultanate, a Muslim kingdom to the South, which started a war with the Ethiopian empire which was hugely damaging, leaving many churches in flames and treasures looted.
After this was an ebb and flow of kingdoms follows in which there are also what’s known as Oromo migrations, which were eventually followed by a new period of Amharic rule with a new capital in Gondar as a third permanent capital (after Aksum and Lalibela) of the Christian Kingdom was founded in 1636 and saw the building of a castle, known as Fasil Ghebbi, which you can see today.
Then more conflict – a period of struggles between regions and religions known as the Zemene Mesafint or the era of princes. During this time Solomonic rulers still existed but were no more than another set of regional rulers of no particular significance and in fact eighty-six years saw twenty-three emperors come and go.
In 1855, Tewodros II was crowned negusa nagast of Ethiopia, the king of kings, marking the modern age in Ethiopia.
His descendent Menelik II signed the Treaty of Wuchale with Italy granting them a portion of Northern Ethiopia which is now Eritrea in return for the promise of 30,000 rifles, ammunition, and cannons.
Problem was, the Italians told the other European nations that this treaty gave them a protectorate over all of Ethiopia, which was not what Menelik had agreed to at all. So in 1896 war with Italy starts which culminates in the Battle of Adwa, featuring 18,000 Italians, some artillery and 73,000 to 120,000 Ethiopians. Significantly, Ethiopia wins and Menelik expands Ethiopia into roughly the borders we know today.
In 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen aka Haile Selassie, is crowned Emperor and he starts to modernize the nation. Unfortunately, in 1935 in the lead up to 2nd world war Italy invades again and occupies the nation and despite famously appealing to the League of Nations for help, none is forthcoming and the Italians occupy the country, forcing Selassie into exile. and famously he gets none
But then Italy go on to lose in World War 2, and Selassie gets to go home where he rules until 1974.
That’s when a council of soldiers, known as the Derg seized power and starts a period of Communist rule that lasts until 1991, supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
After the fall of communism a new Transitional Government of Ethiopia is created. At this time Eritrea separates from Ethiopia and the government is run by a coalition of 4 parties representing ethnic groups, dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
This was a stable government, but with many challenges in areas such as Human rights.
In 2018 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected and he stopped war with Eritrea that had been going on since Eritrea had become independent. He also wanted to change the system of government – previously dominated by the Tigrayans.
Seen by some as an attempt to centralise and remove power from the regions. conflict broke out with the Northern Tigray region, marking the start of civil conflict in Ethiopia that is continuing to this day.
But, as the Ethiopian proverb says, “No one can know what the new day will bring.”
Woodwork in Ethiopia
In the episode we looked at wooden artefacts you can find in various museums that in some way encapsulate what was going on in Ethiopia at the end of the medieval period and the start of the early modern age.
The first was a processional cross from the New York Metropolitan Musuem from about 1500CE. This cross is about 50cm high and is made form carved wood with tin inlay. The item is in the shape of an Ethiopian cross, which is a square cross, carved in elaborate patterns, often repeating the cross motif in various interlocking ways. There is also a foliage effect believed to represent the tree of paradise. At the base of the cross is a square, thought to represent the Tabot, which is kind of a tabernacle, a replica of the ark of the covenant, of which you can find one in the holiest place in an Ethiopian church.
This item comes from the Gunda Gunde Monastery, which is a very remote place in the highlands of Ethipia in Tigray in the far North which is famous for its collection of manuscripts
So this item was chosen to reflect the importance of Christianity in the history of Ethiopia
In the 1450s, the rulers of Ethiopia were the Solomonic Dynasty, where rulers claim their authority from their descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
One result of this religious-based authority was that as the land controlled by these rulers expanded, they would build monasteries as part of a demonstration of power and wealth.
But is also a reflection of the way in which King Solomon is said to have ruled – seeking out craftsmen from distant lands.
According to Verena Krebs’ Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft and Diplomacy with Latin Europe, when talking to Christian Europe, Ethiopia’s primary request, rather than technology and arms as speculated by earlier historians, is actually cloth, craftsmen, including carpenters for woodwork, and religious icons.
In 1508 Ethiopia had received emissaries from Portugal seeking an alliance with the legendary Prester John. Prester John was supposedly a powerful Christian ruler to be found in the orient, amongst the Pagans, a rumour that started somewhere around the 12th Century.
At first this kingdom was believed to be in Asia then, as it becomes clear there is no Prester John in the East, eyes turn to Ethiopia.
At the start of the 1500s Portugal sent some emissaries to Ethiopia, and a man called Pedro de Covilha arrives asking basically for military and financial support.
He is received “with much pleasure and joy” by the ruler Eskender. But doesn’t get any military of finandial support, nor is he allowed to leave the country.
He was, over time, joined by other missions, including Joao Gomes, who is also not allowed to go home.
Eventually, though, Eskender is killed in a coup arranged by the regent Eleni, who makes one Big decision – instead of ignoring the Portuguese and collecting their ambassadors, she decides to develop the relationship.
In 1508 Eleni as regent for the child ruler Lebna Dengel writes a letter to the Portuguese promising to help them out with supplies “as great as the mountains” and “men in numbers as the sands of the sea.”
But the plan does not work out particularly well.
Eleni appoints an ambassador, a courtier called Matteus, an Armenian in the Solomonic court. Eleni supplies him with a gift to the Portuguese, a piece of the true cross, which is likely to be well received, possibly helped by the box of pure gold it was kept in.
Matteus and some companions set out, disguised as traders and travel to Portugal via Goa. In fact it takes them 5 years to get to the Portuguese court where, still excited to be seeing them them, King Manuel I of Portugal writes to the Pope Leo X that he was expecting “An ambassador from Prester John, most powerful Lord of Christians.”
In February 1514 they arrive, and they are greeted with 3 days of celebrations
Then finally Matteus and his companion Yakob are allowed to deliver their letter.
Delighted, Manuel puts together a shopping list of presents to send back to Ethiopia. Woodworked gilded tables and velvet upholstered chairs, golden armour, fine fabrics, cloaks, curtains, tapestries, silk and brocade, religious jewellery, censers, illuminated books, and two full organs. He also sends painters, organists and a printer.
After taking about a year to put the cargo together, the Portuguese set out to return on 7th April 1515 in “An armada and fleet of twenty four sail” including an embassy of more than a dozen men.
But again, problems on the journey means it takes them another six years to get back to Ethiopia. They don’t land in Ethiopia until 1520!
But that’s not the end of the bad luck. Finally back in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian ambassador Matteus reaches the first stop off after landing, on the journey back to the court, and promptly dies.
Not only that, when the Portuguese arrive at court, the ruler Lebna Dengel, who was a child when the embassy left, was now an adult with the name Dawit II and he did not agree with the way the Regent Eleni had been doing things. He actually denies he sent Matteus to Portugal in the first place claiming he had ‘gone without his permission’. He also declined an audience with the ambassador for several days, until finally having a short interview with him, where he declared the gifts ‘disappointing’. Although this was a fair point, because what had arrived was a fraction of what had set out, with a great deal lost, damaged and misappropriated along the way.
It wasn’t great on the Portuguese side either - with fights breaking out between the ambassador and his deputy.
Nevertheless, they had arrived, and they stayed there for 6 years. During which the Portuguese king Manuel 1 also died, making the diplomacy even trickier.
After 6 years, the embassy went home, which was progress of a sort as nobody had been allowed to go home before, although the painter and the barber did remain, after the negus asked for them specifically to stay behind.
So the outcome of 15 years of diplomatic efforts and for Europe the linking up with the great albeit not real Prester John – basically nothing.
Which was a shame, for a number of reasons.
To the South, the Sultanate of Adal was rising up under a charismatic leader Ahmad Gragn aka Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi. They stopped paying tribute to the Solomonic Dynasty and eventually invaded. And when they invaded, there were no Portuguese soldiers around to help out.
During their invasion the literal and symbolic riches of the Solomonic churches made them a valuable target for the muslim invaders.
The Ethiopian historian Taddesse Tamrat writes, "The Muslim occupation of the Christian highlands under Ahmad Gragn lasted for little more than ten years, between 1531 and 1543. But the amount of destruction brought about in these years can only be estimated in terms of centuries."
And that is why it’s not surprising that our processional cross has come from Gunda Gunde Monastery, because its very remoteness helped protect it from the invading and destructive forces of Adal.
Something not Christian
The history of Ethiopia is dominated by Christianity, but there are a huge range of ethnic groups in the country, so this episode also looked at another woodworking culture.
The item is a waga, which can be found in the Brooklyn Museum, about a metre high, carved in the image of a man.
Waga have been being made for hundreds of years, and this item has carved necklaces and bracelets.
So, what’s it all about?
Waga are, in fact memorial statues made by the Konso people, located in South Central Ethiopia and carved to commemorate extraordinary men after their death.
People who have killed an enemy, or a particularly wild animal, specifically Lions or leopards, although possibly also Buffalo are known as Hedalita or heroes and a waka is commissioned after one of them dies.
It’s the responsibility of the eldest son, to commission the work, negotiating with the artist and the sculptor moves in with the family and works with a family member assigned to make sure the result is acceptable.
This might take some time for the sculptor is not just making a statue of the hero, but his wives and the vanquished men or animals get depicted too, so the sculptor might be resident for easily a month.
If he had a wife, a statue of her will be carved to be placed to the left of the hero and if he had more than one wife, they all get their own statue.
The heroes image may have a Helecha carving on the head – a phallus representing a ritual object that is allowed to be worn by elders and other heroes.
There is also a necklace is called a tela, representing a real necklace made of ivory, representing the hero’s deeds. These would be received when he returns victorious from a hunt or battle.
Placing the statues involves a lot of ceremony. The community come round to look at and comment on the work, bringing pots of chaka a cereal or vegetable based beer.
Everyone processes out to the site dancing, singing and chanting and a goat is sacrificed and the sculptor pours the goat’s blood into the pit.
Then the statues are put up, generally facing away from the village. This is because if it were to face the village, the spirit of the hero may return and haunt the place.
All this forms a memorial to a great man and serves to remind and inspire other members of the group to be brave and aspire to great deeds.
Wood that works
Our final item is an everyday item with a long history that is still in use today. It’s a twig.
Specifically it’s a twig from the tree Salvadora persica also known as the toothbrush tree. This is a small evergreen tree whose sticks are traditionally used in Ethiopia and throughout Africa and the Middle East as a natural toothbrush called miswak.
Miswak goes back a long way. Chewing sticks are likely to have been used by Babylonians as early as 3500 BC and in the Islamic Hadith it’s suggested to “make a regular practice of miswak; for verily it is the purification for the mouth and a means of the pleasure of the Lord”
And it seems to be effective. A study in 2012 by Hassan Suliman Halawany in Science Direct found chewing of miswak was found to release fresh sap, which may have an anticariogenic effect (anti-tooth decay), it contains sulfur which has a bactericidal effect and silica that acts as an abrasive and was found to help in removing stains from tooth surfaces.
In fact a 1978 study of “Efficiency of traditional chewing sticks in oral hygiene programs among Ethiopian schoolchildren” by B Olsson found it “as effective as the toothbrush in removing oral deposits” and it “should be recommended for use in preventive dental programs in Ethiopia since it is effective, inexpensive, and familiar to the population.”
All that, from a humble twig.

bottom of page