Ethiopian art

Last updated
Alwan Codex 27 - Ethiopian biblical manuscript Alwan Codex 27 Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript.jpg
Alwan Codex 27 - Ethiopian biblical manuscript
Biete Maryam church, Lalibela. Traditional Ethiopian church art Display of Procesional Crosses, Church of Bet Maryam, Lalibela, Ethiopia (3230772118).jpg
Biete Maryam church, Lalibela. Traditional Ethiopian church art


The rock-cut Church of Saint George, Lalibela (Biete Ghiogis) Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela-107572.jpg
The rock-cut Church of Saint George, Lalibela (Biete Ghiogis)
Great Triptych, Ethiopia, c. 1700, tempera on fabric on wood; Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland Athiopien Grosses Triptychon Museum Rietberg EFA 15 img05.jpg
Great Triptych, Ethiopia, c. 1700, tempera on fabric on wood; Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland

Prehistoric rock art comparable to that of other African sites survives in a number of places, and until the arrival of Christianity stone stelae, often carved with simple reliefs, were erected as grave-markers and for other purposes in many regions; Tiya is one important site. The "pre-Axumite" Iron Age culture of about the 5th century BCE to the 1st century CE was influenced by the Kingdom of Kush to the north, and settlers from Arabia, and produced cities with simple temples in stone, such as the ruined one at Yeha, which is impressive for its date in the 4th or 5th century BCE.


The powerful Kingdom of Aksum emerged in the 1st century BCE and dominated Ethiopia until the 10th century, has become very largely Christian from the 4th century. [1] Although some buildings and large, pre-Christian stelae exist, there appears to be no surviving Ethiopian Christian art from the Axumite period. However, the earliest works remaining show a clear continuity with Coptic art of earlier periods. There was considerable destruction of churches and their contents in the 16th century when Muslim neighbors invaded the country. The revival of art after this was influenced by Catholic European art in both iconography and elements of style but retained its Ethiopian character. In the 20th century, Western artists and architects began to be commissioned by the government, and to train local students, and more fully Westernized art was produced alongside continuations of traditional church art. [1]


Depiction of John the Evangelist in one of the Gunda Gunde Gospels, c. 1540 Ethiopian - John the Evangelist - Walters W850153V - Open Group.jpg
Depiction of John the Evangelist in one of the Gunda Gunde Gospels, c. 1540
From the treasury of the Church of Narga Selassie, Dek Island, Lake Tana, Ethiopia Ethiopian Manuscript Paintings (2400631999).jpg
From the treasury of the Church of Narga Selassie, Dek Island, Lake Tana, Ethiopia
A 17th-century Gondarene-style Ethiopian painting depicting Saint Mercurius, originally from Lalibela, now housed in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa The Queen of Sheba (2131716999).jpg
A 17th-century Gondarene-style Ethiopian painting depicting Saint Mercurius, originally from Lalibela, now housed in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa


Brass Ethiopian processional cross with silver plating WLA ima Ethiopian processional Christian cross.jpg
Brass Ethiopian processional cross with silver plating

Church paintings in Ethiopia were likely produced as far back as the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century AD, [2] although the earliest surviving examples come from the church of Debre Selam Mikael in the Tigray Region, dated to the 11th century AD. [3] However, the 7th-century AD followers of the Islamic prophet Muhammad who fled to Axum in temporary exile mentioned that the original Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was decorated with paintings. [3] Other early paintings include those from the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, dated to the 12th century AD, and in nearby Geneta Maryam, dated to the 13th century AD. [3] However, paintings in illuminated manuscripts predate the earliest surviving church paintings; for instance, the Ethiopian Garima Gospels of the 4th-6th centuries AD contain illuminated scenes imitating the contemporary Byzantine style. [4]

Ethiopian painting, on walls, in books, and in icons, [5] is highly distinctive, though the style and iconography are closely related to the simplified Coptic version of Late Antique and Byzantine Christian art. It is typified by simplistic, almost cartoonish, figures with large, almond-shaped, eyes. Colours are usually bright and vivid. Most paintings are religious in nature, often decorating church walls and bibles. One of the best-known examples of this type of painting is at Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar (pictured), famed for its angel-covered roof (angels in Ethiopian art are often represented as winged heads) as well as its other murals dating from the late 17th century. Diptychs and triptychs are also commonly painted with religious icons. [6] From the 16th century, Roman Catholic church art and European art in general began to exert some influence. However, Ethiopian art is highly conservative and retained much of its distinct character until modern times. The production of illuminated manuscripts for use continued up to the present day. [7] Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, where there has long been an Ethiopian clerical presence, also allowed some contact with a wider range of Orthodox art.

Churches may be very fully painted, although until the 19th century there is little sign of secular painting other than scenes commemorating the life of donors to churches on their walls. Unusually for Orthodox Christianity, icons were not usually kept in houses (where talismanic scrolls were often kept instead), but in the church. Some "diptychs" are in the form of an "ark" or tabot , in these cases consecrated boxes with a painted inside of the lid, placed closed on the altar during Mass, somewhat equivalent to the altar stone in the Western church, and the antimins in other Orthodox churches. These are regarded as so holy that the laity is not allowed to see them, and they are wrapped in cloth when taken in procession.

Ethiopian diptychs often have a primary wing with a frame. A smaller second wing, which is only the size of the image within the frame, is painted on both sides to allow closed and open views. Icons are painted on a wood base support, but since about the 16th century with intervening cloth support glued to a gesso layer above the wood. The binding medium for the paint is also animal-based glue, giving a matt finish which is then often varnished. A range of mostly mineral pigments is used, giving a palette based on reds, yellows, and blues. Underdrawing was used, which may remain visible or reinforced by painted edges to areas of colour in the final layer.

From the 15th century the Theotokos or Virgin Mary, with or without her Child, became increasingly popular. They used versions of a number of common Byzantine types, typically flanked by two archangels in iconic depictions. She is often depicted with a neighboring image of a mounted Saint George and the Dragon, who is regarded as especially linked to Mary in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, for carrying messages or intervening in human affairs on her behalf.

Crosses and other metalwork

Royal crown in the National Museum of Ethiopia Detail, Ethiopian Crown (2130218640).jpg
Royal crown in the National Museum of Ethiopia

Another important form of Ethiopian art, also related to Coptic styles, is crosses made from wood and metal. [8] [9] They are usually copper alloy or brass, plated (at least originally) with gold or silver. The heads are typically flat cast plates with elaborate and complex openwork decoration. The cross motif emerges from the decoration, with the whole design often forming a rotated square or circular shape, though the designs are highly varied and inventive. Many incorporate curved motifs rising from the base, which are called the "arms of Adam". Except in recent Western-influenced examples, they usually have no corpus, or figure of Christ, and the design often incorporates numerous smaller crosses. Engraved figurative imagery has sometimes been added. Crosses are mostly either processional crosses, with the metal head mounted on a long wooden staff, carried in religious processions and during the liturgy, or hand crosses, with a shorter metal handle in the same casting as the head. Smaller crosses worn as jewelry are also common.

The Lalibela Cross is an especially venerated hand cross, perhaps of the 12th century, which was stolen from a church in Lalibela in 1997 and eventually recovered and returned from a Belgian collector in 2001.

Distinctive forms of the crown were worn in ceremonial contexts by royalty and important noble officials, as well as senior clergy. Royal crowns rose high, with a number of circular bands, while church crowns often resemble an elongated version of the typical European closed crown, with four arms, joined at the top and surmounted by a cross.

Other arts and crafts

A jar spout from the ancient Kingdom of Aksum Axumite Jar Spout (2822628227).jpg
A jar spout from the ancient Kingdom of Aksum

Ethiopia has great ethnic and linguistic diversity, and styles in secular traditional crafts vary greatly in different parts of the country. There is a range of traditions in textiles, many with woven geometric decoration, although many types are also usually plain. Ethiopian church practices make a great deal of use of colourful textiles, and the more elaborate types are widely used as church vestments and as hangings, curtains, and wrappings in churches, although they have now largely been supplanted by Western fabrics. Examples of both types can be seen in the picture at the top of the article. Icons may normally be veiled with a semi-transparent or opaque cloth; very thin chiffon-type cotton cloth is a specialty of Ethiopia, though usually with no pattern.

Colourful basketry with a coiled construction is common in rural Ethiopia. The products have many uses, such as storing grains, seeds, and food and being used as tables and bowls. The Muslim city of Harar is well known for its high-quality basketry, [10] and many craft products of the Muslim minority relate to wider Islamic decorative traditions.

Illuminated Manuscripts from Other Religious Groups of Ethiopia

Islamic manuscript housed in the Governor of Harar's mansion The House of Makonnen (2186146035).jpg
Islamic manuscript housed in the Governor of Harar's mansion

Basketry wasn't the only artistry to emerge from the Muslim city of Harar. While Christian illuminated manuscripts dominate the literature on religious texts emerging from this region, Ethiopia is also home to a rich history of Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Located in central-eastern Ethiopia at the crossroads of multiple migration and trade routes, Harar became the epicentre for Islamization by the 14th century. [11] This followed previous introductions of the religion by Muslim religious figures in the northeast of the country in the 7th century, and coasts of neighboring Somalia in the 8th century. [12] The confluence of culture from both nomadic groups indigenous to the region and trade partners beyond, resulted in a style of manuscript unique to the Harari people.

The Khalili manuscript (a single-volume Qur’ān of 290 folios) is regarded by scholar Dr. Sana Mirza as representative of distinct Harari codices (known in Arabic as Mus'haf). In part, because of its stylistic parallels to the 25 recorded collections produced in Harar. [13] Additionally, because it is one of the earliest documented texts from the city—the oldest datable manuscript containing text in Old Harari was produced in 1460. [14] The Khalili Qur’ān has distinct, wide horizontal margins, creating the optics of a script elongated across the page. The wide margins are filled with notes and ornate decorations. Some notes are written diagonally to the main text creating a vertical zigzagging effect, and others are written in blocking patterns. The colourful gray, gold, and red text serve both an aesthetic and functional purpose, each colour indicating a different reading of the text or sayings of the prophet. [13]

Table displaying some of the adaptations of Arabic script to Ajami script African Ajami Arabic script crop1.JPG
Table displaying some of the adaptations of Arabic script to Ajami script

Ajami Script and Ajamization of Ethiopian Art

The text itself is written in Ajami, differing from the native Ge'ez script—an alphabet used to write languages local to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ajami refers to an adapted Arabic script influenced by local languages primarily spoken in Eastern Africa. [12] Beyond the script, Ajami represents the contextual enrichment of Islamic traditions within the region during this period more broadly, a process growing literature on the subject refers to as Ajamization. [11] [12] With the introduction of Islamic texts, culture, and art to Africa, communities modified these traditions to accommodate local palates. The Ajamization of Qur’ānic texts by the Harari people, reflects this intersection of assimilation and preservation, through adapting traditional Islamic practices to indigenous culture and taste.

Qur'anic art of the Mamluk Sultanate circa 1375 with stylistic parallels to Harari manuscripts Arabischer Maler um 1375 001.jpg
Qur'anic art of the Mamluk Sultanate circa 1375 with stylistic parallels to Harari manuscripts

Stylistic Parallels

Transcultural parallels and adaptations in the illumination of the text, such as the Byzantine influence on Christian illustrations within the region, can also be observed in Islamic art. Beyond visual likeness to Byzantine art, Ethiopia's geographic positioning in the Horn of Africa at the junction of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean is reflected in the aesthetic similarities between Harari script and other visual cultures. [13] Notably, Dr. Mirza has drawn parallels between the Harari manuscripts and the decorative devices from the Islamic texts of the Mamluk Sultanate (modern-day Egypt and Syria) and the calligraphic letterform of the Biḥārī script (northeast India). [13]

Representation of Ethiopian Islamic Art

The lack of representation for Islamic manuscripts compared to other religious texts from Ethiopia in mainstream scholarship can be attributed to a variety of reasons. A leading scholar in Islamic manuscript cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Alessandro Gori, ascribes this disproportionate representation within academia to a variety of socio-political factors. Dr. Gori claims that a change in regime in 1991 and the geopolitics of "classical" Arabic studies have contributed to an understudied field. [15]

Research on Islam is also limited due to private ownership. The most prominent Ethiopian institutions to house these manuscripts include the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the National Museum of Ethiopia, and the Harar National Museum. [16] Yet, the majority of these collections remain in private hands. The emergence of tourism in the 1970s brought foreign buyers with little knowledge of the historical relevance of these bodies of work. [15] This privatization made it easier for collectors from Europe, the United States, and Arab countries to acquire these texts without going through institutional channels. [16] In conjunction with the destruction of manuscripts by foreign aggressors or disputing citizens, [15] lack of trust in government bodies, and smuggling; [16] cataloging and preserving these sacred texts remains a difficult task.

Despite these challenges, academics, curators, and the Ethiopian government have made increasing efforts to inventory Harari and other Islamic manuscripts. In collaboration with the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Dr. Gori published a catalog of Islamic codices in 2014 to help facilitate future research on these manuscripts. [15]

See also


  1. 1 2 Biasio 2003.
  2. "Christian Ethiopian art". Smarthistory. 2016-12-22. Retrieved 2017-07-27.
  3. 1 2 3 Briggs, Philip (2015). Ethiopia. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 242. ISBN   978-1-84162-922-3.
  4. De Lorenzi, James (2015). Guardians of the Tradition: Historians and Historical Writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 15–16. ISBN   978-1-58046-519-9.
  5. Gossage, Carolyn; Chojnacki, Stanley (2000). Ethiopian icons: catalogue of the collection of the Institute of Ethiopian studies, Addis Ababa university. Skira. ISBN   978-88-8118-646-4. OCLC   848786240.[ page needed ]
  6. "Ethiopia, its Art and Icons" . Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  7. Ross 2002.
  8. Chojnacki, Stanisław; Gossage, Carolyn (2006). Ethiopian crosses: a cultural history and chronology. Skira. ISBN   978-88-7624-831-3. OCLC   838853616.[ page needed ]
  9. Evangelatou, Maria (2018). A Contextual Reading of Ethiopian Crosses through Form and Ritual. Gorgias Press. doi:10.31826/9781463240226. ISBN   978-1-4632-4022-6. S2CID   198628084.[ page needed ]
  10. "Ethiopian Handicraft". Archived from the original on 1 July 2012. Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  11. 1 2 Fani, Sara (17 October 2017). "Scribal Practices in Arabic Manuscripts from Ethiopia: The ʿAjamization of Scribal Practices in Fuṣḥā and ʿAjamī Manuscripts from Harar". Islamic Africa. 8 (1–2): 144–170. doi:10.1163/21540993-00801002.
  12. 1 2 3 Hernández, Adday (17 October 2017). "The ʿAjamization of Islam in Ethiopia through Esoteric Textual Manifestations in Two Collections of Ethiopian Arabic Manuscripts". Islamic Africa. 8 (1–2): 171–192. doi:10.1163/21540993-00801004. hdl: 10261/204784 .
  13. 1 2 3 4 Mirza, Sana (28 December 2017). "The visual resonances of a Harari Qur'ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian Ocean connec". Afriques (8). doi: 10.4000/afriques.2052 .
  14. Gori 2019.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Gori, Regourd & Delamarter 2014, p. [ page needed ].
  16. 1 2 3 Kawo, Hassen Muhammad (2015). "Islamic Manuscript Collections in Ethiopia". Islamic Africa. 6 (1–2): 192–200. doi:10.1163/21540993-00602012. JSTOR   90017383.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chester Beatty Library</span> Archive in Dublin, Ireland

The Chester Beatty Library, now known as the Chester Beatty, is a museum and library in Dublin. It was established in Ireland in 1950, to house the collections of mining magnate, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. The present museum, on the grounds of Dublin Castle, opened on 7 February 2000, the 125th anniversary of Beatty's birth and was named European Museum of the Year in 2002.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harar</span> Capital Harari Region, Ethiopia

Harar known historically by the indigenous as Harar-Gey or simply Gey is a walled city in eastern Ethiopia. It is also known in Arabic as the City of Saints.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Islam in Ethiopia</span> Religion in Ethiopia

Islam is the second-largest religion in Ethiopia behind Christianity, with 31.3 to 35.9 percent of the total population of around 113.5 million people professing the religion as of 2022.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi</span> 16th century Imam and General of the Adal Sultanate

Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi was an imam and general of the Adal Sultanate. Imam Ahmad, invaded the Ethiopian Empire under the Sultanate of Adal during the Ethiopian-Adal War.

Sheikh Abaadir Umar Al-Rida Fiqi Umar, also known as Aw Abadir was the legendary founder of Harar and a patron saint in modern-day eastern Ethiopia. The modern Harari people regard him as their common ancestor, as does the Somali Sheekhaal clan.

Ajami or Ajamiyya, which comes from the Arabic root for 'foreign' or 'stranger', is an Arabic-derived script used for writing African languages, particularly those of Mandé, Hausa and Swahili, although many other African languages are written using the script, including, Mooré, Pulaar, Wolof, and Yoruba. It is an adaptation of the Arabic script, so as to write sounds not found in standard Arabic. Rather than adding new letters, modifications usually consist of additional dots or lines added to pre-existing letters.

The Argobba are an ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia. A Muslim community, they are spread out through isolated village networks and towns in the northeastern and eastern parts of the country. Group members have typically been astute traders and merchants, and have adjusted to the economic trends in their area. These factors have led to a decline in usage of the Argobba language. Argobba are considered endangered today due to exogamy and destitution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harari people</span> Semitic-speaking ethnic group in the Horn of Africa

The Harari people are Semitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. Members traditionally reside in the walled city of Harar, called simply Gēy "the City" in Harari, situated in the Harari Region of eastern Ethiopia. They speak the Harari language, a member of the South Ethiopic grouping within the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic languages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Blue Quran</span> Early Quranic manuscript

The Blue Quran is an early Quranic manuscript written in Kufic script. The dating, location of origin, and patron of the Blue Quran are unknown and have been the subject of academic debate, though it is generally accepted that the manuscript was produced in the late 9th to mid 10th-century in either Kairouan, Tunisia or Cordoba in Umayyad Spain. The manuscript is among the most famous works of Islamic calligraphy, notable for its gold lettering on a rare indigo-colored parchment. Art historian Yasser Tabbaa wrote that the "evanescent effect" of the gold lettering on the blue parchment "appears to affirm the Mu'tazili belief in the created and mysterious nature of the Word of God."

Garad is a term used to refer to a clan leader or regional administrator. It was used primarily by Muslims in the Horn of Africa that were associated with Islamic states, most notably the Adal Sultanate.

The Harla, also known as Harala, Haralla or Arla, are an extinct ethnic group that once inhabited Djibouti, Ethiopia and northern Somalia. They spoke the now-extinct Harla language, which belonged to either the Cushitic or Semitic branches of the Afroasiatic family. There are existing books like "The Book of Obligations" in Old Harari written roughly 500 years ago, when Hararis were referred to as "Harla" at that time as attested to in the Conquest of Abyssinia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Makhzumi dynasty</span> 896 – 1286 Muslim kingdom in modern Ethiopia

The Makhzumi dynasty also known as Sultanate of Shewa or Shewa Sultanate, was a Muslim kingdom in present-day Ethiopia. Its capital Walale was situated in northern Hararghe in Harla country. Its territory extended possibly to some areas west of the Awash River. The port of Zeila may have influenced the kingdom. The rise of the Makhzumi state at the same time resulted in the decline of the Kingdom of Axum. Several engravings dating back to the 13th century showing the presence of the kingdom are found in Chelenqo, Bate, Harla near Dire Dawa and Munessa near Lake Langano.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Early Quranic manuscripts</span> Documentary texts in Islamic studies

In Muslim tradition the Quran is the final revelation from God, Islam's divine text, delivered to the Islamic prophet Muhammad through the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Muhammad's revelations were said to have been recorded orally and in writing, through Muhammad and his followers up until his death in 632 CE. These revelations were then compiled by first caliph Abu Bakr and codified during the reign of the third caliph Uthman so that the standard codex edition of the Quran or Muṣḥaf was completed around 650 CE, according to Muslim scholars. This has been critiqued by some western scholarship, suggesting the Quran was canonized at a later date, based on the dating of classical Islamic narratives, i.e. hadiths, which were written 150–200 years after the death of Muhammad, and partly because of the textual variations present in the Sana'a manuscript. With the discovery of earlier manuscripts which conform to the Uthmanic standard however, the revisionist view has fallen out of favor and been described as "untenable", with western scholarship generally supporting the classical Muslim view.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ethiopian manuscript collections</span>

Ethiopian manuscripts are known to have reached Europe as early as the fifteenth century, perhaps even earlier, through Egypt, Ethiopian pilgrims to the Holy Land and through members of the Ethiopian monastery of St Stephen of the Abyssinians in Rome. Subsequently, travellers, missionaries, military personnel and scholars contributed to the development of collections outside Ethiopia. In Europe, the three biggest collections of Ethiopian manuscripts are in Rome, in Paris and in London. These three organisations together hold about 2,700 manuscripts. Oriental collections of nearly all significant European libraries also have Ethiopian material, with some still pursuing a policy of acquisition. The five largest collections in North America are at Catholic University, the Library of Congress, UCLA, Princeton, and Howard University.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arabic miniature</span> Small paintings on paper

Arabic miniatures are small paintings on paper, usually book or manuscript illustrations but also sometimes separate artworks that occupy entire pages. The earliest example dates from around 690 AD, with a flourishing of the art from between 1000 and 1200 AD in the Abbasid caliphate. The art form went through several stages of evolution while witnessing the fall and rise of several Islamic caliphates. Arab miniaturists absorbed Chinese and Persian influences brought by the Mongol destructions, and at last, got totally assimilated and subsequently disappeared due to the Ottoman occupation of the Arab world. Nearly all forms of Islamic miniatures owe their existences to Arabic miniatures, as Arab patrons were the first to demand the production of illuminated manuscripts in the Caliphate, it wasn't until the 14th century that the artistic skill reached the non-Arab regions of the Caliphate.

The Gaturi, also spelled as Gatouri are an extinct ethnic group that once inhabited present-day eastern Ethiopia.

Islamic manuscripts had a variety of functions ranging from Qur'anic recitation to Scientific notation. These manuscripts were produced in many different ways depending on their use and time period. Parchment (vellum) was a common way to produce manuscripts. Manuscript creators eventually transitioned to using paper in later centuries with the diffusion of paper making in the Islamic empire. When Muslims encountered paper in Central Asia, its use and production spread to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa during the 8th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Early history of Harar</span> History of Harar city prior to 1887

Early history of Harar city is generally obscure, as many documents and records differ the exact date of the origin of the city. Most historical records state that Harar's history date back to 16th century, beginning with Adal Sultanate moving its capital from Dakkar to Harar during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad. Other rudimentary oral tradition produced in 19th and 20th century stated that Harar history dated by in the 10th century or Abadir Umar ar-Rida founded the first Harar kingdom after migrating from Arabian Peninsula to spread Islam in 12th and 13th century.

Adal, known as Awdal or Aw Abdal was a historical Muslim region in the Horn of Africa. Located towards the Harar plateau east of Ifat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Timeline of Harar</span>

This is timeline of Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia from the initial history to present.