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Ethiopian objects from Maqdala in the British Museum collection 

The British Museum has in its collection a group of around 80 objects from Maqdala, Ethiopia, donated by Richard Rivington Holmes and Sir Robert Napier. The collection includes fine examples of nineteenth-century weapons and textiles as well as church regalia and furniture. Many of these objects are on display in the Museum galleries. The Maqdala treasures are historically important and represent many of the great artistic traditions of Ethiopia.

History of Maqdala

Maqdala, an almost impenetrable mountain-top fortress in northern Ethiopia, was the seat of power and retreat of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868). In the 1860s relations between Tewodros and Britain became strained and deteriorated further when Tewodros imprisoned the British consul and several European missionaries.

In 1867 a military expedition led by Sir Robert Napier was sent to free the British captives with a force of 12,000 men from both the British and Indian armies. 

At dawn on Easter Monday, 13 April 1868, Napier ordered an assault on Maqdala to destroy Tewodros’ stronghold. When his troops entered the fortress they found the Emperor already dead. Rather than surrender, Tewodros had taken his own life using a pistol which had been a gift from Queen Victoria. This last defiant act has immortalised Tewodros as a national hero for many Ethiopians.

Material taken from Maqdala was auctioned soon after on the Delanta plain, and Richard Rivington Holmes acquired objects for the British Museum including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library. Today material from Maqdala can be found in public collections in North America and Europe as well as in private collections worldwide.

When the Maqdala material first entered the British Museum in 1868 it stimulated a worldwide interest in the archaeology, history and culture of Ethiopia which has continued to this day. In recent years the British Museum has mounted a number of exhibitions, with accompanying publications, which have sought to emphasise the rich diversity of Ethiopian culture. The Maqdala collection is being actively studied and catalogued, and will be made accessible on the Museum website through the collection database online, allowing the world to learn more about Ethiopia and its rich cultural heritage. The presence of these remarkable examples of Ethiopian material culture highlights the importance of Ethiopia within the uniquely rich human context of the museum’s collection.

The British Museum has started a program of collaborative work with cultural heritage and academic institutions in Ethiopia. Museum staff work closely with Ethiopian partners to further international understanding of the significance of Ethiopian culture to the world, and to build new cultural relationships between the peoples of Ethiopia and the UK.

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