Inscribed cross made of bronze.

Maqdala collection

What are they?

The British Museum's collection includes around 80 objects from the northern Ethiopian locality of Maqdala (now known as Amba Mariam), where in the second half of the 19th century Emperor Tewodros II (reigned 1855–1868) built a fortress, library and treasury.

The collection includes ceremonial crosses, chalices, processional umbrella tops, weapons, textiles, jewellery and archaeological material, as well as tabots (altar tablets that consecrate a church building that are highly sacred objects within the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition).

Objects from Maqdala form part of permanent, changing displays within the Museum's galleries. Many of the works from Maqdala are spiritually important and these also represent many of the great artistic traditions of Ethiopia.

Where are they from?

Maqdala was an almost impenetrable mountain-top fortress in northern Ethiopia which became the seat of power for Emperor Tewodros II. Within its precincts, Tewodros started to establish a library and treasury, as well as dedicating a new church.

Tewodros had sought to bring the whole of Ethiopia under his control through military campaigns. During these conquests, he collected books, holy relics and manuscripts from churches throughout Ethiopia, and particularly from Gondar, with the intention of establishing Maqdala as a seat of learning and research.

As a consequence, the treasury at Maqdala housed many of the finest examples of silk textiles, gold and silver regalia and jewellery, weapons, liturgical vessels, processional crosses and tabots.

How did the objects come to the British Museum?

In the 1860s, relations between Britain and Emperor Tewodros II became strained and then deteriorated. Throughout the first half of the 19th century Britain sought to influence political developments in Ethiopia for wider regional strategic aims, including in the Red Sea, but its commitments to Ethiopia were limited and sporadic. In 1862 Tewodros sent a request to British authorities (addressed directly to Queen Victoria, but not passed to her) for assistance in military training to help support his campaigns to retain control of his territories, and against other regional powers. The ignoring of this request by British authorities insulted and enraged the Emperor. Tewodros subsequently imprisoned the British consul and took various other European hostages (including missionaries), accusing them of plotting against him. Tewodros' refusal to release the prisoners and the presentation of this within the British press led to a public outcry in Britain. This in turn led to a government decision to take large-scale military action, focused on Maqdala.

In 1867, an expedition of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers led by Sir Robert Napier was launched with the stated aim of freeing the British hostages and punishing Tewodros. The purpose of the expedition was never to annex territory. The massive military assault, carried out in 1868, resulted in the destruction of Maqdala's fortress and the deaths of hundreds of Tewodros' army and wounding of thousands more, with only limited British casualties. During the invasion, Tewodros committed suicide, rather than be taken prisoner. This last defiant act has immortalised him as a national hero for many Ethiopians. Contemporary written accounts describe widespread looting of the fortress and church by soldiers and the released hostages. Many of the pillaged objects were subsequently re-assembled and auctioned. This auction was presented as a means of generating 'prize money' for the troops. After Maqdala was destroyed the expedition force soon left Maqdala and shortly afterwards departed Ethiopia. 

Accompanying the expedition in an official capacity as 'archaeologist' was Richard Rivington Holmes, assistant in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Holmes was one of the principal buyers at the auction and returned to the UK with a significant collection of objects including over 300 manuscripts (now in the collections of the British Library), regalia, sacred vessels and liturgical equipment from the imperial treasury, library and church at Maqdala. Objects entered the British Museum collections via Holmes and through the Secretary of State for India in 1868.

Further items from Maqdala came principally from the collection of Captain Speedy. Speedy was a British explorer initially appointed by Tewodros to train his army, but who subsequently fell out with the Emperor and eventually participated in the military campaign against Maqdala. Captain Speedy became the guardian of Emperor Tewodros' son, Prince Alemayehu, following the death of Tewodros and the Prince's mother, Queen Terunesh (who died soon after the Maqdala attack). The Prince came to Britain but died while still young and the Museum's collections also include some of his personal possessions.

While celebrated in Britain by many at the time, the destruction and pillaging of Maqdala also had fierce critics. Most notably, the British Prime Minister William Gladstone criticised the plundering of Maqdala as a reprehensible and lamentable episode.

What has been requested?

Over the last five years the British Museum has received a number of visits and delegations representing Ethiopia, including a visit from the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Hirut Kassaw in March 2019.  Several discussions with the Director concerning items taken at Maqdala have been held, including requests for the return of sacred objects.

Status of discussions

Following the March 2019 meeting the Trustees received a report on discussions regarding the Maqdala material, and, conversations with Ethiopian colleagues have been continuing. In addition to the request by the delegation for the return of material seized at Maqdala, discussions have also been conducted regarding possible broader institutional collaborations.

The Museum has previously worked in partnership with the National Museum in Addis Ababa and with the Institute of Ethiopian Studies on skills-sharing and knowledge transfer initiatives.

Colleagues from the National Museum have participated in the International Training Programme (ITP) at the British Museum.

The British Museum also has a longstanding and cordial relationship with senior members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, both in Ethiopia and in London.

The British Museum's position

Discussions with Ethiopian partners concerning the Maqdala collections are continuing and the Museum is actively invested in these. Alongside these discussions, the Museum is also committed to thorough and open investigation of Maqdala collection histories, and engagement with wider contemporary dialogues within which these collections are positioned. This includes fully acknowledging and understanding the military collection history which directly led to the Museum's Maqdala collections.

In line with earlier agreements with the church, and in light of their sacred nature, the tabots from Maqdala are not on public display. They are housed in a location specially set aside for the purpose, created and maintained in close consultation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 

The Museum is committed to working collaboratively with professional colleagues, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, academics and communities associated with Ethiopia more widely to share knowledge, extend understanding and explore new perspectives on the collections from Maqdala.

The Ethiopian objects on display at the Museum emphasise and help communicate the diverse religious traditions of Ethiopia, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as other faiths.

Where else can they be seen?

In the UK, there are significant collections of painted manuscripts from Maqdala held by a range of institutions, including the British Library, London, UK. Other important collections of manuscripts and books from Maqdala are held at The John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK; Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK; Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, UK and The Royal Library, London, UK.

Other types of objects from Maqdala are held in various institutions in London including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Army Museum

Material from Maqdala can also be found in public collections in Europe and North America, particularly in the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.

While no collections from Maqdala are found in Ethiopia, a wide range of important historic collections are found there.