- Museum number
Tablet woven silk hanging used to conceal the entrance to the Holy of Holies (Q'edus Q'edusan) of an Ethiopian church.
- Production date
Length: 306 centimetres
Width: 63 centimetres
- Curator's comments
This cloth was designed as the central section of a triptych which would have screened the inner sanctum, maqdas, from the main body of an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church.
The practice of adorning the interiors of churches with silk hangings was widespread in the Byzantine empire - a tradition that survived longer in Ethiopia than it did in the rest of Christendom.
This is the largest tablet-woven textile in the world. Tablet weaving is the process whereby the 'sheds' through which the weft passes are created not by heddles, but by perforated cards strung on the warp threads. This panel would have required over 300 tablets, through which each one of four warp threads would have passed.
Though a profoundly Christian artefact, the panel was probably created by a guild of Muslim or Jewish (Falasha) weavers in the city of Gondar. It is woven entirely of imported Chinese silk, and the figures that appear on it are depicted in such detail that the soldiers can be seen to be carrying firearms of Indian manufacture. The event commemorated is probably the lying-in-state of King Bakaffa (reigned 1722-30). Bakaffa, Mentaub, his wife, and their young son Iyasu are all depicted wearing the plaited band of blue silk, matab, which was a symbol of their Christian faith.
C. Spring and J. Hudson, Silk in Africa (London, The British Museum Press, 2002)
C.J. Spring and J. Hudson, North African textiles (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
See file in Eth Doc 439 in AOA Archives on transfer of these objects from former Medieval & Later Dept.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1995-96, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 4), 'Secular and Sacred'
2008-2009 29 Sep-05 Apr, New York, Metropolitan Museum, The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End
2012 April-July, Manarat Al Saadayat,Abu Dhabi, Treasures of the world's cultures
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Maqdala, an almost impenetrable mountain top fortress in northern Ethiopia, became the seat of power and a retreat for Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868). The Emperor intended Maqdala to become his capital and treasury. He collected many manuscripts from churches throughout Ethiopia and brought them to Maqdala with the intention of creating a great library and seat of learning. His treasury included many fine examples of Ethiopian art including textiles, paintings and metal work.
In the 1860s relations between Tewodros and Britain became strained and relations 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 made up of 12,000 men from both the British and Indian armies.
At dawn on Easter Monday April 13th 1868, Napier ordered an assault on Maqdala to destroy Tewodros’s 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. Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition as an archaeologist. He acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library. In 1868 the Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, 1st Earl of Iddesleigh, donated to The British Museum two further collections of material from Maqdala.
Material from Maqdala can be found in public collections in North America and Europe as well as in private collections worldwide. When the Maqdala collections first entered the British Museum in 1868 they stimulated a worldwide interest in the archaeology, history and culture of Ethiopia which has continued to this day. For Tewodros’ library see Rita Pankhurst ‘The Library of Emperor Tewodros II…’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36(1), 1973 pp 15-42.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number