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    The Tabot is the foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and is what sanctifies and consecrates a church building. The Tabot is believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the mercy seat described in the Bible and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant. Every church has at least one Tabot which, when consecrated, is kept in the Qeddest Qeddusan, Holy of Holies, where only the clergy may enter. A church may be known by the name of its Tabot which is often dedicated to Mary, Medhane Alam, The Saviour of the World or to saints and angels.

    The Tabots remain in the Qeddest Qeddusan and are only brought out of the churches at festival times or in times of calamity, in order to pray for divine help. When they leave the Queddest Qeddusan they are carried on the heads of priests, veiled from public view by richly decorated cloths. Ornate silk umbrellas are held over the Tabots as a sign of respect. They are processed around the churches accompanied by Priests and Dabtara whose singing and dancing is reminiscent of how King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, (Old Testament, 2 Samuel V6). The Tabots are greatly venerated and worshippers ululate, bow and prostrate themselves in the presence of the Tabots.

    Tabots have been taken by kings into battle ahead of the armies to ensure their safety and victory. Emperor Menelik II famously took the Tabot of the Church of Saint Georges, Addis Ababa with him at the battle of Adwa, where he defeated a large Italian colonial force. The Tabot of Medhane Alam accompanied Emperor Haile Selassie I during his exile in Britain so that he could continue to celebrate the liturgy.See file in Eth Doc 439 in AOA Archives on transfer of these objects from former Medieval & Later Dept.


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    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.

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    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

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Object reference number: EAF30180

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