Ethiopian arts & crafts

Adrian Greenwood has kindly penned this detailed overview of Ethiopian crafts for our update website:

Genuine Handicrafts or Airport Art?

Ethiopia has a long tradition of producing collectable artifacts unique to its various cultures. In recent years though certain outlets (principally airports and upmarket hotels) have decided to widen their offerings to what is often called Airport Art, basically modern fraudulent “ethnic-like” artifacts, occasionally well made and superficially attractive. These are almost all made in the Far East and have no connection at all with Ethiopia. They are there to con the harassed fly-in fly-out tourist or businessperson wanting to take a present home, and should be avoided.

A little homework helps to distinguish the authentic from the fraudulent. Ethiopians produce modern handicraft work often of a high standard and at an affordable price, and there are also a number of older items, which may command premium prices. In particular the tourist should consider supporting Ethiopian trade, by buying basketwork and agilgels, silver and crosses, textiles, falasha(Beta Israel) goods, religious paintings and manuscripts, woodwork, gourds, choicho and calabashes, stonework and pottery. Local incense, berbere, tea and coffee make good presents too.

It is always best to buy at source if possible (baskets in Harrar, agilgels in Bahar Dar or Zeghie, Jimma stools in Kaffa, stonework in Axum, falasha goods outside Gondar, calabashes in the Omo valley and so on) but there is little that cannot also be found somewhat more expensively in Addis, in particular halfway up Churchill Road, in the streets around Tewodoros Square and in the tourist section of the Mercato. Prices are not of course fixed, except in expensive hotels, but some appropriate haggling between two stores will quickly give you an idea of a target price.

Basketwork and Agilgils

Ethiopians have used their skills as basketweavers for generations, and to provide a variety of containers for daily use, even including fluids. Different sorts of grasses are used, but the technique is the same, tight coils made up of straight grasses bound in flat grasses and sewn on to itself as the coil gets larger. The smaller and finer the coil the better the effect. Into this basic coil are then woven coloured grasses to create often very intricate patterns. The work is very complicated as it needs a three dimensional view at all times. Uses vary, but baskets for trays of injera and wat, or for tables are typical, and often seen in traditional restaurants.

Harrar is said to be the home of the best basketmakers but in truth good examples can be found throughout the north. The Aderi people of Harrar do however have a tradition of 14 sorts of baskets for dowries, and the Arab style houses usually have many old naturally coloured baskets in pride of place on their walls, but these are difficult to buy and command premium prices. More modern pieces need the same level of skill,but the colours are now produced chemically, so they can often look somewhat too garish for European tastes. A good compromise is to buy modern work in natural tan only. They are freely available in the markets. There are fears that the skills needed for intricate basketwork are dying out, and attempts are being made in Harrar to revive interest.

Agelgils are a sort of picnic basket, to carry injera, and are covered in leather with leather straps. They are manufactured in two styles, dark brown leather and a lighter dappled animal skin, and can be bought freely in the Bahir Dar and Lake Tana region. They come in various sizes.

There is also a pretty long basket made from coarser grasses, woven around 15-40 longer stalks of reeds, usually striped in shades of black, brown and tan. These are cheap to buy and decorative.

Silver and Crosses

Only an unobservant person would fail to recognise the importance of crosses of intricate design to the Christian Amharas and Tigrinyas of the north. Smaller ones are used for personal adornment, larger ones for churches and for ceremonial purposes. Many metals are used, and the finish on cheaper metals can seem quite crude at times. Nevertheless the designs run almost into the hundreds, and are often very creative.

The best crosses are the ones made of silver, and usually cut from old Maria Theresia dollars of 1780, once a very common form of coinage in rural Ethiopia. They can usually be felt as silver which is smoother to the touch, and particularly older pieces are often worn smooth.

Crosses of all types are still being produced, so that a tourist does not need to feel that he or she is robbing a church of its ancient heritage. Rally old and valuable crosses are unlikely to be on sale and are in any event illegal to export.

Several books list the types of Ethiopian crosses after their putative town of origin, so there are so-called Axum crosses, Lalibela crosses, Gondar crosses and so on, but it is not really clear that they “belong” to that town. they are all freely available everywhere.

Gold is mined in Ethiopia in small quantities, but is only rarely to be found in Ethiopian jewellery, silver and baser metals are the norm. There is another type of silver ornament found in Eastern Ethiopia, and this is the intricate silverwork of Yemeni and Arab craftsmen, which is popular amongst the Aderi and the Afar. It is not cheap but very decorative. It is occasionally to be found in Addis, the Ghion Hotel souvenir shop for example having a good selection.

Textiles and Shammas

The typical white to off-white clothes of the highland Ethiopian are easy to buy in any market. They are usually of cotton and woven in Ethiopia. The Shamma is the ubiquitous cloth of the male wrapped around their heads and shoulders on cold mornings. For women there is a more elaborate version with a colourful border, also often made into a dress. The price varies according to the thickness of the border. These are worn particularly on Sundays and feastdays.

In Harrar the women prefer to wear colourful cotton textiles imported from India. These too make good presents, as they are light to carry and cheap to buy, but the quality of the print is often not 100%, so care needs to be taken.

Decorative rugs are made in the woollen factory town of Debre Berhan, usually in shades of brown and tan. They depict simple designs, such as a stylised lion or house, and are of somewhat coarse material. They are often to be seen on the floors of small hotels, and make an unusual present.

Falasha or Beta Israel goods

Just outside Gondar going north on the Axum road are a series of roadside stalls selling pottery made by the remnants of the Falashas, the pre-Talmudic Jews of Ethiopia, who prefer to be known as Beta Israel, and who were airlifted out by the Israeli military during a period of famine, and after Israeli rabbis had finally pronounced that they were indeed Jews.

The Falasha were potters, specialising in black terracotta figurines of daily life usually adorned with the star of David. These are very collectable, although not very robust. The better quality figurines are pre-airlift but difficult to find, and there are also pre-Peace Corps and post-Peace Corps designs, as help was given by American potters to make Falasha figures more professional and longer-lasting. Both types of design are good.

When the original potters were airlifted out, standards dropped enormously but there are signs now of a sort of revival, and they are beginning to be collectable again, although there can now only be a few Falashas left. They tend to be sold at a more or less fixed price but this is very low by Western standards. They are however still just as difficult to get home in one piece. I pack them in dirty socks and underwear!

Religious Paintings and Manuscripts

Here one needs to be fairly careful, as many genuinely old manuscripts and church paintings are on the market, probably taken from the plentiful supplies of Orthodox churches. These are both illegal to export and morally dubious, and we should develop the same critique of them as we are beginning to do for items made of ivory or endangered animal skins.

However there is, parallel to the genuinely old, a movement to recreate modern versions, with freshly painted icons and copies of manuscripts on parchment. This seems to me to be a legitimate endeavour. Mostly religious themes are covered but there are others, in particular the strip cartoon renderings of the story of Menelik 1, the son of Solomon and Sheba, which is a quirky and very Ethiopian theme. There are of course other sorts of paintings, for example of typical ethnic dress or hair, but these tend to be substandard.


There is a long tradition of wooden items for the household, some of which make good and popular purchases, for example wooden containers for liquids. The south of Ethiopia has suitable trees, notably the Cordia Africana which grows in the rainforest areas around Jimma and Mizan Aman (formerly Teferi).

The most famous product of the Cordia is the three legged Jimma stool, made out of a single block of wood. It is hard and not easily worked, and larger specimens have a rarity value. The standard stool is not too expensive, but those with straight or curved backs command a premium. It is worth sitting on them before buying as western bottoms are often more ample than Ethiopian ones!

Another good purchase is the widely played Gebede or Kalaha game, which is often made out of a piece of Cordia. The Ethiopian version has 12 hollows in two rows of 6, with a larger hollow on the left and the right, one for each player. The game involves emptying a hollow, distributing the stones therein in a fixed pattern round the board, in such a way that the last stone ends in an empty hollow,thus entitling that player to take further stones from his opponent. The game contains no element of chance at all. It is entirely a game of skill in counting, and an excellent preparation for children to learn how to calculate.

In the Omo valley the men of many tribes have elaborate hairstyles which would be damaged if they slept on the ground. They therefore carry with them headrests, which they often offer to tourists for cash. These headrests are made out of one piece of wood and usually have a braided leather handle for carrying around with them. They are often decorated with geometrical patterns.

Gourds, Calabashes and Choicho

Particular in the south and west gourds or calabashes are dried for use as containers for liquids and dry goods. The top is cut off and often decorated with basketwork or glasspearls. In the Omo valley and around Gambela they are often incised with geometrical patterns or very occasionally with pictures of animals, and dirt rubbed in to give a black pattern. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on the growth of the original fruit, and are often ornamented with leather straps for easier carrying. They are surprisingly sturdy, although bulky for carrying on planes. The best ones I have seen were in the markets of the Hamar people south of Arba Minch, but they are widely available at lower altitudes.

An interesting variation is the Choicho, which is a calabash (or occasionally a terracotta pot) decorated with cowrie shells and leather, and used traditionally to collect and store milk. Some of the better ones are very ornate indeed, and not as utilitarian as one might expect. The curio shops on the Churchill road usually have one or two choicho each foir sale.

Miscellaneous -jewellery, stoneware, pottery and spices

Other items can be bought of course. Jewellery is as popular amongst tourists as it is among the Ethiopian population. Amber is expensive and found mostly in the East around Harrar. Elsewhere cheap coloured glass pearls are easy to find. Lip-plates from the Mursi and Suri, or warthog tusks or copper bangles can often be bought directly from the tribespeople.

Stoneware is produced near Axum, usually effigies of Solomon and Sheba or icons. Pottery, especially the Ethiopian terracotta coffee pots, is a popular purchase, and readily available.

And finally, popular gifts for those back home are berbere, incense, tea and coffee. Berbere can be bought in any supermarket in Addis, and it is worth buying the most expensive sort. It comes in rather larger packages than a Westerner might want, but tastes good in goulash for example. Incense is a little harder to find but is usually to be found in a good market. Tea comes in two varieties, Addis Tea and Wushwush tea. Both are good and ridiculously cheap. Coffee is of course Ethiopia’s number one export. It tastes magnificent in Ethiopia, but some tourists report that it doesn’t taste the same back home in Europe. But try it for yourself!


3 thoughts on “Ethiopian arts & crafts

  1. Sarah says:

    Great info! I am leaving in 1 week for a mission trip to Addis, also going to Kembatta and Merhabete. Looking forward to the wonderful experience! I really enjoyed reading what you wrote! Thanks so much! 🙂

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