Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author


In April 1868, a British expeditionary force led by Sir Robert Napier, laid siege to the Ethiopian King Tewodros in his highland fortress ofMaqdala. Following a brief encounter, the king committed suicide on 13 April and the fortress fell into British hands.1 Among the objects subsequently retrieved from Tewodros' treasury was a large tabletwoven curtain, and several panels from similar curtains, all made of heavy, thick, spun silk. One of the panels (BM1) was immediately acquired for the British Museum by Mr. Richard R. Holmes, of the Department of Manuscripts.2

The British Museum's Department of Ethnography acquired another panel (BM2) in 1973 from a descendent of Major-General Charles M. Griffiths who had also taken part in the expedition.3 A third hanging, an entire curtain consisting of three panels, is presently in the Textile Department of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. It was loaned to the ROM before 1914 by Colonel George Augustus Sweny, and entered the institution's collections definitively in 1922. Sweny, too, had participated in the siege. He understood that this curtain had served as a screen separating the sanctuary in "the ancient cathedral at Gondar" from the body of the church.4

To date, only the ROM-piece (Fig. 1) has undergone a thorough physical analysis.5 This shows that over 350 tablets incorporating more than 1,400 twisted silk threads were used to produce a single panel.6 The monumental dimensions of the panels, measuring between 520 cms and 535 cms in length and 60 cms to 70 cms in width, make them the largest known tablet-woven fabrics in the world.7 The colours are predominantly red, yellow and indigo blue, with blue-green and yellow-brown prominent in the left-hand panel. A largely deteriorated strip of bleached white warp threads provides a background for the middle third of the central panel. In terms of colour arrangement and iconography, that part is the most significant section of the entire curtain. The dominant fabric structure is a double-faced weave with three-span floats in alternate alignment.