The Significance of Gold in Ethiopian Culture

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the history of gold extends back at least 6,000 years; the earliest identifiable, realistically dated finds had been made in Egypt and Mesopotamia 4000 BC. Egyptian wall reliefs from 2300 BC show gold in various stages of refining and mechanical working. During those ancient times, gold was mined from alluvial places. That is, particles of elemental gold were found in river sands. The gold was concentrated by washing away the lighter river sands with water. It was done leaving behind the dense gold particles, which could then be further concentrated by melting.

When we come to the Ethiopian context, gold has been associated with the Ethiopian culture and way of life for several centuries. Historical manuscripts indicate that gold was used for many purposes during the Axumite Empire. The great Empire of Axum forged silver into jewellery, pots and other decorative objects. Archaeological findings revealed that great number of gold coins and luxurious items have been found in the Empire’s capital, Axum and its Red Sea port of Adulis.

During the height of the Axumite Empire (2nd century), three types of coins were minted; gold coins for international markets engraved in Greek, silver coins (mainly) for regional and local markets, and bronze coins that circulated locally. The other luxurious items were exported to the then strong nations such as Greek, Rome, India and China. The Axumite Empire had been conducting business transactions using gold coins as well. The artefacts discovered by archaeological excavations show that gold was used among the nobility and wealthy people of that time.

In the 18th and 19th century, gold used to serve as currency, ornament for kings and church dignitaries. The Ethiopian Orthodox community often employed skillful goldsmiths who could contribute various golden handicraft items. To anoint kings following the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia, facilitated by the clergy royal crowns were created by court goldsmiths. Ethiopian goldsmiths were famed for creating eye-catching ornaments and beautiful decorative objects in the Horn of Africa. Though gold has a long years of history, it is still seen as a source of pride, beauty, wealth and self-esteem in the minds of many Ethiopians. Moreover, its ornamentation role is extremely massive. It is normal to see beautiful Ethiopian women decorated with gold rings, earnings and bracelets throughout the country.

Teklu Desta Jewelry Owner and Manager Petros Teklu runs his company in the centre of Addis, commonly known as Piazza. He told The Ethiopian Herald that he has been engaged in goldsmith profession for the last 42 years. The 65 years old company was bequeathed to him by his late father in 1968 E.C.

The cultural value and social acceptance of gold are still invaluable in Ethiopia. Goldsmiths buy the gold from National Bank of Ethiopia, the authorized organ to collect gold reserves from producers. Petros said the people buy gold mainly for ornamentation and for saving asset. He buys the gold inputs after confirming their legality looking at their ID card and other necessary documentations. Then, he prepares the payment voucher.

“The society has high affinity for gold. Gold could be given as a gift to loved ones. It could be gifted to people at graduation ceremonies, child baptism, weddings, engagements, awards and recognition and diplomatic relations,” he added. The gold quality starts from 18 carat, being checked by international gold quality standards. The 18 carat gold which is mixed of silver and bronze would be distributed among the goldsmiths for jewellery preparation. After that it will be forged into jewellery and becomes ready to market.

According to Petros, women are more prone in buying gold than any segment of the society. Even if its price fluctuates from time to time, the current price of one gram gold is 1150 birr, which is exorbitant for the common people. The soaring price of gold concerns goldsmiths like Petros as most people will not dare to purchase gold in the face of prices ever getting expensive. “I wish for a price fall so that everybody will buy gold at an affordable price.”

It is clear that items forged in gold may well contain traditional liturgical theme, such as the tsirur (earnings), dinble (pendant) and the ball shaped as ‘yegabcha kelebet’ (wedding ring), traditionally worn by women of Tigray, among others. Petros insisted that Ethiopian women look extremely beautiful wearing gold ornaments and traditional clothing. When the gold ornaments worn on forehead, finger, neck and other parts of the body, the women would have stunning beauty. It is common for rings, too small for fingers, to be strung around the neck, together with pendants. The ensemble accentuates the wearing of costumes made of cotton ‘yebeal qemis’ (Sunday best or dress) and shema (shawl) worn during religious festivals, wedding ceremonies, public holidays, and other social occasions. In all respects, the ornamentation and clothing unmistakably grace and dignify the quintessential Ethiopian woman.

Ayele Demsew owns a jewellery shop in Merkato, called the largest open-air market in Africa. He told The Herald that Ethiopians are highly gold obsessed people. Gold is associated with the culture and way of life of the society in every corner of the country, he said.

“Gold is the most precious and lasting gift or keepsake that we want to present for our families and friends. If you give them money, they could spend it. But if you present them gold jewellery as a gift, they will keep it so as to remember the person who presented them,” Ayele Added.

Expressing another advantage of gold, the goldsmith noted some people hoard gold to prevent the depreciation of their money. Therefore, they may buy gold and save it in banks to use it during rainy days.

Tsigereda Kahsay was born in Tigray State, northern Ethiopia. She told The Herald that most of the time, husbands present gold to their wives to express their love and affection. “Gold is given as a compensation while brokering peace between quarreled husbands and wives. If proved offenders, husbands are also obliged to pay gold as means of punishment if their marriage could not be revitalized.”

“Ethiopian women are highly eager to possess gold ornaments. They believe it will help them win respect from the society when they get a chance of adorning themselves with such decorations and display their gold possessions seizing public holidays as a chance. That’s why buying jewellery to one’s bride was mandatory in the previous generations,” she added.

Ethiopia has rich and untapped cultural history, which could be traced back to the days of yore. The mosaic beauty of its nations, nationalities and peoples by itself proves a huge tourism potential that should be utilized properly. The Ethiopian people’s dressing style, food, language and culture attract many tourists from around the world. The public holidays like Mesqel, Ed Alfetir and Timket serves forums for exhibiting the glamorous culture of Ethiopians. Also tourists who visit Ethiopia buy various souvenirs, which showcases a broad spectrum of Ethiopian culture. Often, tourists buy Ethiopian jewellery as a reminder of their sojourn here and to gift it to their loved ones at home. Having said this, parallel to maintaining age -old styles and traditional knowledge, the goldsmiths and silversmiths should modernize their handicraft profession to produce more attractive ornaments. Thus, governmental and non-governmental organizations should work in collaboration to enhance the handicraft profession.

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Source: The Ethiopian Herald

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