Ethiopia: The Significance of Gold in Ethiopian Culture
By Tsegay Hagos
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.