Ethiopia, from the 6th century Greek traveller Cosmas to the 19th century London Illustrated News depictions of the noble Abyssinian king Theodoros reclining amidst his tame lions, has long incited the imagination of artists – and from Theseus delivering Andromeda from the monster Cetus, to the unicorn which was still said to be abundant in Agew Meder (Gojjam) by the otherwise serious 16th century chronicler Jeronimo Lobo, the country always was a fit canvas for the vivid colourings of artists that were far away enough from their subject to be able to happily fill in and embellish the details that eluded them – The composite picture of Ethiopia that was born in this manner contained in bold strokes both myth as well as strong realistic detail.
Later, in the 18th century – the age of enlightenment – travelers such as James Bruce (and his unjustly forgotten Italian illustrator) will bring to Ethiopia the encyclopedists’ thirst for exact knowledge. The line drawings no longer count the number of rings on a unicorn’s frontal appendage but classify new plants – genus, variety, use, common name – and seek to encompass the manifold types of dress, tattoo, weapon and house structure to be found in the country. Prester John is relinquished to fairy tale books while his Solomonic descendants are categorized and scrutinized and compiled into so many treatises and books of exact science.
It is this rich illustrated history that a beautiful – and hard back! – new edition of Ethiopia Engraved seeks to encompass in its pages. Richard Pankhurst – who needs no introduction and to whom nothing Ethiopian is foreign – and his fellow author Leila Ingrams, well known for her work on Yemen, have put together in this volume a kaleidoscope of Ethiopian imagery that covers both poles of the Ethiopian canvas – the imaginary and the encyclopedic – and all the subtle hues found in between. The line drawings, scientific sketches and artistic engravings reproduced in this book are a wonderful introduction to Ethiopian history for neophyte and Ethiopian specialist alike. Highly recommended.
Ethiopia Engraved, illustrations by foreign travelers by Richard Pankhurst and Leila Ingrams (Revised and expanded 2014). Shama Books/BookWorld