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Woven Ethiopian Baskets
Basket weaving is one of the oldest human crafts. Found throughout the centuries in numerous forms across countless cultures, peoples, and groups, woven baskets rank with pottery and textiles as among the first and most versatile objects to be created by human hands. In many African nations, as in other places around the world, there remain a wide variety of basket weaving traditions. From the Tutsi basketry of Rwanda to the Zulu baskets of South Africa, these methods combine centuries-old techniques and symbolism with the evolving aesthetics and social realities of modern people. And while many of these baskets have made their way into the globally-inspired décor of homes around the world, probably one of the best-known baskets of Africa is just as likely to be encountered in a restaurant as in a home.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
02 of 07
Just about anyone who's ever enjoyed Ethiopian cuisine at a restaurant specializing in the fare has probably encountered the mesob. This relatively tall, wide-bottomed basket is a mainstay of such establishments, bringing a touch of traditional culture to the dining experience. What makes the mesob unique is that its primary function is not to hold food for storage, but to act as a dining surface for people to eat from. The other outstanding feature of these baskets is the amazing color palettes and mesmerizing patterns woven into each piece. But like most global objects with a long history, the mesob can do so much more than what it shows on the surface. It can also tell you things about the place and time that it comes from, the evolutions that it's gone through and even the ways that people have changed along the way.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
03 of 07
History and Politics
Although they are generally described as Ethiopian, Mesob baskets belong to a larger tradition of Harari basket weaving which in turn belongs to a smaller geographical region—the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. Situated at an elevation of 1,885 meters above sea level, in the highland region of the country, Harar is a fortified city famous for its medieval wall built in the 13th century with five original gates corresponding to the five districts of the city. The founding of the city itself is somewhat harder to date. Various sources assert a variety of possibilities, ranging from the 7th to the 11th century A.D. The city was not originally part of Ethiopia, and went through a number of political transitions, rising and falling in prominence before finally being annexed into the neighboring state in the late 19th century. Through it all, the city remained a vital center of commerce, linking trade routes between Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula with viable ports promising trade with far more distant locations.
In 1520 A.D. Harar became the capital of the Adal Sultinate. Though originally founded by Arabs, the sultanate was under the control of the Somali sultans of the Walashma Dynasty by the time Harar became its capital. Becoming an independent kingdom in 1647 A.D., Harar remained it's own nation until 1875, when it was conquered by Egypt under Ismail Pasha for a period of nine years. The Battle of Chelenqo, which saw Harar become a permanent part of Ethiopia took place in 1887. It began when the Emir of Harar launched an abortive surprise attack on the neighboring kingdom of Ethiopia, led at that time by Menelik II. Subsequent to the attack, Harar was taken by Menelik's forces and incorporated into the Ethiopian state.Continue to 4 of 7 below.
04 of 07
The importance of Islam to Harar, and of the city to the faith, extends well beyond its position as the erstwhile capital city of a former sultanate. Harar is also said to be the fourth most sacred city of Islam, following only Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed; Medina, the site of his emigration and the location of his grave; and Jerusalem, which the Koran notes as both the location from which the Prophet ascended into heaven and also the first Qibla—the original direction toward which early Muslims were taught to face during prayer. It is important to note however, that Harar's distinction as Islam's fourth holiest city is far from uncontested. There are others that claim the title, such as the Tunisian city of Kairouan. Nevertheless, Harar was, for many centuries, an important center of Islamic scholarship, poetry and arts such as basket weaving. Today the city remains home to 82 mosques and more than 100 shrines, as well as a number of traditional townhouses noted for their unique and beautiful interior design.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Art and Culture
For centuries, basket weaving has been an important art form for the Harari, one pursued primarily, though possibly not exclusively, by the women of the higher social classes. The materials from which the baskets are woven consist of a number of different types of dried grass or straw. Migir, a sturdy plant, usually left undyed, is used as the basis of the coils that will make up the basket. The coils are woven over with a type of grass known to the Harari as agargara, and to western botanists as Eleusine jaegeri. These stems, which are often dyed, are used as a kind of thread both to decorate the finished basket and to hold its structure together.
Finally, quarma is a basic type of straw, which serves a predominantly decorative function and is only used on the outside of the basket. While the traditional means of adding color to weaving materials involves an assortment of natural dyes, modern dying requires little more than adding powdered chemical dyes to boiling water and adding the intended grasses and straws to the mix. While many contemporary Harari weavers have at least some knowledge of the dyeing process it remains the preference for most weavers to buy the materials in the desired colors from the professional dyeing families of the city.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
06 of 07
Creating the basket is a painstaking and detailed process of coiling and weaving, using the various materials to create a series of geometric patterns. The matter is further complicated by the fact that even the basic patterns of a basket have to be woven to include patterns comprised of several colors. This is one of several factors that many scholars believe qualify Harari basket weaving as high art. Finished baskets are divided into two categories based on whether they are intended for decorative or utilitarian purposes. Of the thirty known basket types, twenty-two fall into the former category with the remaining eight making up the latter. Like many other patterned works originating from African cultures, the patterns of Harari baskets possess specific names, many of which reference the history of the city, former rulers, conquerors or other notable historical moments. One such pattern called, “Shield of the Amir,” refers to the amirs that once ruled the independent city-state.
Basket weaving was not the only skill required to show that a Harari woman was of good breeding. Of equal importance was the woman's skill at arranging decorative baskets on the walls of her home. Both the weaving and arranging of the baskets were a large part of the life of well-off Harari girls as they were expected by the time of their marriage—often just after puberty in times past—to be able to weave baskets for their dowry, including two identical baskets to be presented to a woman's mother-in-law and one for her husband to carry with him. Recently, in response to a marked decline in the production of traditional baskets among the Harari, several craft guilds have sprung up within the walled city of women looking to preserve the tradition beyond the inferior crafts produced for the tourist trade.
Coiled Grass Basket from EthnologyContinue to 7 of 7 below.
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Finally, while Harari baskets might be most frequently seen at your local Ethiopian restaurant, it isn't just fans of injera that owe the good people of Harar a debt of gratitude. Ethiopia has long been known as the original home of coffee. Harrar, located close to the Keffa region from which coffee draws its name is widely thought to be the home of the first domesticated coffee plant, making it possible for the plant and the beverage to be transported and shared around the world.