A lively culture of traditional hand-worked craftsmanship and a plethora of markets all over the country make Ethiopia a wonderful destination for connoisseurs of high quality traditional hand woven cloths and other handicrafts.
Ethiopia is renowned for its traditional crosses, which are usually made from wood, silver or other metals. Small crosses are worn as necklaces by individual Orthodox Christians, while larger ones are used for ceremonial purposes. Hundreds of designs are available, with different styles being associated with the main northern centres of Aksum, Lalibela or Gondar.
Locally woven white or off-white cotton cloths are typical of highland Ethiopia. The shama is the ubiquitous cloth of the male, wrapped around the heads and shoulders on cold mornings, while women use a more elaborate version with a colourful border to make dresses. The country’s finest weavers are the Dorze, who live in the highlands above Arba Minch, but their produce can also be bought at Addis Ababa’s Shiro Meda market.
Hand woven items such as scarves, shawls, table clothes and cotton towels designed for the export market can also be bought directly from some specialised workshops in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is also recognised for its leather products and it is possible to find a range of good quality leather jackets and bags.
For generations, Ethiopians have woven a wide variety of baskets and other containers for domestic use. Harar is said to be the home of the best basket makers, and their naturally-coloured products, often very old, take pride of place on the walls of the old town’s Arabic-style houses. Good baskets are also produced in Aksum.
A very popular and utterly unique souvenir, bought easily in the Bahir Dar’s market, is the leather ‘picnic basket’, used by shepherds to carry injera, known as an agelgil.
Jimma, in the forested western highlands, is known for its wooden stools. A standard Jimma stool, made out of a single block of wood, is not too expensive, but those with straight or curved backs command a premium.
Dry gourds or calabashes, ornamented with leather straps for easier carrying, are used as containers for liquids and dry goods by the people of the south and west. They are sometimes decorated with basketwork or cowrie shells, or incised with geometrical patterns.
Terracotta coffee pots are a popular purchase, and readily available everywhere in the country.
Support local artisans. Ideally, buy your souvenirs at source. Where that isn’t possible, a good range of items can be found at markets, craft stalls and galleries in Addis Ababa and other tourist centres. Avoid crafts that look generically African but are not produced in Ethiopia.
It is illegal to buy and export genuinely old religious manuscripts, icons and church paintings and other artwork without a permit. It is also ethically dubious to remove such artefacts from their place of origin. Rather buy a modern artefact based on the old church designs.