Eduard Zander in Ethiopia, 1847–68

Eduard Zander (1813–68), from Saxony-Anhalt, combined the roles of painter and draughtsman, architect and artisan, ethnographer and assistant to the German botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper in one person.1 What is left of the artist’s output consists to a large degree of drawings in a naturalistic style made in the mid nineteenth century in Ethiopia. Nothing comparable is known by Ethiopian artists of the time. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, European travellers sketched landscapes, spectacular sites like the stelae park in Aksum with its monumental, almost 2,000-year-old obelisks, the country’s eleven thirteenth-century monolithic rock churches in Lalibäla, the palaces in Gondär, and impressive ranges such as the Simän Mountains. Little by little, European explorers drew the life around them, important events like receptions by local dignitaries, and picturesque scenes such as a slave market.2

These were thoroughly secular topics, something unheard of in the Ethiopian canon of visual representation. What makes Zander’s oeuvre so special is the fact that he was a trained artist, painter, and draughtsman who, as a resident in Ethiopia from 1847 to his death in 1868, looked at Ethiopia not as an exotic place, but as his home. He was married to Ethiopian women and brought up his children there. Although little is left of his artistic production, it opens a window onto a way of life in the majestic landscape of the Simän Mountains in the north of Ethiopia. He moved in influential circles, flourished as an artist and as a confidant—at first—of the military leader Wǝbe Haylä Maryam (c.1799–1867),3 and then, after Wǝbe’s defeat by Emperor Tewodros II (1818–68), as the emperor’s trusted military adviser.4

I became interested in Zander in connection with my work on the large botanical manuscript volumes by his fellow German, the botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper.5 Kept in the British Library, the manuscripts feature—in addition to the large corpus of botanical research—Schimper’s observations on life in Ethiopia in the mid nineteenth century.6 The scientist and the painter both lived in the same village in the high Simän Mountains and under the protection of the local overlord Wǝbe. They were called upon to engage in tasks for him, most prominently the building and decoration of the church of Däräsge Maryam and the production of architectural designs for Ethiopian buildings.

A rich selection of Zander’s pen drawings is held by the Regional Archive Dessau, Saxony-Anhalt, the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, London, and private collectors. When Wǝbe Haylä Maryam commissioned the building and painting of his coronation church Däräsge Maryam in the Simän Mountains, Zander and the botanist Schimper, were called upon to execute the work. Although Zander’s paintings in the church were not signed—-painters in Ethiopian churches never sign their work -—he is said to have made the beautiful borders around the individual scenes from holy scriptures on the four painted walls around the Holy of Holies. However, a small number of his oeuvre of pen drawings is much better known; Zander initialled, captioned, and dated them. A small selection is shown here, illustrating the keen eye with which he concentrated on drawing landscapes, buildings, and scenes from his daily life.

Pen drawing. ‘EZ 1856. Gondar. A Galla woman, from Lima, near Saka, at present my wife.’ Notes accompanying the two boxes on the ground: ‘No. 1. Butter box or box for hair grease.’ ‘No. 2. Small jewellery basket with lid.’ Cat. rais., p. 84, cat. no. 86.

Note the long explanatory and descriptive captions, in German in the original. The drawing shows Zander’s second wife, Wälättä Iyäsus. The style in which her hair is dressed is common among Ethiopian women to the present day; she and her son Kaśa wear embroidered clothes, the garments’ folds enveloping and swirling around them exuberantly. The boy plays with a reed in his hands. To this day young boys in Ethiopia have their hair shaved so that only one small lock of hair is left. Wälättä Iyäsus converted from Islam to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like her husband. The two beautiful boxes for beauty treatments and jewellery in the foreground, right, hint at a somewhat elevated social position of Zander’s wife. The mountains of Ethiopia form the backdrop to this domestic scene.7

Cat. rais.: p. 77, cat. no: 72. ‘Qwesqwam. Ruin of the imperial pleasure palace, scale of ornaments enlarged’. [First published by Gerhard Rohlfs, Meine Mission nach Abessinien (Norderstedt, 1883), between pages 270 and 271. The original is lost.]

The estate in Qwesqwam, the pious donation of Empress Mentewwab, lies a short distance outside Gondär and was the residence of Ethiopian emperors in the eighteenth century. The church, built in the 1730s, was richly appointed with silk and gold-and-silver decorations, and the roof was covered with red fabric and 380 mirrors that reflected the red colour across the landscape. The church was plundered and damaged in 1866 and 1941, but afterwards rebuilt much more simply. The imperial pleasure palace and gardens are still extant, although in a ruinous state. Even so, the architectural drawing by Zander exists. He was at pains to add his pen drawings to the explanations for the seven terracotta tiles visible on the facade above the three doors and the four windows, for instance, the motif above the door on the left: ‘it represents the imperial crown, called sood.’ The correct transcription would have been ‘zawd’, which refers to a rectangular crown.

Report on the Present State of Agriculture in Abyssinia, 1859. Cat. rais., p. 86, cat. no: 90. ‘The plough in Abyssinia’. Sketch by Zander, 1859. Caption: (a+) a+ is lashed onto a. b.b is put on the ox’s neck. Such a plough could also be very useful on very stony ground in Europe. The plough has three measurements: 10 feet, 5 feet, and 2 feet long. [The yoke]: Total length 6 feet, a+ 9 inches b. [Two drawings of the iron tip for a wooden plough]: 10 to 12 inches.

This delicate pen drawing combines a detailed image of an Ethiopian plough, complete with measurements and explanations of how it is used, as well as didactic observations by Zander, for example, that this sort of plough would be equally practical for very stony ground in Europe. Over the years he sent, he sent his Report on the Present State of Agriculture in Abyssinia, written in 1859, to Leopold IV Frederick, Duke of Anhalt, in Dessau, along with gifts of Ethiopian clothing and artefacts. It is not known whether anybody adopted his suggestion.

The two pen drawings below are examples of Zander’s love and understanding of the life around him, the everyday tasks as well as the grandiose world of the mountains. The man in the foreground is ‘grinding grain’, according to the caption, but he looks as if he is busy forming or kneading a loaf on a wooden board, in the open air, in the company of villagers or relatives.

Pen drawing. Cat. rais., p. 61, cat. no. 41. Caption: ‘An Abyssinian, in the Simän Mountains. The figure in the foreground is grinding grain.’ Zander, 1853.

The second pen drawing is a landscape with meadows and trees in the foreground, a dwelling with a thatched round hut and enclosure wall in a little copse in the middle ground, and volcanic plugs on high mountains in the background. Two men in the foreground, left, are resting and having a chat.

Pen drawing. Cat. rais., p. 48, cat. no: 4. 1853. Caption: ‘A section of the Sabra mountains on the Bellegar river, looking west. The viewpoint is 6000 feet above sea level. The furthest ridge is [the city] Däbrä Tabor. 1853.’

Zander’s observations lovingly express and show the imposing landscape as well as domestic duties, the joys of making music, a student’s love of learning, Zander’s family, and mighty buildings. The images do not depict fighting or hatred. As such, Zander’s drawings are testimonies to taking every day as it comes and living one’s life despite political situations often marked by cruelty and abusive power. Many more images can be found in my book, Eduard Zander, sein Leben und Wirken in Äthiopien, 1847–1868. Eduard Zander, His Life and Work in Ethiopia, 1847–1868. Werkverzeichnis / Catalogue Raisonné (Dessau-Roßlau, 2018).

Cite this blog post
Dorothea McEwan (2023, April 13). Eduard Zander in Ethiopia, 1847–68. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

  1. See also Dorothea McEwan, (2012), ‘Eduard Zander, sein Leben in Ähiopien, 1847–1868’, in Dessauer Kalender 2013: Heimatliches Jahrbuch für Dessau-Roßlau und Umgebung,vol. 57, 32–51. []
  2. Henry Salt, A Voyage to Abyssinia, and Travels into the Interior of that Country, Executed Under the Orders of the British Government, in the Years 1809 and 1810 (London, 1814). []
  3. Denis Nosnitsin, ‘Wǝbe Haylä Maryam’, in Siegbert Uhlig and Alessandro Bausi (eds.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (Wiesbaden, 2010), vol. 4, 1169b–72a. []
  4. Donald Crummey, Denis Nosnitsin, and Evgenia Sokolinskaia, ‘Tewodros II’, in ibid., 930a–36a. []
  5. Dorothea McEwan, Gerd Graeber, and Johannes Hock, Das Skizzenbuch des Eduard Zander (1813–1868): Ansichten aus Nordäthiopien (1852–54) (Dessau, 2006). []
  6. Georg Wilhelm Schimper—in Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre: Critical Online Edition, ed. Andreas Gestrich and Dorothea McEwan in collaboration with Stefan Hanß (London, 2015). []
  7. F. Gräber, ‘Zander, Eduard’, in Alessandro Bausi and Siegbert Uhlig (eds.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (Wiesbaden, 2014), vol. 5: Y–Z, 135b–136b. []

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Dorothea McEwan

She is Honorary Fellow of the University of London, first and long-time archivist at The Warburg Institute, and has been elected member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in recognition of her impressive publication record and outstanding contribution to research in the intersection of religious history and art in Ethiopia in 2017. She was awarded The Austrian Cross of Science and Art and The Grand Decoration for services to the Republic of Austria.

3 thoughts on “Eduard Zander in Ethiopia, 1847–68”

  1. This is a very interesting account of Zander’s life in Ethiopia and it is a great contribution by Dorothea McEwan to historigraphy. I am wondering if by any chance there is a composite drawing of Dejazmach Subagadis Woldu (1780-1831) by other European travellers, writers and painters of the late 18th to the first half of the 19th century.

  2. Wonderful description of the life of the then Abyssinian. Huge respect to Zander.

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