July 17, 2005

The importance of the Magdala Ethiopian manuscripts

Posted at 9:57 pm in Similar cases

We regularly hear about the importance of a specific artefact or group of artefacts, but all too often the mainstream press stops their description at this point & we are left to try & decipher for ourselves precisely what makes such an item significant. Richard Pankhurst uses this article to neatly outline some of the reasons why the Magdala Manuscripts held in the British Library are important in understanding many different aspects of Ethiopian culture & as a result should be available for more Ethiopians to study.

Addis Tribune (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Ethiopian Studies: A Call for Action
The Importance of Ethiopian Manuscripts
By Richard Pankhurst

Ethiopian manuscripts, which are mainly in the country’s classical language, Ge’ez, but also in Adare or Harari, Arabic and other languages, are of fundamental value for the study of Ethiopia’s history and culture.


The majority of such manuscripts are basically religious, and are important for the study of the Ethiopian Church, and Koranic institutions, from point of view of both organization and dogma.

Such manuscripts are, however, also of immense value from the linguistic, literary, and philosophic points of view.


Many manuscripts are, however, devoted to secular or non-religious subjects. These include history, law, government, mathematics, and medicine, as well as linguistics – as seen for example in traditional dictionaries.

Traditional Ethiopian manuscripts include royal chronicles, which record events of he past, as well as gadl, or “lives of saints” which throw considerable light on events of the past – including for example outbreaks of, in many cases datable, famine and disease.


Many Ethiopian religious manuscripts also contain what is termed “marginalia”, that is to say the beginning and/or end pages, which served to record entirely secular information. Such “marginalia” often includes data on royal and other land grants, gifts and sale of land and other property, marriage contracts inventories of books and other articles, taxation records, and the like.

Some years ago, my friend Ato Germa-Sellassie Asfaw and I produced for example a small monograph on the Tax Records and Inventories of Emperor Tewodros housed in the British Library in London. This work, published by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

A particularly important London University thesis making extensive use of “marginalia” in London and Cambridge was subsequently produced by Dr Haddis Gabre Meskel.

What is the significance of “marginalia?” To cite a few examples:

1. If you want to study the importance of women in Ethiopia in the past, an examination of manuscript “marginalia” can indicate the extent at any time of female ownership of land.

2. If you want to find out what particular books could have been read in former times, or what was available to potential readers, the inventories in the “marginalia” will prove an invaluable source.


It may also be noted that many manuscripts are bound in wooden cases, the insides of which are decorated with coloured, and in many instances highly decorated, imported cloth. Study of such cloth can be interesting in revealing the kind of woven material available in Ethiopia at the time of binding – as well as the country of origin of such cloth. This in turn can throw light on the otherwise unknown direction of Ethiopia’s foreign trade of former times. (I have personally written a series of detailed articles on this, which appeared in the Nairobi-based journal Azania).


Ethiopian manuscripts are of major importance also for the study of Ethiopian art. The illustrations found in so many manuscripts, are significant not only as an expression of Ethiopian creativity – and for the history of Ethiopian art, but also for the evidence they provide on the country’s past.

Many manuscripts will thus depict the crowns of kings and queens; the clothing, and decorations, worn by people of various ranks an professions; the guns, spears, shields and other weapons used in battle: the saddle cloths and stirrups of mules and horses; the tents used by travelers and soldiers on campaign – and even such traditional Ethiopian games as guks and gena!, etc., etc.

Such manuscript art is indeed nothing short of a social document. It can throw light on items used or worn in the past – and establish precisely when they were so used or worn. As such a single page from an illustrated manuscript can be more revealing than many pages of writing.


We must remember that every manuscript is hand-written, and by its very nature, unique. If one is studying a particular text it is important to have access to a multiplicity of versions – to establish which is the original text – and perhaps how and when any variations, if any, occurred.

It is important also to see how a particular artistic theme was conceived, by different artists and at different periods of time, and to try to discover who were the Ethiopian artists of yesteryear. At the last International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art, held in Addis Ababa, I was able for example to reveal the existence of a number of hitherto unknown Ethiopian artists who lived in the eighteenth century – and are known today only by their manuscript illustrations.

And all that is why we must make Addis Ababa a center for the study of Ethiopian manuscripts!

Some of the most important medieval Ethiopian manuscripts are in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and in the Vatican Library; and for the Gondar period in the British Museum in London. But there are also notable collections in Germany and in Italy, as well as on a smaller scale in many other countries, also in the United States, and Israel.

Our Objective

We need to obtain microfilms, or preferably digital copies, of most if not all such manuscripts – as well as the originals of the manuscripts looted from Maqdala – Our objective is very simple: It is that the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Library should have copies of all known Ethiopian manuscripts of any significance, be they in Ethiopian churches and monasteries, or in foreign library collections abroad. An Ethiopian student should be able to see such works, at least on microfilm – or perhaps even better on digital scan, without having to travel over the world to consult them. He or she should be able to see such material in Ethiopia. Preferably at the IES – without having to travel to London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Moscow, and elsewhere.

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