Articles in this series:
Series: Religious Art and Manuscripts
03. Artistic Developments of the Gondar Period
The classical, Byzantine, style of Ethiopian art, characteristic of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, developed significantly in the seventeenth century. This was the so-called Gondar period, so named after the city of that name, in the north-west of the country, which became the capital of the Ethiopian realm in 1636.
This period, which witnessed the construction of the city’s famous castle-like palaces, and the development of a more urban form of court life, may likewise have seen the expansion, and reorganisation, of scriptoria for the making of manuscripts.
Art as Seen by the Artist
The period also coincided with a significant opening up of Ethiopian art, and in particular with the depiction of Ethiopian scenes, and Ethiopian life, as actually seen by the artist.
Ethiopian art in this period remained religious in both purpose and content, and continued to be devoted almost exclusively to Biblical and other religious themes. Paintings were, however, steadily being Ethiopianised. The old Ethiopian artistic rules, such as good persons being shown in full face, with two eyed, and evil people in profile, with one eye, were retained, and paintings continued to be devoid of perspective. It became, however, common to depict Biblical personages as dressed in Ethiopian clothing, riding mules or horses with typical Ethiopian saddles, stirrups (often to hold only the big toe!) and other trappings, as well as carrying contemporary Ethiopian spears, shields and other weapons. Banquet scenes would depict Ethiopian-style pots, the masob, or typical Ethiopian basket table, and the barelle, or Ethiopian drinking-glass. Ploughing would likewise be very visibly carried out by Ethiopian zebu, or humped, oxen, pulling traditional Ethiopian ploughs, and kings and queens would be wearing Ethiopianstyle crowns. Such paintings, unlike those of earlier times, are thus documents of fundamental importance for Ethiopian social history.
This study has focused mainly on Ethiopian Christian manuscripts, which, from the quantitative point of view, represents the main corpus of the country’s traditional literature. Mention should, however, also be made to Ethiopian Islamic and Falasha, or Bta Esra’l, manuscripts.
Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts consisted mainly of copies of the Quran, and other works in Arabic, but also included a number of texts in Adare, or Harari, the local Semitic language traditionally spoken only within the walled city of Harar. Harari manuscripts, which resemble Islamic works produced elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, probably date back to the early centuries of the Muslim era. Few, if any, Harari manuscripts are, however, extant for the period prior the seventeenth century.
The first description of Harari manuscripts was written by the nineteenth century British traveller and Orientalist, Sir Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights, who observed that “no Eastern country save Persia” could “surpass them in strength and appearance”.
Such manuscripts, like the Christian manuscripts described in the previous article, have tooled leather covers, but differ from the latter in that they were generally written on paper rather than on parchment. Unlike the Christian manuscripts they had leather flaps to cover, and protect, the back of the volume. Covers are often decorated with ornate floral designs, in a few instances with a quotation from the Quran, cursing anyone who illegally touched the manuscript.
Falasha manuscripts, which like those of the Ethiopian Christian Church, were invariably made of parchment, and were written in Ge’ez. Falasha texts centred on the Old Testament, to the rigid exclusion of the New. Most Falasha writings were identical to those of the Ethiopian Christians. Falasha bindings, though not generally adorned with the Cross, were likewise generally similar to those of Christian manuscripts. This was scarcely surprising as many Falasha manuscripts were in fact written, and bound, by members of the Ethiopian Christian clergy.
Ethiopian Manuscripts Today
Ethiopia has a rich manuscript tradition.
Christian manuscripts cover a wide range of literature, including not only Bibles, religious service books, homilies, Biblical commentaries, and works on theology, but also writings on ecclesiastical and civil law, lives of saints, local as well as foreign, history, chronography and medicine.
Harari manuscripts likewise contain, in addition of the Quran, a wealth of other material, both religious and secular. The latter includes legal, historic, and other material.
Many Ethiopian manuscripts, particularly those of the Christian tradition, are furthermore important in that their beginning or end pages were used to record details of marriages and marriage settlements, land deeds and sales, inventories of property, and other such-like interesting information.
A Quarter of a Million Manuscripts
Ethiopia is the repository of an immense number of manuscripts. Printing was introduced into the country only at the end of the last century, so many Ethiopian churches and monasteries still rely largely on volumes in parchment. The country, which is almost the size of Spain and France combined, contains a total of around 30,000 churches and monasteries, few of which possess less than a dozen manuscripts each. It would therefore seem safe to assume that the country must be the repository of at least a quarter or a third of a million manuscript volumes.
Many Ethiopian mosques likewise still rely on manuscript Qurans. These, being for the most part written on paper, are considerably more fragile than Ethiopian Christian manuscripts, and therefore in even greater need of protection, and conservation.
To preserve Ethiopia’s important historical and cultural heritage an ambitious project for the microfilming of Ethiopian manuscripts was initiated in 1971. Based on a partnership between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Government, later represented by its Ministry of Culture, and St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, it led to the establishment, in 1973, of a Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, generally referred to by its initials, EMML.The last volume to be published to date, Volume X, has reached manuscript number 5,000, and there are many many more microfilms for which catalogues have still to be catalogued. It is, however, deplorable that actual microfilming by the EMML ceased some years ago, and the authorities concerned, as far as we are aware, do not seem to be giving the matter the serious attention it deserves.
Microfilming, of Christian manuscripts, has also been carried out, on a smaller scale, by other institutions, most notably by UNESCO.
Such work, important as it is, is still far from complete. Manuscripts in many parts of the country have still not been microfilmed. Much has still to be done to record the country’s historical, cultural, and especially artistic, heritage. This is the more urgent in that the opening up of tourism has been followed by increasingly frequent illegal sales of works of art.
Wanted: The Microfilming of Islamic Manuscripts
The EMML and UNESCO projects have up to now been restricted entirely to the microfilming of Ethiopian Christian manuscripts. It is imperative, as I have urged in previous atticles in “Addis Tribune”, that microfilming be extended to Harari, and other Islamic manuscripts. Being written, as already noted, on paper, their life expectation is far less than that of Ethiopian parchment manuscripts. A project for the systematic microfilming of Harai , and other Muslim manuscripts, is therefore long overdue.
Urgently Needed: The Photographing of Church Paintings
Ethiopia’s increasing wealth, so charcteristic of recent years, has produced a new economic climate in which many communities are restoring, and hence repainting, their churches. This is of course a simple remedy for the destruction of much of the country’s artistic heritage.
It is accordingly important to embark on a systematic, and ambitious, programme for the photographing of church paintings, as well to re-activate, the microfilming of manuscripts.