Articles in this series:
Ge’ez Literature and Church Libraries
Traditional Ethiopian literature was largely religious, both in form and content.
“Ecclesiastical in Character”: The great German scholar of Ethiopian culture, August Dillmann, emphasising the above point, once declared that the Ge’ez language was:
“cultivated for literary purposes mainly in the service of religion and of the Church. The large majority of the extant writings are of ecclesiastical character. These had their basis in the versions of the Books of the Old and New Testaments, in the widest acceptation of the world, which versions were followed forthwith by the translation or even the independent elaboration of a series of theological and liturgical works. Beyond question, all native authors in their methods of thought and statement, were dependent on Scripture models.”
The same author nevertheless adds, with truth, that “many original works of the most diverse kinds”, were nonetheless produced.”
The Character and Scope of Classical Ethiopian Literature
The character, and scope, of traditional Ethiopian literature, as embodied in the country’s Ge’ez manuscripts, can be established by examining the composition of the principal collections of Ethiopian manuscripts. Take for example those of the British Library, in London, as catalogued by William Wright in 1877. The collection, which was of course later much expanded, at that time contained 408 Ethiopian manuscripts, which he classified as follows:
Scrutiny of the above figures, or indeed of the catalogues of other major collections of Ethiopian manuscripts, reveals the preponderance of the religious writings, and indicates that texts on history, law, medicine and kindred subjects form only a small fraction. The latter works, though a small minority of the manuscripts as a whole, were nevertheless often of considerable importance. Lives of Ethiopian Saints were moreover of immense historical value.
The Maqdala Library, and its Looting by the British
Virtually every Ethiopian church and monastery had a library, composed primarily of religious manuscripts. Several libraries were, however, also identified with particular rulers. The best known such collections were those of the sixteenth century Emperor Galawdewos (1540-1559), the Gondarine Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1681), and the late nineteenth century Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868).
The latter collection, which was situated at Tewodros’s mountain citadel of Maqdala, is by far the best known of the three. It is mentioned in the monarch’s chronicle, written by Alaqa Walda Maryam, which states that the Emperor there assembled no less than 981 manuscripts.
They were all captured by the British, at their storming of the fort, in April 1868. The lion’s share of the loot was acquired by the British Museum (later the British Library), but others were acquired by other British institutions. These included the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Though such manuscripts were, and are, well conserved, the British attack seems to have resulted in inconsiderable literary destruction: Gerhard Rohlfs, a German attached to the British expedition, reports that, at the time of its withdrawal, the whole area of Maqdala was “littered” with Ethiopian books, loose leaves fragments.
The British and Foreign Bible Society
The importance of literacy in Ethiopia was recognised, early in the nineteenth century, by the London-based British and Foreign Bible Society, which pursued a fairly active policy of Scripture printing for the country. In 1810 the Society printed 220 Ge’ez Psalters, which were distributed at Aksum and elsewhere in Tigre, by the British traveller Henry Salt.
After an interval of two decades, the Society resumed publication for Ethiopia. Printing began with the Four Gospels in Ge’ez and Amharic, in 1824, the New Testament in Ge’ez and Amharic, in 1825, the Old Testament in Amharic, in 1836, and, finally, the complete Bible in four volumes, in 1840.
The Society’s records suggest that, by 1853, there had been 4,120 printings in Ge’ez, and 10,016 in Amharic.
Several other religious works were likewise produced, in the early eighteen forties, by the Rev. C. W. Isenberg, of the London-based Church Missionary Society. They included the Book of Common Prayer, and the Heidelberg Catechism.
Many of these texts were written in poor Amharic, with an incorrect word order. The German scholar Eugen Mittwoch recalls that Ethiopians therefore spoke of it critically as “mission Amharic.”
Distribution of Scriptures
Some of these scriptures were given to Ethiopian ecclesiastics at Jerusalem, and to pilgrims thence returning home, while others were dispensed by visiting missionaries in Ethiopia itself. The largest distribution up to that time occurred during the reign of the Emperor Tewodros. Samuel Gobat, by then Protestant Bishop at Jerusalem, arranged for 300 Amharic Bibles and New Testaments, as well as a supply of Ge’ez Scriptures to be taken to Ethiopia by Martin Flad and a group of German workmen-missionaries who arrived in the country in 1856.
“Have You Brought Me a Gunsmith?”
The Emperor’s first question was characteristically, “Have you brought me, a gunsmith?” He was, nonetheless, enthusiastic about the Amharic translation of the Bible, though he rated the Ge’ez printed version much lower. “Why do you bring such books which nobody understands? What is the use of them? The translation is far better,” he is reported to have said.
Flad records that the Emperor’s aide, John Bell, had “acknowledged to us… that his Majesty would have been more pleased with a box of English gun powder than, as he said, with books which he already possessed.” Tewodros was also quoted, by Flad, as observing to the missionaries, “I am tired of your books”.
Abuna Salama, the Coptic head of the Church, is said on the other hand to have been keen on the Ge’ez text, but, according to Canton, the Bible Society’s historian, “would not touch a copy in Amharic, a profane tongue.”
“The Word of God in Their Own Language”
The missionaries claim at this time to have distributed the Scriptures in “over fifteen provinces, by making use also of distributing centres at Cairo and Metemma on the Sudanese-Ethiopian frontier. Martin Flad, in his memoirs, describes Bible distribution in both Hamasen and Gondar, and observes that fifty people in many cases assembled every day, having often travelled six or seven days, to obtain the Word of God in their own language.
Even larger distributions occurred a few years later. A report produced by the Friends of the Chrischona Mission, in Switzerland, in 1864, stated: “this year we printed 10,000 Gospels and Epistles in Amharic and we received an order for 14,000 copies.”
During the disturbed period after the death of Emperor Tewodros, and before the accession of Emperor Yohannes IV, Scripture distribution is reported to have fallen to only 3,000 copies in 3 years.
Oromo and Tigrinya
A number of new editions of the Scriptures were nevertheless printed by the British and Foreign Bible Society in the following decades. These works included several publications in Gallinya, or Afan Oromo: St. Luke in 1870; St. John, the Psalms and Genesis, in 1873; and Exodus, in 187.
The Chrischona Press, in Switzerland, had meanwhile produced the Gospels in Tigrinya, in 1866, and several other items in Afan Oromo. Among these latter were St. Luke in 1870; St. John in 1871; Genesis, and the Psalms, in 1872; the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians, in 1874; and the New Testament in 1875.
Missionarv enterprise, in the first half of the nineteenth century’ also led to the production of the first printed textbooks in Amharic. Isenberg, in the employ of the London-based Church Missionary Society, thus wrote an Amharic Spelling and Reading Book, and a Geography, both of which appeared in 1841, and an Amharic History of the World, in 1842.
The Chrischona Press followed this up with a Amharic Spelling Book, in 1873, and an Amharic ABC, in 1889.
The First Printing Presses
The printing press was first introduced into the Ethiopian region in Theodore’s time. In October, 1863, Lorenzo Biancheri, an Italian Lazarist Father who had been appointed Apostolic Vicar of Abyssinia, brought to the Red Sea port of Massawa, then nominally under Turkish rule, a small printing press and a some Amharic type cast from matrixes earlier made for Antoine d’Abbadie in France. Biancheri called himself “printer to His Majesty Emperor Theodore”, and published an Amharic catechism. This appeared early in 1864, but he died only a few months later, in September, after which his press was destroyed.