Articles in this series:
004. Missionary and Poetical and Other Studies
We saw last week that Ethiopia had a long established system of Church education, in which students advanced from one stage to the next. Now read on about specialised studies:
After the students had been read and studied the Psalms, the Qal Timhert, or oral lessons, would begin. The whole of Psalms would be committed to memory, with proper stress and intonation. Other work in this stage would include the study of the Waddese Amlak, or Praises to God, the Arganon, or Praises to the Virgin Mary, arranged for each day of the week, the Song of Solomon, and the Songs of the Prophets. All such Biblical material was often included in a devotional manual, written on parchment, and enclosed in a small parchment or leather satchel hung by a strap round the neck of the pupil, and carried by him to school.
At this stage, according to O’Hanlon, the average student would leave school, at about the age of twelve, “having learnt to read Ethiopic, though not to understand it, and also to read his own language of Amharic and to write a little.”
“If the Teacher is Firm”
British Consul Walker, who concentrates on the earlier stages of this educational system, remarks:
“If the teacher is firm and vigorous, in six months he will make the pupil repeat his Psalter. This is written in the Gi’iz tongue… nor will the boy understand what is written. It is written on the skin of the goat, which is very strong, and the price may be as much as $17, but if a Christian buys one in his boyhood, it is not worn out even when he grows old. Those who write out the Psalter are the priests and scribes. In it are found the Psalms of David which are divided into fifteen divisions, each called a Nigus, and each division is called by the first word. When the boy has read it, the teacher will send to the father, saying `(Give me the reward) of good news! Thy son has finished the reading,’ and the father will give him a cow or $15, and to the boy a horse or a calf or a sheep. Also the boy will go round among his kin to tell them of the good news, and to beg a dollar or half a dollar or a sword.
“If his father or mother dies, he will write his Christian name at the beginning and end of his Psalter. and whenever he finishes a reading, he will say, `Pardon for me the soul of my parent!’ supplicating God.
Bless Their Teachers
“When the pupils rise to go home, they will bless their teachers, saying, `May God cause thy word to be heard and make thee to arrive at earth in Debra Libanos and to be evergreen like the cibaha. May He broaden thee as the sycamore and cause thee to shine as the moon!’ So the priest will bless them in turn and say, ‘Take care that ye come early tomorrow!’”
The Church also provided higher studies in various fields, among them church music, the composition of poetry, theology, computation, and history, philosophy, composition, and manuscript writing.
The ZEMA BET, or School of Music
The Zema Bet, or School of Music, had three main branches. In the first the students learnt degwa, or church music, in the second zemare and mewaset, songs sung respectively at the end of the Eucharist and at commemoration services and funerals, and in the third kedase, i.e. prayers and chants studied only by priests and deacons.
The School of Aquaquam, which means “deportment”, or “how to stand,” gave additional training to students of any of the afore-mentioned departments of music, and dealt with such questions as the beating of time and, dancing.
Two years or more might be needed to become proficient in any one of the above branches of traditional Ethiopian church culture.
The QENE BET, or School of Poetry
The Qene Bet, or School of Poetry, provided instruction in an important field of composition and learning. Sylvia Pankhurst, following Menghestu Lemma, observes:
“The class usually assembles in the late afternoon or early evening, when the subject selected by the professor is studied and discussed until seven or eight p.m. The students then disperse to meditate on the appointed theme; many are already in the throes of composition during the long hours of the night. Early in the morning the youthful poet repairs to some solitary place where he may gain inspiration, perhaps some unfrequented spot within the church precincts, a quiet grove in the forest, a sheltered ledge on the hillside. Here he will endeavour to express in verse the subject selected for the poem of the day..
“Towards evening they return to their teachers, to sing to him their compositions and to receive his criticisms and corrections. The Professor will conclude the session by reciting a poem of his own, composed in the space of a few minutes of silence – usually a remarkable illustration of the aptitude for verse acquired by long practice.
Composing a Whole Series of Poems
After three or four years at the Qene Bet the students were expected to compose a whole series of poems every day.
“When the Professor… considers one of his students sufficiently advanced he may arrange for the youth to be invited to have a series of his poems sung in the church at the close of the service on a Sunday or other religious festival. This is a much prized honour, but also a considerable ordeal; if the student is nervous and diffident he may even decline it, but if he has courage he will rejoice at being chosen. On the day of the audition he will be treated with great respect. Should he accidentally let fall his tau-cross eager hands will raise it.
“He will stand in the centre of a row of his fellow Debteras, for by the time he is chosen as the `leader of the day’, he will generally have been raised to their order. He will be placed in front of the Aleka, who is the head of the Church…. In a low voice he will sing his poem, line by line. As he utters it, a fine singer, appointed beforehand, usually a fellow debtera, whose voice is specialty admired, will receive the words from his lips and sing them forth splendidly. If all goes well, if the youthful poet is fortunate, he will be gratified at the close of the ordeal by a chorus of `Melkam!’, the Ethiopian expression of praise.
If Confidence or Memory Fail Him
“But if confidence or memory fail him, or if he pauses or stumbles in delivering a verse to the singer, some other poet of greater self-assurance and experience may break in, and continue the series of poems in his own fashion. In such a case the trembling novice may protest, if he has spirit to defend himself, that had he not been interrupted, he would have concluded his series in a manner resembling the interloper’s interpretation, or he may protest with bitter indignation that verses vastly inferior to his own and out of harmony with his opening stanzas have been rudely interposed. “The Professor, no less than the vanquished poet, will be much discomforted by the misfortune of his pupil. It may happen on some occasion that a youthful aspirant for poetic laurels, though he allowed no loophole for an interloper to intervene during his recital, fails, nevertheless, to receive the hoped-for praise. Silence, instead of `Melkam’ may greet his effort, or from some quarters at least, sharp criticism may be voiced alleging defects either of form or of content in the quality of his verse. There are some among the Debteras and others who make a practice of challenging poetic achievement and are quick to decry either the form or the content of verse which conflicts with their own predilections. A general debate may ensue among such experts in the art of poetry as are present in the church at the young man’s initiation. Poetry is in fact a living art, a subject of vivid and protracted controversy, as well as of ardent enthusiasm.”
MASAHAF BET, or School of Reading
The last main type of traditional school was the Masahaf Bet, or School of Reading, which would be divided into classes for the Old and New Testament, the Church Fathers, and special books on monastic life. O’Hanlon, who says “such schools are to be found all over the country”, describes one in which “the Liq, or Professor, sat on a raised dias, his students beneath him, on mats on the ground.
Certain traditional Ethiopian church schools were especially renowned for particular branches of knowledge. Thus O’Hanlon says that Zuramba, in Begemder, was famous for its Zemare and Mewaset music, and Selalkula in Wadla and Debra Abay in Tigray for Keddase Sa’at music, while Sylvia Pankhurst describes the difference between the Qene of Gondar and Wadla, which Menghestu Lemma considered the two main centres for poetry studies.
Ethiopian Church studies, according to the French scholar Antoine d’Abbadie, involved feats of memorisation beyond the ability of most Europeans. He was not aware of more than one of the latter who knew the entire Bible by heart, whereas no one could become a Church professor in Ethiopia without doing so, and without knowing many traditional interpretations thereof. In Gondar, Gojjam and elsewhere, he had moreover been able to hold discussions on religion and philosophy “quite as sophisticated and subtle” as any he had held in either Paris or London.