Articles in this series:
Series: Preserving History
The Microfilming of Ethiopian Manuscripts: A Nostalgic View
Almost thirty years ago, in what some people like to call the Good Old Days, Dr Walter Harrelson, Dean of the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, visited Ethiopia in search of manuscripts of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. While in Addis Ababa, he met His Holiness Abuna Theophilus, the then Acting Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who suggested to his American visitor that funds might be sought to microfilm all manuscripts in Ethiopia, thus enabling scholars with varied interests to have access to documentation.
To this end, Abuna Theophilus appointed a committee, chaired by Dr Harrelson, to explore the possibilities of microfilming the manuscripts, and of securing the funds to do so. The First Joint Consultation Meeting for Microfilming Ethiopian Church Manuscripts was accordingly held in Addis Ababa, on April 22-23 1971.
It was in this way, and readers may note that I have been quoting directly from an Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library brochure, that the justly renowned EMML project was launched.
The project was so highly regarded that it received initial financial support from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by 30 June 1977 had received American financial support, to a the tune of US$ 170,000.
Microfilming was, as far as possible systematic, and carried out church (or other institution), by church, and the filming of manuscripts was as far as possible complete. Only the most common items, such as copies of Dawit, i.e. the Psalms of David, were excluded from filming.
The project published its first detailed catalogue, of the first 300 Ethiopian manuscripts, in 1975; and its last catalogue to date, Volume X, with 999 entries – edited by Dr Getatchew Haile – six years ago, in 1993.
These catalogues, mainly, though not exclusively the work of Dr Getatchew, now cover no less than five thousand items, and are works of meticulous scholarship, on any showing.
There is in addition a back-log of many uncatalogued manuscript (how many we do not know), as well as, we may suppose, a number of already catalogued manuscripts awaiting publication.
The EMML project, which won the admiration of virtually all scholars in the field (Leslau, Ullendorff, Strelcyn, Hammerchmidt, Chojnacki, Tubiana, et al.) and is widely quoted in works of scholarship, was based on a partnership between three institutions: the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and St John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Cataloguing of manuscripts by the EMML revealed that the majority of Ethiopia’s manuscripts consisted, as one would expect, of Bibles, Biblical Commentaries, Service books, Lives of Saints, and other religious works essential for the understanding of Ethiopian religion, religious institutions, and history; but also covered many other matters, including philosophy, secular and church history (such as Ethiopian royal chronicles), law, mathematics, medicine, and other subjects.
The Lives of Ethiopian Saints, though often full of unbelievable miracles, are, it should be emphasised, also full of historical information of crucial importance for the study of Ethiopian history. Many such works contain moreover unavailable data on such varied subjects as traditional church education, famines and epidemics.
Many Ethiopian manuscripts also contain “marginalia”, or otherwise unwritten pages at the beginning, end, or elsewhere in the volume, which have been used, sometimes over a period of centuries, to enter a wide variety of historically important data. This may cover such questions as royal land grants, land purchases and sales by both men and women, using gold, Maria Theresa dollars, or “primitive money”; marriage agreements and contracts; tax records (see for example the volume I edited, with Girma-Sellassie Asfaw, on the tax records of Emperor Tewodros); lists of books, usually specified by name; church paraphernalia and other property, including guns, in various churches and monasteries, etc., etc. – a rich store in effect of historical material.
Not a few manuscripts also contain illustrations, likewise of immense historical and cultural importance. Invaluable for the history of Ethiopian art, they also provide unique documentation on almost all aspects of Ethiopia’s historic past. They depict such subjects as agriculture and handicrafts; wood-cutting, and house-building; clothing and dress, both male and female; crowns, and other royal decorations; crosses, and church paraphernalia; cattle-slaughtering, preparation and serving of food and drink; banquets, complete with dining tables, waiters, and slaves; hair-styles and decorations; jewellery and tattooing; horse and mule decorations; local weapons, such as spears and shields, and imported ones, like rifles; furniture and household objects, including masob, agagil, and gambo; sports and games, among them guks and gabata; diseases and debilities, among them leprosy and other skin diseases, and loss of limbs; and wild and domestic animals. Not a few paintings consist portraits, albeit often highly stylized, of Ethiopian personalities of the past both religious and lay, while others depict class relations, with rulers, servants, and slaves. Such material, you will appreciate, dear reader, is of crucial importance to the Ethiopian political, military, medical and social historian, no less than to the historian of art.
The EMML project microfilmed only in black-and-white, though it did take some colour photographs of paintings: for the future the possibility of working in colour, with digital cameras, needs serious consideration.
The EMML did not confine itself only (as some may think) to manuscripts on parchment, but also microfilmed a large amount of archival material, for the most part on paper.
This is not the place to provide a catalogue of EMML microfilms (spare us that!), but take for example a few of the items in Volume IX: It contains biographical material on Ethiopia’s first foreign-educated physician-cum diplomat, Hakim Warqnah, known abroad as Dr Martin; papers on many subjects written by the assiduous, but unassuming Ethiopian scholar, Blatta Mars’e Hazen; a life of the heroic, yet little-studied, Ethiopian Patriot, Tashoma Shangut; entirely unpublished Ethiopian documents belonging to Ethiopia’s pre-war Minister of Public Works, Fitawrari Taffesa Habta Mikael; an Ethiopian Government report on the movement of Somali pastoralists; reports (from the Ethiopian as well as the British side) on the Anglo-Ethiopian Boundary Commission defining the frontier between Ethiopia and British Somaliland in the early 1930s; documents on the Wal Wal incident of December 1934, which Mussolini was to use shortly afterwards as a pretext for the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia; and much much more!
EMML microfilming was also carried out at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Library, where manuscripts and archival material was filmed – a valuable insurance against possible destruction by fire at that institution.
Microfilming, it should be emphasised, also has a significant security aspect. Once items are microfilmed they can much more easily identified if stolen; and EMML films, if need-be, can be made available to the Ethiopian police, or Interpol.
Where to See Them
EMML, as a co-operative project conceived with vision made copies of its microfilms widely available to the scholarly community, both in Ethiopia and abroad. Microfilm copies can be viewed, in Addis Ababa, at both the Ministry of Culture and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and, in the United States, at St John’s University, at Collegeville, Minnesota. And if, dear reader, you are not so privileged as to live in either of these towns, you can consult the published EMML catalogues, which are to be found in libraries in the main centres of learning, and easily order microfilm copies from Collegeville, for a modest fee.
But What Now?
Praise for EMML brings us to the sad point that the project, for lack of funds, or vision, has in recent years come to an end. Though microfilming of manuscripts was carried on fairly exhaustively for almost two decades in much of the country, manuscripts in many other areas, including Tegray, let alone Eritrea, have still not been touched by the project at all.
And yet the need for the systematic recording of Ethiopiamn manuscripts is as great, nay, far greater, tham ever before!
The question with which we are now confronted is: will Ethiopia in the twenty-first Century be able to live up to the achievements, and expectations, of the Twentieth?