Ethiopic, or Ge'ez, manuscripts [hereafter MSS] are of fundamental
importance for scholarship.
Ethiopic literature formed a major part of ancient and medieval
Christian literature. Many important Ethiopic works were, and still
are, unknown to the outside world: Foreign scholars learnt for example
of the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees only because they
were preserved in Ethiopia.
Though most Ethiopic literature is religious, numerous texts also
cover subjects, including history, philosophy, law, mathematics,
For the study of Ethiopic, as other texts, scholars need to consult
more than one copy. This is because MSS were written by hand, and
scholars have to compare different versions to control the scribes
accuracy, or lack thereof, and thus establish a definitive text.
Ethiopian MSS often also include "marginalia", i.e. end
papers, etc., containing notable secular material: data on land
sales and grants, marriage settlements, church and monastic inventories,
etc. See for example Tax Records of Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia,
published by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London,
which I wrote with Girma Sellasie Asfaw, in 1978.
Ethiopian MSS are no less important for the history of Ethiopian
art. Illustrations, painted by hand, are by definition unique, for
which reason too it is necessary to study several works, not merely
one, on any theme.
For all these reasons it is essential to collect as comprehensive
a photographic collection of Ethiopian MSS as possible.
EMML, UNESCO, and Professor Hammerscmidt
It was for the above reasons, as well as in the interests of preservation,
that the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, EMML, was established
in 1973. It was based on co-operation between the Ethiopian Patriarchate,
the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture, and St. Johns University in
Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
It was for the above reasons too that Ethiopia facilitated the
microfilming of MSS by UNESCO, and by the late Professor Ernst Hammerscmidt,
of Hamburg University.
The EMML went to immense pains microfilming thousands of MSS in
remote parts of Ethiopia. By making such film available to scholars
it gave an immense fillip to international, as well as Ethiopian
The Time Has Surely Come
The time has surely come to focus not only on Ethiopian MSS in Ethiopia,
but also on an estimated 5,000 Ethiopian MSS in Europe, North America,
Asia, and Oceania: so as to make them more readily available for
scholarship. The microfilming, or preferably digital photographing,
of such MSS abroad is scarcely less important than the copying of
MSS in Ethiopia itself. Photography in technically advanced countries
would be less demanding, and hence less costly, than in the Ethiopian
It is only fair to add that whereas microfilming in Ethiopia has
been of major assistance to international scholarship, the failure
to copy Ethiopian MSS in the rest of the world remains an obstacle
to scholarship within Ethiopia itself. It is good that the odd Ethiopian
manuscript is preserved in Spain or New Zealand, but this scarcely
helps research in Ethiopia.
The Five Thousand Manuscripts Abroad
Let us look at the worldwide diffusion of Ethiopian MSS. The figures
below are conservative, for they do not include privately owned
MSS, or recent library acquisitions.
The largest number of Ethiopian MSS abroad, over 850, are in the
United Kingdom. A little less than half were looted by the Maqdala
expedition of 1867-8: their return is currently demanded by the
Ethiopian organisation AFROMET
The principal depositories of Ethiopian MSS are in the British
Library, which, at my last count, had 598 MSS ; the Bodleaen Library,
in Oxford, had 101; Cambridge University Library, 67; John Rylands
Library, in Manchester, 42; the British and Foreign Bible Society,
35; the School of Oriental and African Studies, 9; and the Royal
Library, Windsor castle, 6 particularly fine manuscripts (from Maqdala).
There are also over 40 other MSS in other collections: 17 in the
Wellcome Institute Library, in London; six in the India Office Collection
of the British Library, also in London; five in the Selly Oaks College
Library, in Birmingham; five in the Victoria and Albert Museum,
in London; three in the National Library of Scotland, and three
in the University of Edinburgh Library, both in Edinburgh; one in
the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge; one in the Jews College,
in London; and one in St. Andrews University Library, in Scotland.
Nine scrolls, formerly in the possession of the London Library,
all or mainly from Maqdala, were sold by Sothebys in July 1970.
A substantial number of British Library MSS (but not all) have
been generously microfilmed by the British Council, for the Institute
of Ethiopian Studies, in Addis Ababa. MSS in other UK collections
remain, however, uncopied.
Ethiopia possesses scarcely fewer Ethiopian MSS. 734 have recently
been catalogued by Professor Ernst Hammeschmidt, and Dr Veronika
Six, both of Hamburg.
These MSS are scattered throughout Germany: in Berlin, Bonn, Bremen,
Dillingen, Dresden, Frankfurt, Gottingen, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Kessel,
Mannheim, Munched, Munster, Reibek, Stuttgart, and Wiesbaden. Details
are available in the admirable Veronika Six catalogues.
France possesses almost as many Ethiopian MSS: at least 700. Most
are in the Biblotheque Nationale in Paris. The latest information
available to me, in our old friend Professor Stefan Strelcyns catalogue,
indicates that the collection, by 1954, had reached a total of 688
The Vatican possesses over 600 Ethiopian MSS. The majority are in
the Apostolic Library, which contains 618. A little over half, i.e.
319, were collected by the former Italian Vice-Governor-General
of Italian East Africa, Enrico Cerulli, in questionable circumstances.
There are also 9 manuscripts in the Library of the Potificio Istituto
The United States
The United States heads the list of countries with smaller Ethiopica
collections, probably slightly over 400 MSS. No less than 325 are
in the Princeton University Libraries. Smaller collections are in
four libraries in New York, with a total of 17 MSS; and at the Free
Library in Philadelphia, with 13. Yale Univeristy has nine.
A further 39 MSS are in smaller collections: at the Walters Art
Gallery, in Baltimore; the Public Library and Endowment for Biblical
Research, both in Boston; the Newbury Library, in Chicago; the Public
Library, in Cleveland; the Seminary Library, in Hartford; Haverford
College, in Haverford; the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia;
Vasser College, in Poughkeepsie; the Peabody Museum, in Salem; and
the Catholic University Library and the Smithsonian Institution,
both in Washington.
The Netherlands possesses some 180 Ethiopian MSS, mostly acquired
in recent decades. Virtually all are in the Bibliotheek de Rijksuniversiteit,
in Leiden. Some were purchased from Sothebys, and possibly include
Italy possesses around 100 Ethiopian MSS in public collections:
38 in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, in Milano; 14 in the Biblioteca
del Monumento Nazionale Abbazia, in Grottaferrata; 13 in the library
of the Italian Geographical Society, in Rome; and nine in the Biblioteca
Nazional Centrale, in Firenze.
There are also smaller collections in the Biblioteca Angelica,
the Biblioteca Casanatense, the Biblica dellAccademia Nazionale
dei Lincei, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, and the Biblioteca
Ephemerides Liturgica, all five in Rome; the Biblioteca dellIstituto
Universitario, in Napoli; the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, in
Venezia; the Biblioteca Universitario, in Padova; the Biblioteca
Communale, in Pistoia; the Museo Egzio, in Torino; and the Biblioteca
Estense, in Modena.
Russia also possesses about 100 Ethiopian MSS, plus over 600 magical
scrolls. The collection is divided between the Library of the Russian
Accedemy of Sciences, with 86 MSS, the Russian National Library,
with 28, and the Institute of Oriental Languages, with four.
Sweden possesses almost 100 Ethiopian MSS: 57 in the Universitetbibliotek,
in Uppsala; four in the Kunglige Bibliotek, in Stockholm, and three
in the Universitetbibliotek, in Goteborg, as well as 32 identified
MSS in private possession.
Ireland possesses over 60 Ethiopian MSS: 53 in the Chester Beatty
Library, in Dublin, which includes some items from Maqdala, and
13 in Trinity College, likewise in Dublin.
Israel possesses over 50 Ethiopian MSS, mostly in Tel Aviv. This
does not include MSS recently brought by Falashas, or Beta Esrael
Austria possesses just under 50 Ethiopian MSS: 45 are in the Osterreische
Nationalbibliothek, and ten in the Universitatbibliothek, at Graz,
and the Bibliothek der Mecharistenkongegationen in Vienna.
Armenia possesses 30 Ethiopian MSS. Microfilm copies have been deposited
at the Institute of Ethiopian Studiess.
Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, and Portugal
Lesser collections of Ethiopian MSS are reported from Belgium, which
has over a dozen Ethiopian MSS (five in the Bibliotheque Royale;
and nine in the Societe des Bollandeistes: two of the latter were
looted from Maqdala; Canada, which has just under a dozen Ethiopian
MSS (most at the McGill University Library, in Montreal; the remainder
in the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto); Switzerland,
which has about half a dozen Ethiopian MSS (most at the Burger Bibliothek,
in Bern, and one in the Evangelischen Missionsgesellschaft, in Basel);
and Portugal, which also has at least half a dozen Ethiopian MSS
(three at the Biblioteca Nazional, in Lisbon; and one in the Biblioteca
Municipale, in Porto).
The microfilms in Switzerland have been generously microfilmed
for the Institute of Ethiopian Studies,
Poland, Spain, New Zealand, and Greece
Small collections are also found in Poland, with at least four Ethiopian
MSS (in the Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, in Cracow); Spain, with
three Ethiopian MSS, (in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid); New
Zealand also with three Ethiopian MSS, looted from Maqdala, at the
Auckland Free Library; and Greece, with one Ethiopian manuscript
(in the National Library of Athens).
The Scholarly Interest
Adding up the above, very conservative, figures for Ethiopian MSS
abroad, and making allowance for recent and unlisted items, we assess
that around 5,000 Ethiopian MSS are scattered outside the country.
Many of these works are of fundamental importance for Ethiopian
studies, i.e. for the study of the country whose people produced
We urge that systematic action be taken to develop a comprehensive
microfilm and/or digital photograph project aimed at the creation,
in Addis Ababa, of a world-wide Ethiopian photographic manuscript
archive. This is a culturally imperative matter which deserves priority.
It is hoped that the above-listed repository countries, which have
preserved these MSS, will enthusiastically cooperate in this valuable