Endangered Archives

EAP336: Preserving the lay bet andemta: the Ethiopian intellectual legacy on the verge of extinction

Mr Mersha Alehegne Mengistie, Hamburg University
2010 award - Major project
£11,826 for 6 months

Project Overview

This project aims to digitise the andemta (Ge'ez - Amharic commentary) manuscripts of biblical and patristic commentaries made according to the lay bet exegetical tradition. The formerly famous exegetical school of thought known as lay bet has survived only in the much endangered codices which are kept mostly in private and in rare monastic collections in Eastern Gojjam and Southern Gondar regions, Ethiopia. The material includes 70-75 codices which cover the Ge'ez - Amharic commentary of the four sections of Ethiopian Exegesis: Old Testament, New Testament, Patristic Works and Monastic Canons & Writings.

The original codices will remain in the hands of the custodians. The digital copies of each item will be kept for documentation and access for readers at the British Library, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church's Patriarchate Library Museum, the National Archive and Library of Ethiopia, the Monastic Library of (the Monastery of) Debre Dimah St. George (East Gojjam), and the University of Hamburg.

Study of the andemta commentary tradition in general and the lay bet andemta tradition in particular has lagged behind the studies of the other branches of Ethiopian culture mainly due to the lack of material in modern libraries and museums. This project should facilitate further work in the field in general and the rest of the Hermenutical Books in particular.

The majority of the manuscripts identified are in a sufficient condition to be preserved. About 75% of the manuscripts are parchments while the rest are papers. The majority of them are found in East Gojjam (in the rural areas of Debre Markos, Bichena, Dimma, Debre Work, Motta, Addet) where the school of thought once flourished. The remainder are located in the adjacent areas of East Gojjam and South Gondar regions. About 65% of the codices are kept in private hands - farmers and local small business owners who received the codices from their parents as a family inheritance. Their unfamiliarity to the contents of the codices can be shown in a short expression of one interviewee: ''they are the caskets of a dead knowledge.'' The state of preservation of the codices in most of the private owners and monastic collections is hazardous. The codices are kept along with other stuffs packed in boxes and simple shelves in the houses of the owners and monastic eqa bets which can be easily destroyed by fire or flood or the general temprature and humidity they are exposed to.

In the contemporary ecclesiastical scholarship of Ethiopia, the old lay bet andemta tradition is considered as obsolete and students are not encouraged to study it at all. This is a result of the long negligence the tradition received from students of the field due to the gigantic nature of its content and the different archaic features it contains. There is no traditional school in the country which hosts the lay bet andemta even in Gojjam where it could stay flourished for centuries after being successfully rescued from the subjugation of the tach bet ('Upper House') andemta. No initiatives have been made to document this rich tradition of medieval scholarship either at home or abroad.

Project Outcome

The project digitised 54 manuscripts from 8 personal collections, covering more than 85 Ge’ez - Amharic commentaries of different books from the four sections of Ethiopian Exegesis: Old Testament, New Testament, Patristic Works and Monastic Canons & Writings. The project also trained a number of young individuals on the techniques of documenting endangered archives through digital photography. The workshop which was organised for the church and governmental authorities was also successful in bringing awareness on how the written heritage of the region is endangered and the need to preserve it quickly.

The digital copies of the collections have been deposited with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s Mahibere Kidusan Research Centre, the Monastic Library of Debre Dimah St. George (East Gojjam), the British Library and Hamburg University.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP336/1 Aleqa Mengest's Private Collection [14th-17th centuries]
  • EAP336/2 Memher Deggu Collection [16th-20th centuries]
  • EAP336/3 Motta Giyorgis Collection [16th-20th centuries]
  • EAP336/4 Memher Hayle Maryam Collection
  • EAP336/5 Memhǝr Solomon [18th-20th century]
  • EAP336/6 Memher Wolde Iyesus [17th -20th century]
  • EAP336/7 Qeraneyo Medhanealem Collection [17th-18th century]
  • EAP336/8 Mertule Lemaryam Collection [15th-20th century]