Endangered Archives

EAP526: Digitisation of the endangered monastic archive at May Wäyni (Tigray, Ethiopia)

Professor Michael Gervers, University of Toronto at Scarborough
2012 award - Major project
£15,828 for 8 months

Archival partner: Ethiopian Liturgical Library

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Project Overview

The enclosed monastery of May Wäyni lies in Tigray Province. According to local tradition, its founder was the saintly monk abba Qäsala Giyorgis (late14th - early 15th century). He belonged to the ecclesiastical network of the monastery of Däbrä Libanos in Shäwa, being the companion of one of the most important Ethiopian monastic figures, echegé Yohannes Käma.

The collection consists of 91 manuscripts. A preliminary survey has shown that while many were produced during the last two hundred years, the works through which they were transmitted must have been much older. An initial examination of a selection of the manuscripts reveals that the writing styles range from good classical palaeography of the 17th century to modern styles of equally good quality. By way of comparison, there are also cases of poor modern script. Together, they provide an excellent example of how Ethiopian manuscript hands have changed over the last 400 years. The fact that many manuscripts share a remarkably similar writing style, despite differences in age, suggests the presence of a local scriptorium and scribal school.

The manuscripts contain material crucial for the study of Ethiopian and Eastern Christian monasticism, the history of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, Christian and Ethiopian Church literature, the history of the manuscript book, and Ethiopian art history in the context of Byzantine and Christian Oriental artistic traditions. Identifiable groupings are:
1. Texts relating to the history of the monastic community and its founder (mostly hagiographical).
2. Historical documents and notes in ge’ez and Arabic relating to the history of Ethiopia, 15th to 20th century.
3. Documents relating to the history of the Ethiopian Church, 15th to 20th century.
4. Oriental & Ethiopian Christian literature containing unknown & little known texts.
5. Biblical and Liturgical texts.
6. Illuminated manuscripts (miniatures, ornaments, drawings) and artistically bound volumes.

Since the old church of May Wäyni and its storage facility recently collapsed, and the construction of the new church has stopped due to lack of funds, the manuscripts are presently stored in a primitive hut, lying on the floor or on rough benches. Regularly used liturgical books reside in the altar unit in the unfinished sanctuary. Types of damage include accumulation of mould, ravages of mice, male caterpillar holes, water damage, burning, and detached and torn folios.

Regardless of whether they are old or new, the manuscript bindings display an unusually high quality. The preparation of the leather and the quality of the decorative tooling illustrate well developed skills based on a long tradition. These skills prove convincingly that May Wäyni was until quite recently a centre for manuscript production.

The collection at May Wäyni contains numerous specimens of high interest to scholars working on Ethiopian literature and ecclesiastical history. It is threatened, however, by minimal protection in a roughly built structure suffering from near collapse. To prevent further damage to the manuscripts, the monks have distributed those not used during the daily services (including the old biblical texts) among the monks and villagers. This arrangement is particularly unfortunate as it is leading to the increased dispersal of the manuscripts, many of which will find their way to the market place before their content has been recorded.

The collection of manuscripts will be cleaned and placed in improved storage conditions. Digital copies will be deposited with local and international institutions.

Project Outcome

The project team who undertook the fieldwork consisted of Professor Michael Gervers (University of Toronto), Professor Ewa Balicka-Witakowska (Uppsala University), Professor Jan Retsö (Göteborg University) and Dr. Jacek Tomaszewski (Institute of Oriental Art, Warsaw).

The total collection of 91 manuscripts belonging to May Wäyni monastery have been digitised. In addition, the miniatures, marginal decoration, drawings and bookbinding have been independently digitised.

All possible measures to protect the manuscripts in situ were applied under the direction of a conservator, including cleaning dust, male caterpillars, mice faeces, and candle wax from the folios, placing protective cotton inserts (as per Ethiopian tradition) over folios containing miniatures and other decorative elements, securing loose manuscript covers and the original protective boxes, placing the most valuable and damaged pieces in appropriately sized protective, acid-free boxes, examining loose folios wherever they are found and placing them in numerated folders, instructing Ethiopian ecclesiastics (especially the qes gäbäz, who is the keeper of church possessions) and civil authorities on how to protect the manuscripts under existing circumstances. The conservator also assisted in preparing both loose and tightly bound manuscripts for photography. Digitisation was carried out in the presence of the conservator and the ecclesiastics responsible for the manuscripts, who were instructed in how to care for them.

Copies of the entire archive have been deposited with:

    The Library of The Monastery of May Wäyni (Tigray)
    The Ethiopian Liturgical Library (Addis Ababa)
    The Office of Tourism and Culture, Makele (Tigray)
    The Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa
    The British Library
    The Library of the University of Toronto Scarborough

Read online the open access article: Technological aspects of the monastic manuscript collection at May Wäyni, Ethiopia, published in the EAP Anniversary publication From Dust to Digital. The article can also be downloaded as a PDF (1070KB).

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP526/1 Digitisation of the endangered monastic archive at May Wäyni (Tigray, Ethiopia) [5th-20th century]

The catalogue is available here.