Endangered Archives

EAP704: The Melvin Seiden Award: Digitisation of the monastic archives of Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay (Shire region, Tigray Province, Ethiopia)

Professor Michael Gervers, University of Toronto Scarborough
2014 award - Major project
£19,544 for 10 months

Archival partner: The Ethiopian Liturgical Library

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Project Overview

The aim of this project is to secure and digitise the manuscript collections of two monasteries located in the remote parts of Shire district (Tigray Province, Ethiopia): Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay. Together, the two collections consist of 106 manuscripts.

Marawe Krestos: The monastery is situated at the top of a mountain in the Zehrem area of Shire. Sixty monks are currently attached to the institution. It was founded in the 13th century and became particularly important as a religious centre in the 14th-15th centuries. The place is little known and seldom visited even by Ethiopians due to the difficulty of access. The recording of its collection, consisting of 61 manuscripts most of which are very old and rare, has long been desired by international scholarship.

Däbrä Abbay (Enda Abunä Samuel): The monastery lies in the Sämbäla district in southern Shire, on the rim of the Täkkäze river gorge. The monastic community consists of 80 monks and 20 nuns, as well as some 30 priests and deacons. The monastery is a centre of ecclesiastical education, specialising in liturgical chant. It is surrounded by the huts of approximately 300 students. Some 20 hermits are dependent upon the monastery. The monastery was founded in AD 1347 by Samuel of Weldebba and remains under the administration of the monastic centre in Weldebba. Another important monastic figure associated with the monastery was Samuel Zä-Qwäyäsa, who flourished at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. The relatively small number of manuscripts, approximately 45, kept in the central store, is what remains of the large collection which, together with the main church, was destroyed by the Italians in 1934. The church was rebuilt by the emperor Haile Sellase, who also donated to it some liturgical books copied in the royal scriptorium in Addis Ababa. It is important to preserve this small collection which is still in regular use by the monastic community and its students. The oldest books will be replaced by printed copies and placed in boxes.

The manuscripts in both collections contain material crucial for the study of Ethiopian and Eastern Christian monasticism and the history of Ethiopia, particularly for the northern regions which presently belong to Eritrea and for that reason are inaccessible to researchers. They also document the history of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and bring to light the new and little known works of Christian and Ethiopian Church literature. Moreover, the collected material will enrich our knowledge about the history of the manuscript book and Ethiopian art history in the context of Christian Oriental and Byzantine artistic traditions. Identifiable groupings are:

    Texts relating to the history of the monastic communities and their founders (mostly hagiographical);
    Historical documents and notes in Ge’ez, Amharic, Coptic and Arabic relating to the history of Ethiopia, 15th to 20th c.;
    Documents relating to the history of the Ethiopian Church, 15th to 20th c.;
    Oriental & Ethiopian Christian literature containing unknown & little known texts;
    Biblical texts, some apocryphal;
    Liturgical texts;
    Manuscripts decorated with miniatures, ornaments, drawings and artistically bound volumes.

At both sites, the manuscripts are presently stored in primitive stone huts with thatched roofs, lying on the floor or on rough, unstable shelving. The books regularly used in the liturgy are kept in the mänbärä tabot (altar unit) and around it on the floor. It is not unusual for fuel to be stored in jerry cans in the same space. Types of damage recorded are mould, mice damage, male caterpillar holes, burns, detached and torn folios, and broken covers.

All possible measures to protect the manuscripts will be applied under the supervision of a conservator. Digitisation will be carried out in the presence of the ecclesiastics responsible for the manuscripts and the conservator will instruct them on how to care and store the books in the best possible way.

Another important aim of the project is to spread knowledge about manuscript preservation among Ethiopian clergy and convince them of the importance and value of digitisation. Some 95% of Ethiopian manuscripts are to be found in the collections of churches and monasteries. Every successfully accomplished project carried out in a friendly atmosphere opens the door for scholars to gain access to the next valuable collection, thus giving Ethiopian manuscripts “a second chance”.

Copies will be deposited with the Monasteries of Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay; the Ethiopian Liturgical Library (Addis Ababa); the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University; the British Library; and the University of Toronto Scarborough.

The Melvin Seiden Award has been awarded to preserve these outstanding collections of medieval manuscripts, a field of particular interest to the donor.

Project Outcome

The project was able to fully digitise the two collections held at Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay. The final count included 61 manuscripts belonging to the monastery of Marawe Krestos and 45 belonging to Däbrä Abbay. Although it is difficult to attribute dates precisely, handwriting suggests that 3% were from the 14th c., 9% from the 15th, 9% from the 16th, 31% from the 17th, 9% from the 18th, 1% from the 19th and 38% from the 20th c. In total 14,602 folios, covers and edges were digitised.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP704/1 The Monastic Archives of Däbrä Abbay (Shire region, Tigray Province, Ethiopia) [1495-1999]
  • EAP704/2 The Monastic Archives of Marawe Krestos (Shire region, Tigray Province, Ethiopia) [1360-1999]

The catalogue is available here.