Exhibitions of Ethiopian Manuscripts Prompt Questions About Repatriation

Ethiopian-Manuscript
Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appear before Saint Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the 18th century Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot (image via and courtesy of the British Library)

Exhibitions at British cultural institutions have lately underscored the artistic output of Ethiopian scribes, and in the process, have also renewed questions around whether museums that have benefitted from acts of imperialism and colonialism should now return looted objects.

A recent display at the British Library, African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia put the institution’s impressive collection of Ethiopic manuscripts on display. Online, the library has also highlighted efforts to digitize these ancient works and make them accessible to the public. Exhibitions at the British Library and other cultural institutions within Britain have worked to underscore the artistic output of Ethiopian scribes and the literature connected to the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. In the process, these special exhibitions have also renewed questions of provenance and the issue of whether museums that have benefitted from acts of imperialism and colonialism should now return looted objects — even centuries after the fact.

There is no doubt that the newly digitized manuscripts made searchable within the British Library’s online manuscripts database add to our knowledge of Ethiopia and its rich religious heritage. African Christianity has an ancient history that is infrequently emphasized in western scholarship; however, Ethiopia’s embrace of Christianity developed during the period known as Roman Late Antiquity. Late in the reign of Constantine (r. 306–337 CE), the urban center of the Aksumite Kingdom, Auxoume (now known as Aksum), converted to the faith. By 357 CE, Christianity was noticeably widespread throughout what is now modern Ethiopia — although early Christian writers often incorrectly referred to the area as “India.” Well into the medieval period, Ethiopian scribes at churches and monasteries worked diligently to copy biblical and religious texts. Many manuscripts also concerned other subjects, such as magic and incantation spells.

Ethiopian-amulet-scroll
An Ethiopian amulet scroll, one with a protective cylindrical case, from the 18th century (image courtesy of and via the British Library)

In the last few years, the British Library has sought to digitize and conserve their Ethiopian manuscripts as part of its “Heritage Made Digital” program. In 2016, the Four-Year Business Plan released by the library emphasized a number of objectives for this major manuscript digitization effort, which aims to increase, expand, and digitally deliver international accessibility to thousands of Indian printed books, 19th-century British newspapers, and Ethiopic manuscripts.

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