British Exhibitions of Ethiopian Manuscripts Prompt Questions About Repatriation

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)

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.

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.

In an interview Eyob Derillo, a second-year doctoral student at SOAS University of London and the curator of the African Scribes exhibition, spoke with Hyperallergic about the beauty and content of the British Library’s Ethiopian manuscripts. He also retraced how, exactly, they got to London:

Ethiopian manuscripts are known to have reached Europe as early as the 14th century, perhaps even earlier. In Europe the three biggest collections of Ethiopian manuscripts are Rome [at the Vatican’s Apostolic Library], Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale [de France], and London’s British Library. The Ethiopian manuscript collection at the British Library forms part of the foundation collections along with Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Arabic [texts], The British Library holds a diverse range of Ge’ez language manuscripts from Ethiopia produced between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Front cover of the 18th century edition of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, a revered saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Image courtesy of and via the British Library)

The calligraphy, but also the illuminations, have stunned audiences both in person and online. Derillo remarked that there are 110 illuminated manuscripts with over 3000 painted miniatures in the collection. Over 200 manuscripts include minor decorations such as initials and headpieces.

The British Library obtained the manuscripts from a number of outlets, predominantly during the 18th and 19th centuries. Derillo notes,

The manuscripts were acquired from military expeditions, travelers, and private collectors by the library’s predecessor institutions at the British Museum Library and India Office Library over a sustained period of time. The British Museum Library’s earliest Ethiopic manuscripts were acquired in 1753 forming part of the Harley collection. However, the first substantial donation of Ethiopic manuscripts came from the Church of England Missionary Society comprising seventy-four codices collected in the 1830s and 1840s by the missionaries Isenberg and Krapf. The British Museum Library’s largest acquisition of Ge’ez manuscripts was made in 1868, comprising 349 manuscripts captured from the Emperor Theodore’s capital at Magdala during the British military expedition to Ethiopia in 1867.

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Part of the reason for the new exhibition at the BL was the 150th anniversary of the so-called Abyssinian Campaign of 1868.

An 18th century manuscript depicting the miracle of Notre Dame and Saint Ildefonso, (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ethiopien via Wikimedia)

How various British museums, universities, and libraries came into possession of Ethiopian manuscripts, crowns, and other cultural artifacts is a much bleaker tale than most realize. As the British Library, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and other institutions now readily admit, the UK came into possession of many of these objects illegally during the battle of Maqdala. Derillo adds that archaeologists were actually sent by the British Museum at this time in order to procure manuscripts, “hoping to find in Abyssinia vast stores of ancient Greek manuscripts.” What they found and then stole for resale and donation was in fact a rich Ethiopian manuscript cache filled with majestic illuminations that brought biblical stories (and many other tales and recipes) to life.

While Britain’s museums are increasing their transparency, that does not mean that they are willing to return these looted objects to the country of origin. The continued fight over the British Museum’s possession of the Parthenon Frieze is only one example of the persistent struggle over who rightfully owns artifacts acquired through colonialism or on the illegal antiquities market. In a recent blog post written by the V&A’s Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director noted the deeply problematic acquisition history of the Ethiopian objects in their collection, and those at other British libraries and museums. Writes Hunt, “Museums have a global responsibility to better understand their collections, to more fully uncover the histories and the stories behind their objects, and to reveal the people and societies that shaped their journeys.” Hunt notes the need for accountability, but oddly does not appear to view repatriation as part of this “responsibility.”

From now until June 30, 2018, the V&A has a special display open for free to the public: Maqdala 1868, which is said to be “a reflection on the 1868 siege and battle at Maqdala, exploring a selection of Ethiopian objects in the V&A’s collection.” Just like the British Library, the V&A is looking back on the 150th anniversary of the campaign. Yet, what remains more hidden in these exhibitions is the fact that in 2007 a formal bid by Ethiopia for the return of a number of looted objects was denied. In 2008, former Ethiopian president Girma Wolde-Giorgis  wrote to a number of institutions in the UK who had benefitted from the 19th-century raid. In letters to the British Museum, the British Library, Cambridge University Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, Wolde-Giorgis demanded the repatriation of the over 468 objects deemed the “treasures of Maqdala.” As recently as April 29, 2018, Ethiopia has continued pressing to have these objects returned.

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Manuscript depicting the flight into Egypt: Mary and Jesus followed by Joseph (image courtesy of and via the British Library)

The Victoria & Albert in particular has noted the possibility of a “long-term loan” of the objects back to Ethiopia — but not full repatriation. In an interview with the Chinese news network Xinhua, Gezahegn Abate, a public and international relations director at the Ethiopia Ministry of Culture and Tourism, remarked on the continued demand for the antiquities to be returned. He also voiced the import of publicly known digitization projects in preserving and disseminating knowledge of cultural heritage such as manuscripts — so that their provenance is known in the future: “We’re diligently working to keep our treasures, register them in digital archives so we can identify and showcase to the public and in turn help guard them against being stolen.”

While questions about the antiquities held by numerous British museums and libraries continue to be asked, the display of the Ethiopian manuscripts has at least increased awareness of the rich cultural heritage of Ethiopia and other African nations. As Derillo states,

Most western [audiences] see Ethiopia as a country of just poverty and dependent on aid. Ethiopia’s rich literature is known for its breadth, depth and longevity. Its origin, the indigenous ideas and creative force that underpin it, as well as the external influences that fed into it and helped shape it have all inspired interest and scholarship. The stunning calligraphy it is written in, the fine illustrations that accompany it and the sumptuous binding that so often covers it are universally admired. Yet, without the generations of armies of, overwhelmingly anonymous, scribes who produced and reproduced the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of manuscripts that contain this literature, it would not have existed or survived.

Anonymous (Ethiopian) “Mary and John at the Crucifixion,” (early-mid 16th century) tempera and ink on parchment; Walters Art Museum; museum purchase with funds provided by the W. Alton Jones Foundation Acquisition Fund (image via Wikimedia)

Exhibitions of African manuscripts within Europe like those now being put on at the British Library no doubt serve to raise awareness of other cultures and their literary heritage. They also unveil the invisible labor invested in the complex creation of a codex, scroll, or manuscript. Derillo notes that he curated the exhibition with care, in order to “pay tribute to the unknown scribes of Ethiopia.” In so doing, he also highlighted the construction of books as a hallowed art form: “[I wished] to celebrate the book as an object, more than a text carrier. In the indigenous context of Ethiopia, the book is a sacred object.” What remains to be seen is whether these dazzling manuscripts will stay in Britain or will one day be returned to the culture that created them. The digitization efforts of museums, libraries, and even federal agencies may make cultural heritage available to all to view and to enjoy, but that cannot obscure the fact that physical ownership of many of these objects remains in the hands of countries that acquired them through raiding, looting, and colonial means.

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