Ethiopian Culture Revisited

Addis Tribune (Addis Ababa)
Aug 13 2004

Ethiopian Culture Revisited

Richard Pankhurst

The History of Writing in Ethiopia

Papyrus Writing and Stone Inscriptions

The history of writing in Ethiopia dates back to extremely early
times. Some scholars believe that use may have been made in Ethiopia,
as in ancient Egypt, of papyrus, which, then as now, grew abundantly
around Lake Tana. No examples of Ethiopian writing on papyrus,
however, have thus far been found.

Many royal inscriptions on stone were nevertheless later produced by
Aksumite rulers, in the early centuries of the present era. Some of
the most important, written in Ge’ez, South Arabian, and Greek, were
erected by the early fourth century King Ezana. He used them to
describe, and glorify, his victorious expeditions in various parts of
the country, as well as to Nubia and South Arabia.


Parchment, made from the skins of sheep, goats, cattle, and even
horses, later came into extensive use, particularly after Ethiopia’s
conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century. This period
witnessed the translation into Ge’ez, as well as the writing on
parchment, of the Bible and other religious texts, mainly translated
from Arabic and Greek.

Letter Writing

Parchment, in the medieval period, was also used in Ethiopia for the
writing of letters. One such epistle was a famous communication from
Emperor Zar’a Ya’qob (1434-1468) to the Ethiopian community in
Jerusalem. The text was written in Ge’ez on four sheets of parchment.

The continued writing of letters on parchment was noted a century or
so later the Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares. After visiting
Shawa in the 1520s, he reported that Ethiopian letters were written
on parchment, and to avoid the risk of loss in transit, were often
despatched in duplicate.

The strength of tradition was such that Ethiopian Christian
manuscripts continued, on the other hand, to be written on parchment.

On parchment-making see the impressive exhibition in the Institute of
Ethiopian Studies organised by two decicated and committed British
scholars: Anne Parsons and John Mellors.


We cannot tell exactly when paper first made its appearance in
Ethiopia. The first reference to its import into the country is by
the French traveller Charles Poncet, who visited Ethiopia at the
close of the seventeenth century. He mentions paper, in 1699, as one
of a number of commodities imported into the country, as well as
Sennar, in what is now Sudan. The imports he describes all came by
way of the western route to Gondar, the then capital of the Ethiopian
Empire, There is, however, is no reason to suppose that imports did
not entered the area by way of the Red Sea port of Massawa, and, the
Gulf of Aden ports of Tajura, Zayla and Berbera.


The great Muslim walled city of Harar, because of its relatively easy
access to the sea, was able to import paper much more easily than was
the highlands of the interior. The result was that while Ethiopian
Christians made use of Bibles and other religious works written, in
Ge’ez, on parchment, the Muslims of Harar, as well as their
co-religionaries in the lowlands to the East, had Qorans and other
Islamic texts written, in Arabic, on paper.

Magic Scroll

One exception to the above statement deserves mention: a century
Ethiopian magical scroll, now housed in the Institute of Ethiopian
Studies Library. Unlike all other scrolls with which we are familiar
it is written on paper.

Continued Letter-writing on Paper in the Highlands

The use of paper for letter writing in the Christian highlands seems
to have gained currency in the eighteenth century. The Armenian
jeweller Yohannes Tovmachean, who visited Gondar in 1764, for example
reports that, when he left two years later, Empress Mentewwab, the
Regent for her grandson Emperor Iyo’as, gave him “ten sheets of
paper”. These were printed only with the seal of the King and Queen,
so that “whoever sees our seals will receive you graciously, and
whatever you write beneath them will be performed”.

Ethiopian royal letters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
were likewise invariably written on paper. The latter had thus
replaced parchment – except for the writing of religious manuscripts,
which latter continued to be written on parchment, right down to the
twentieth century – and to this very day.

The relationship between parchment and paper in the highlands can
vividly be illustrated by the tax records of Emperor Tewodros II
(1855-1868). These were looted from Maqdala by the Napier expedition
of 1867-8, deposited in the British Museum (later the British
Library), and more recently published two by Richard Pankhurst and
Germa-Sellassie Asfaw. One part of this material was written in on
spare pages of a parchment manuscript; the other part on loose sheets
of paper.


The travels of Ethiopians abroad, and most noticeably to Rome,
created considerable European interest in Ethiopic, or Ge’ez,
writing. This resulted in the setting up in Rome of the first
printing press with a font of Ge’ez letters. This pioneer press
printed a Ge’ez Psalter (on paper) as early as 1513.

Presses for the printing of religious texts in Ethiopian languages
were later established, in the early nineteenth century, by the
British and Foreign Bible Society, and other missionary organisations
in Europe. The first printing press in the Ethiopian region was,
however, founded by an Italian Lazarist Father, Lorenzo Bianchieri,
at the port of Massawa, in 1863, during Emperor Tewodros’s time.

The increasing use of paper was further symbolised by the
introduction, by Emperor Menilek II in 1894, of postage-stamps,
printed of course on paper, as well as by the establishment at his
palace at about the same time of a small printing-press.

The first Amharic newspaper, if such it can be called, was a
hand-written news-sheet, produced in Addis Ababa at the end of the
last century by an Ethiopian enthusiast and scholar, Blatta Gabre
Egziabher, from Hamasen (now Eritrea). The tragedy is that no copy of
this work survives: if any reader knows to the contrary plese contact

THE first duplicated publication, the Bulletin de la Léprosie de
Harar, was started shortly afterwards, in Harar in 1900. It was
replaced, in 1905, by Le Semeur d’Ethiopie, a small missionary
publication in French, which occasionally included special items in

The first real Amharic newspaper, Aimro, had meanwhile been founded,
in Addis Ababa in 1902, by Mr A.E. Kavadia, a Greek.

The coming of these and later printing-presses, and the founding of
these and other newspapers meant, very simply, that paper in Ethiopia
had come of age.

Parchment, however, has by no means beem dethroned – it may well be
that there are currently a third of a million, if not half a million,
such manuscripts in the country today, as well as perhaps five
thousand in foreign libraries, in London, Paris, Rome, Princeton, and

These manuscripts, wherever they are, represent an important part of
Ethiopia’s historic culture – which must be preserved, through
microfilming, as well as preservation in the Institute of Ethiopian
Studies Library.

It is Imperative that the microfilming of Ethiopian manuscripts,
began many years ago by the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library,
EMML, in Collegeville. Minnesota, be continued; also that microfilm
copies be made of the Ethiopian Manuscripts in foreign libraries.
Several countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, and the former
Soviet Union gave copies of Ethiopian manuscripts in their respective
countries to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies – as did the British
Council (though there are still further manuscripts in Britain to be

International Co-operation

Relevant Links

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But more such copying is needed, if the Institute is to be really a
centre of Ethiopian Studies.

Here is an important field for international cooperation, in which
foreign Embassies and Cultural Institutes can collaborate, so that
Copies of Ethiopian Mmanuscripts in their respective countries can be
studied in Ethiopia, and thus contribute to the expansion of