Field research on manuscripts and monasteries in Ethiopia

Via the EthiopianLit list, I receive this intriguing announcement of a talk at Princeton University in March, which I would certainly go to, if I could.

Nobody has any idea what exists in Ethiopic.   There’s gold out there, you know?

Preserving the African Archive: Field Research on Early Manuscripts and Monasteries in Northern Ethiopia

Denis Nosnitsin, University of Hamburg
March 27, 2012 4:30 pm
127 East Pyne, Princeton University

Ethiopia has one Africa’s largest archives, with tens of thousands of written sources held in around 600 monasteries and 20,000 churches, some of which date to the early Middle Ages. Very little from these archives has received scholarly evaluation, with less than ten percent having been microfilmed or digitized and far fewer being researched or translated. A great part of this unique heritage is on the verge of extinction and urgent action needs to be taken to save it from complete disappearance.

In this talk, Dr. Nosnitsin will present information about his innovative project Ethio-Spare based at Hamburg University, funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant, and focused on digitizing the most important monastic libraries and archives in Ethiopia and creating searchable databases that will allow quantitative and qualitative research into Ethiopian literature. He will then present his own historical and philological research on two of the more important Ethiopian hagiographies. For more information, contact Wendy Laura Belcher

Dr. Denis Nosnitsin, a research fellow at Hamburg University, is an expert in African literatures, especially that in Ge`ez (Ethiopic), Amharic, and Tigrigna, as well as in the pre-modern history of the region. He is the principal investigator of the project Ethio-SPARE. His current research is on Ethiopian hagiography and historiography, monastic manuscript collections and Ethiopian Christian manuscript culture, and historical analysis of marginal notes and documents in Ethiopian manuscripts. His  degree in African (Ethiopian) philology is from St. Petersburg State University. He has published in Aethiopica, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Scrinium, and Africana Bulletin. For more information, see 


9 thoughts on “Field research on manuscripts and monasteries in Ethiopia

  1. Excellent project. Ethiopia is still a virgin research area. Its rich collection of manuscripts that stayed hidden from the outside world for over a thousand years must be very rewarding for any historian, theologian, and Coptologist. I say Coptologist as I know many Coptic books, mostly in a translated Ge`ez version, lie buried in Ethiopia’s monasteries, churches and royal archives. The best example of an important Coptic work that was recovered in Ethiopia is the Chronicle by John of Nikiu. This book, in a Ge`ez translation from the Arabic (itself translated from Greek and Coptic), was translated by the French Zotenberg in the 19th century (1883) and then the British R. H. Charles in the early 20th century (1916). Without the Chronicle of John of Nikiu much of the Byzantine and Coptic history would have been lost.

    So I am glad that there is a renewed interest in Ethiopian manuscripts and I am hopeful that more important works will be discovered. With your permission I will link your article to my blog, On Coptic Nationalism.

  2. BBC did an article 10 years ago on some of the Lake Tana monasteries and how dilapidated they’d become. Given the finances of the region, a very few research dollars or £s, could copy and preserve this entire body of literature, while also providing income to the local economy and maybe, (Heaven forbid), a tourist destination

    link to BBC article

  3. While there is certainly much work to be done, it’s not really true that “Nobody has any idea what exists in Ethiopic.” A goodly portion (but not all!) of the largest collection of manuscripts in Gǝˤǝz in one place, albeit in microfilm, (i.e. HMML) have been catalogued, and an assiduous perusal of those ten published volumes (there is another close to publication, and the content of the published volumes is available in very bare form in HMML’s online catalogue) will supply a very informed picture of what is known, especially what has yet to be published and remains only in manuscripts. The recent Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, for those who have access to it, does a fine job at briefly presenting the information known about particular authors, but a single volume covering the span of literature in Gǝˤǝz is a desideratum, Guidi and Cerulli being out of date and also, I assume, hard to come by.

  4. This is really useful — thank you Adam.

    Some sort of modern orientation guide sounds like a desideratum. I think there are bits of the Eusebius in Ethiopic, for instance; but it’s ridiculously hard to find out. I have a lead to follow, tho.

    Do you know anyone who could translate Ge`ez?

  5. I hope you and your Institution doing well on the area of Manuscripts, texts and archaic & old language of Ethiopic and Oriental studies. Best Wishes & Will !!
    Dereje S. Woldemariam

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