Couple donates Ethiopian religious manuscripts to Catholic University

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — A massive donation of Ethiopian religious manuscripts to The Catholic
University of America in Washington makes the school one of the largest holders
of such texts outside Ethiopia.

The value
of the donation, by Gerald and Barbara Weiner of Chicago, is estimated to be more than $1 million. The collection includes more than 215 Islamic manuscripts, 125
Christian manuscripts, and 350 so-called “magic” scrolls with prayers to
protect the owner or reader from particular illnesses.

makes the manuscripts valuable is that they’re handmade, according to Aaron
Butts, an assistant professor of Semitic languages and literature at Catholic
University. What makes them rare, he added, is that such texts are rarely seen
outside Ethiopia, and that the East African nation’s rainy season often renders
the books and scrolls unusable or illegible after repeated use. That so many
texts — most of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, with a few
even older — still survive, and in a usable condition, he told Catholic News
Service, is “amazing.”

one of them is a treasure,” Butts said.

donation makes Catholic University the holder of the fifth largest collection
of Ethiopian Christian manuscripts in the United States, and the largest
collection of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of Ethiopia.

said Gerald Weiner had hoped to collect holy books from Ethiopian Judaism, but “when
he realized how few were available, he started collecting books from Ethiopian
Christianity and Islam.”

modern bookbinding techniques exist in Ethiopia, the nation’s religious leaders
still greatly prefer to use handmade books. Their makers use the skins of
sheep, goats and cattle to make the books; even the “parchment” pages come from
these animal hides.

book’s contents also must be written by hand with ink. Frequently, there are
illustrations in the books — and definitely on the scrolls — making the production
of even one book a prolonged and relatively costly venture.

explained that the scrolls are not regarded as official prayer texts by
Ethiopian Christian leaders, “but the people who use them use them as prayers.”
The prayers ask for divine help for any number of maladies, headaches among
them, he said, but some focus on pains only experienced by women, such as they experience with menstruation and
childbirth. “This may be why religious leaders have not thought of them as
official,” he added.

edges of some pages of the books are so dark they look like they had been
burned. Rather, Butts said, “it’s dirt from the hands” of the user. Some books
have “illuminated” illustrations that display their brilliance despite the
passage of time, and contain writing underneath the illustration legible to a
sharp reader.

in the donation were a trio of Ethiopian Christian liturgical texts featuring
Gospel passages on one page, and homilies from saints on the next. The tomes
are massive in size, each likely containing 200 or so pages with generous
margins bordering each page “as a symbol of the wealth” of the religious figure
who commissioned the three-volume set, Butts said, adding “Imagine how many
animals, how much ink was used” to complete the set, with the writing of each
book taking at least several months to complete.

told CNS that the Weiners wanted to make sure the recipient of the gift would
be able to provide access to the collection. Catholic University will be able
to provide not only scholars and students with access, but also Washington’s
Ethiopian-American community.

The Washington area is rivaled only by the much larger Los Angeles metropolitan
area for the size of its Ethiopian community. There is a particular
concentration of Ethiopian restaurants and shops — including an Ethiopian
evangelical church — along the border of Washington with the suburb of Silver
Spring, Maryland, and many Ethiopian-American men make their living as taxi

donated books and scrolls are still being assessed for their relative
durability after two or three centuries. When the assessment is complete, which
Butts hopes will be sometime in the spring, Catholic University will invite the
Weiners to attend a reception marking the donation.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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