British Library launches African Scribes Ethiopia Exhibition

12 Feb 2018

On 5th February, Ambassador Hailemichael was guest speaker at the launch a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” held at the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Guests at the reception and private view of the collection included His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, diplomats, academics and senior staff from the British Library.

The new display, the first of its kind to be held at the British Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, explores the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era. It highlights the intellectual and artistic achievements of Ethiopian scribes, preservers and guardians of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church’s literary output.

Speaking at the reception, Ambassador Hailemichael Aberra Afework began by quoting Fr. Butros Nimeh of Bethlehem saying: “If we preserve our language, we preserve our history and our existence. Where there is a language, there is a people, a heritage and a civilisation.”

Recognising the vital role being played by the British Library in the preservation and conservation of Ethiopian manuscripts, Ambassador Hailemichael reiterated that manuscripts serve as a reminder of the power of writing that has travelled through time to retell our history.

Ambassador Hailemichael added that preparations are underway in Addis Ababa to hold a week-long international manuscript exhibition and conference titled, “The Written Heritage in the Land of Origins” in October this year. The idea was conceived following the Minister of Culture and Tourism’s official visit to the Library last November.

The Embassy will continue its commitment to working with the British Library in the pursuit of facilitating long-term partnerships with all relevant institutions in Ethiopia, the Ambassador said.

The launch of this magnificent exhibition could not happen without the efforts of Mr. Eyob Derillo, who has shown unparalleled passion and commitment to the preservation and promotion of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage, the Ambassador concluded.

“African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia” is open every day from 6th February and runs until 29 April 2018. For further information, visit the British Library website.


Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)

The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).

The Revelation of St. John

St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)

The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)

This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.


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