The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Monday 27th June 2005
Preserving Ethiopia’s Cultural Heritage and the role of the Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies
Given by - Ato Demeke Berhane
Reviewed by - John Hester
Ato Demeke Berhane, Head of the Manuscript and Archives Department, gave an interesting and informative account of the work of the Department at the IES. This work is essential to preserve Ethiopia's cultural heritage. The country has a very rich heritage dating back hundreds of years. Making this available to future historians is important. It is also vital so that young Ethiopians can become aware and proud of their rich heritage.
The library, used mainly for research, had been established in 1951 as a custodian of Ethiopia's heritage. HIM Haile Selassie I had presented much of the original collection. At the moment the collection consists of some 100,000 books, 10,000 seminar reports, 600 medical scrolls and 15,000 photographs, but is not yet fully comprehensive. The role of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in collecting, preserving and exhibiting manuscripts from the collection started in 1963 at a research centre in Addis Ababa University. Conferences are held every nine years and a graduate studies programme in Ethiopian Studies commenced in 2005.
Much unpublished material is held in overseas collections. There is a wealth of materials in churches and monasteries in various parts of Ethiopia. It is imperative that modern preservation techniques are applied to these materials to save them for the future.
Ato Demeke gave a fascinating account of the deep-rooted tradition of book making which is unchanged from the 14th century. This account included descriptions of the preparation of the parchment, covers made from two types of leather, the tools used and the wooden covers used on some books.
Ethiopia's unique heritage is the oldest in Africa. More and more material is becoming available and the lack of space is a problem. He made a plea for help with plans to build a new library with more facilities.
Ato Demeke ended his talk with a description of the historic literature and art by means of a wonderful slide show of some of the magnificent book illustrations in the collection. One is struck by the beauty of the colours used, especially the amazing blue used in paintings of the Virgin Mary. Traditionally St George is always shown on a white horse. Good people are depicted face on with two eyes, and bad people shown in profile with only one eye. I remember being told, when I was in Ethiopia, that the other eye was looking for a place to flee to!
I was particularly impressed with the beautiful faces with lovely expressions that are remarkably sophisticated. The one I can never forget is the smile on the face of the woman riding a lion. The talk was a rich and rewarding experience for those of us fortunate enough to be present. We are very grateful to Ato Demeke for giving us of his valuable time on his visit to this country.