The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian Study Visit - Saturday 10th July 2010

Bodleian Library and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Given by - organised by Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Robert Farwell

Some 25 members gathered in Oxford at the Radcliffe Library on a baking July day and walked down to the New Bodleian Library (that ugly building!) where Piet van Boxol, the Curator of the Hebrew & Jewish Collections, had kindly assembled a selection from the Ethiopic holdings for us.

He outlined the Library's history from Duke Humphrey's original benefaction and Sir Thomas Bodley's refounding in the late 16th century, and the gradual growth of the Oriental Collection by purchase and bequest over the years, the latest acquisition being the Bent Juel-Jensen collection. Few of the manuscripts are from Magdala, we gathered, unlike those of the British Library. There are catalogues by Dillmann in Latin and Ullendorf in English, the latter still to be found in the Bodleian Library Bookshop very cheaply.

The manuscripts included a deggwa or hymnal for the whole year, dated 1767; a small 19th century volume, unusual for being in Amharic; a psalter in tiny script; a 15th century Gospels; an 18th century Gospels; and a superb large manuscript from the Juel-Jensen collection, as yet uncatalogued.

The Death of John the Baptist, an illustration in one of the fifty, as yet uncatalogued, Ethiopian manuscripts bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 2007 by Bent Juel-Jensen.
Photo © Mandefro Belayneh

The early Gospels had fine evangelist-portrait pages in a palette of red, yellow and brown, with elaborate harag on facing pages. The Juel-Jensen manuscript had numerous in-text illuminations in second Gondarine style, including from the New Testament the Annunciation, Nativity, Flight, Baptism and Temptation, Miracle at Cana and Transfiguration, and the Death of John the Baptist; and from the Old Testament the young David wielding his sling on one page and decapitating Goliath on the facing page, David as king with his harp, the slaughter with the jawbone of an ass (Samson?), and the Three Hebrews in the Furnace. There were saints such as Yared too. The Nativity was a particularly fine composition, almost full page, with the Holy Family, the ox and the ass, and the Three Kings with their crowns (two seen side-face, perhaps surprisingly). It was hard to draw members away from turning, and photographing, the pages.

Our other visit was to an exhibition of Wilfred Thesiger's photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum. This major new exhibition, marking the centenary of Thesiger's birth, shows a wide selection of his photographs - many for the first time. Thesiger took over 17,000 photographs in Africa, around two-fifths of his entire photographic output, all of which he donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Spanning fifty years, the photographs exhibited here document his development as a photographer, in particular as a portraitist. They relate to his life and travels in Africa, and include images from Ethiopia (the Afar, Konso and Boran), Sudan, Morocco, Tanzania and Kenya. Also on show was a selection of objects collected by Thesiger and later donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Another small exhibition at the Pitt Rivers consisted of the photographs taken by the Magnum photographer Peter Marlow at Haile Selassie's ceremonial reburial in 2000. Veterans of the Imperial Guard were seen, white haired but erect in their lion's-mane head-dresses, covered in campaign medals and with their rifles still. One could imagine perhaps how wartime members of our own forces might have honoured George VI, had he been murdered in say 1950 by a vicious regime and only brought to Westminster Abbey thirty years later after the fall of the regime.

First Published in News File Winter 2010

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