In Ethiopia, copyists perpetuate the tradition of religious parchment manuscripts

In Ethiopia, copyists perpetuate the tradition of religious parchment manuscripts

With a sure gesture, with an inked bamboo stylus, Zelalem Mola copies a religious book onto a parchment. This long and tedious work, explains this Ethiopian Orthodox priest, preserves a tradition and ancient writings, while bringing it closer to God.

At the Hamere Berhan Institute in Addis Ababa, religious and lay believers strive to transcribe identically and by hand, on goat skins, liturgical works and ancient sacred paintings. Parchments, styluses and inks are prepared on site.

"We started four years ago", explains Yeshiemebet Sisay, 29, communication officer of this association: "What motivated us is that the ancient manuscripts on parchment disappear from our tradition".

These works, some of which are several centuries old, are kept mainly in monasteries, where the liturgical chants and prayers are exclusively directed from these manuscripts on parchment and "not works on paper", she continues.

In the courtyard of the institute, in the district of Piasa, the historic center of the Ethiopian capital, goatskins stretched over metal frames are drying under a sun that barely pierces a milky sky.

"The goat skins were submerged in water for three to four days," says 20-year-old Tinsaye Chere Ayele. "Then we removed the layer of fat inside and cleaned" the skin, continues the young man who is busy, armed with a homemade scraper, with this thankless task with two other young people, apparently not bothered by the disgusting smell.

"Hard work"

Once clean and dry, the skins are stripped of their hair and then cut to the desired size: pages of a book or support for a painting.

According to Yeshiemebet Sisay, most of the manuscripts - some of imposing size - are commissioned by individuals who donate them to churches or monasteries.

Some customers order for themselves small collections of prayers or paintings, "reproductions of ancient Ethiopian works", she explains.

Making "small books can take one or two months if the work is collective, large books can take one to two years. If it's an individual task, it can take even longer," she points out, showing books with worked leather covers, texts adorned with brightly colored illuminations and accompanied by religious images.

Sitting in a room, the parchment pages simply placed on his knees, without a table or desk, the priest Zelalem Mola patiently copies a book entitled "Zena Selassie" ("History of the Trinity").

It "is going to take a lot of time. It's hard work, starting with the preparation of the parchment and the inks. This one could take up to six months to complete," he said.

"We make a stylus from bamboo, sharpening the tip with a razor blade," he shows: "We use a different stylus for each color, red or black, "fine-tipped styli and broad tip styli according to the desired thickness of the characters" and "we make the inks from different plants".

"Spirit of God"

Like most other religious works, "Zena Selassie" is written in Ge'ez.

This dead language remained the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia and its alphasyllabic writing system - where the characters represent syllables - is still used to write Amharic, the Ethiopian national language, and Tigrinya, spoken in Tigray ( northern Ethiopia) and Eritrea.

"We copy from paper to parchment to preserve" the writings, because "the paper book can be easily damaged, while this one will last a long time if we protect it from water and fire", continues the priest. The characters are also bigger, "which can help monks in monasteries".

This work "requires patience and concentration", he underlines: "It is difficult for someone to calligraph a book until the end, just to be seated all day".

"But thanks to our devotion, a light shines within us" and "it takes so much effort that it makes us worthy in the eyes of God".

This spiritual dimension also guides Lidetu Tasew, 26, responsible for education and training at the institute, where he teaches painting and illuminations, which concentrated students practice diligently.

For him, raised in a church and steeped in tradition, "spending time here painting saints is like talking to saints and to God". "We have been taught that where we paint saints, the spirit of God is present".

The Editorial Board (with AFP)


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