Preserving heritage: Ethiopian quest to recreate ancient manuscripts

Addis Ababa - Armed with a bamboo ink pen and a steady hand, Ethiopian Orthodox priest Zelalem Mola carefully copies text in the ancient Ge’ez language from a religious book onto a goatskin parchment. This painstaking task is preserving an ancient tradition, all the while bringing him closer to God, says the 42-year-old. At the Hamere Berhan Institute in Addis Ababa, priests and lay worshippers work by hand to replicate sometimes centuries-old religious manuscripts and sacred artwork. The parchments, pens and inks are all prepared at the institute, which lies in the Piasa district in the historic heart of the Ethiopian capital. Yeshiemebet Sisay, 29, who is in charge of communications at Hamere Berhan, says the work began four years ago. 

“Ancient parchment manuscripts are disappearing from our culture, which motivated us to start this project,” she says. The precious works are kept mainly in monasteries, where prayers or religious chants are conducted using only parchment rather than paper manuscripts. “However, this custom is rapidly fading... We thought if we could learn skills from our priests, we could work on it ourselves, so that is how we began,” adds Yeshiemebet. In the institute’s courtyard, workers stretch the goatskins tightly over metal frames to dry under a weak sun which barely pierces the milky sky. “After the goatskin is immersed in the water for three to four days, we make holes on the edge of the skin and tie it to the metal so that it can stretch,” says Tinsaye Chere Ayele. “After that, we remove the extra layer of fat on the skin’s inside to make it clean.”

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