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African Studies Library acquires mysterious Ethiopian manuscript

Psalms of David and other tracts were meticulously transcribed in 1708

Written in Amharic script, the 1708 Ethiopian religious manuscript acquired by the African Studies Library also includes numerous notations, such as the symbols on the left page. Photo by Vernon Doucette

The manuscript is as mysterious as it is exquisite. The first page is embellished with the drawing of an unknown saint and dotted with notations in Amharic, a northern Ethiopian language. There is a depiction of a strange cat-like animal, and crosses, formed by 10 dots — 6 red and 4 black — mark the end of every line in the more than 200 pages. The entire tract is seven inches long, six inches wide, and three inches thick and bound to a wooden cover with a rough twine-like material.

What is known is that much of the text is a translation of the Psalms of David. David’s son is said to have had a child with the Queen of Sheba, Menelik I, thus beginning the Ethiopian royal dynasty. The two other tracts in the manuscript, written in black ink with red passage headings, are called the Prayers of the Prophets, which is found in the Old Testament, and the Praises of Mary.

Notations in the book, one of several recent acquisitions of BU’s African Studies Library (ASL), report that it was translated in 1708. Gretchen Walsh, the head of ASL, says the manuscript, written in graceful Amharic script on what appears to be parchment, is “something of a departure from what we typically have in our collections.” She describes it as both a museum artifact and a scholarly work.

Brook Abdu (GRS’07), an archaeology graduate student familiar with such works, translated an inscription at the end of the book reading, “This manuscript was completed during the reign of King Adyam Seged of Gonder in the year 1708, on a Tuesday at 3 p.m.” The month and date, however, are unknown. Abdu learned that the person who transcribed the volume was named Adele Weld and that he or she produced it for someone named Neway. Walsh speculates that the scribe was a servant of Neway, the manuscript’s owner.

The book was donated to the library by Charles Samz, a native of Hilton Head, S.C., who acquired it while working as a petroleum geologist in Ethiopia in the early 1960s. Samz, 95, traveled in Indonesia and Malaysia after he lived in Ethiopia. He is a friend of Robert Murowchick, a research associate professor and director of BU’s International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History. Samz has donated several of his books on Southeast Asia to the center.

The tract appears to have been well-used. “Marks of candles, rubrics, and straw in the bindings indicate that this manuscript had been utilized for some generations before it made it into the hands of Mr. Samz,” writes Abdu. Combing through the book, Walsh points to evidence of repairs to the pages throughout the years. The writings in the margin are hastily scrawled compared to the main text. Each symbol, which represents a syllable, is carefully crafted — as elaborate as calligraphy. The writing instrument, the types of ink, and the exact makeup of the page material remain unknown.

Walsh is hoping that questions about the manuscript will be answered by visiting scholars. In the meantime, she and others are planning to make a digital copy of the book and to devise a way to display it safely.