Holding living bodies in graveyards

The violence of keeping Ethiopian manuscripts in Western institutions.

Old book written in ancient Ge'ez language. Image credit Beth via Flickr CC.

There are two types of Africa. The first is a place where people and cultures live. The second is the image of Africa that has been invented through colonial knowledge and power. The colonial image of Africa, as the Other of Europe, a land “enveloped in the dark mantle of night,” as Hegel put it, was supported by Western states as it justified their colonial practices. Any evidence that challenged the myth of the Dark Continent was destroyed, removed, or ignored. While the looting of African natural resources has been studied, the looting of African knowledges hasn’t received as much attention, partly based on the assumption that Africans did not produce knowledge that could be stolen. The legacy of Ethiopia’s indigenous Ge’ez literature, and its looting and abduction by powerful Western agents, show otherwise.

Ethiopians developed the Ge’ez language as their lingua franca with its own writing system some 2,000 years ago. Currently, Ge’ez is the language of academic scholarship, studied through the traditional education system. Since the fourth century, an estimated 1 million Ge’ez manuscripts have been written, covering religious, historical, mathematical, medicinal, and philosophical texts. Since the 18th century, many of these manuscripts have been stolen, looted, or smuggled out of the country by travelers who came as explorers, diplomats, and scientists. The total number of Ethiopian manuscripts taken is still unknown. Amsalu Tefera counted 6,928 Ethiopian manuscripts currently held in foreign libraries and museums. This figure does not include privately held or unofficial collections.

Looting and smuggling were sponsored by Western governments, institutions, and notable individuals. For example, in 1868, The British Museum Acting Director Richard Holms joined the British army, which was sent to “rescue” British hostages at Maqdala, the capital of Emperor Tewodros. Holms’ mission was to bring treasures for the museum. They needed 200 mules and 15 elephants to transport the loot and “set fire to all buildings so that no trace was left of the edifices which once housed the manuscripts.” Holmes collected 356 manuscripts for the museum. In 2018, the V&A Museum in London displayed some of the treasures by incorporating Maqdala into the imperial narrative of Britain.

Britain is by no means the only country to seek Ethiopian manuscripts for their collections. Smuggling occurred in the name of science, an act of collecting manuscripts for study. Looting involved local collaborators and powerful foreign actors from places such as France, Germany, and the Vatican. Like Maqdala, this looting was often sponsored by governments or powerful financers. It was often claimed that these manuscripts were purchased, rather than looted. However, there was no local market for buying manuscripts. Ge’ez manuscripts were, and still are, written to serve spiritual and secular life in Ethiopia, not for buying and selling. Museums and libraries have accrued impressive collections without emphasizing how those collections were first obtained.

With so many manuscripts lost, European collectors became the narrators of Ethiopian knowledge and history. Edward Ullendorff, a known orientalist in Ethiopian studies, referred to James Bruce as “the explorer of Abyssinia.” Western “travelers”, such as Bruce, did not fully disclose how many manuscripts they took or how they acquired them. The abundance of Ethiopian manuscripts in Western institutions can be compared to the scarcity of such materials among traditional schools in Ethiopia.

I visited 10 indigenous schools in Wollo (Lalibela, Neakutoleab, Asheten, Wadla); in Gondar (Bahita, Kuskwam, Menbere Mengist); and Gojam (Bahirdar, Selam Argiew Maryam, Giorgis). In all of the schools, there is a lack of Ge’ez manuscripts. Students often come from rural villages and do not receive any government support. The scarcity of Ge’ez manuscripts, and the lack of funding which might allow for the purchasing of books, means the students depend mainly on memorizing Ge’ez texts told to them orally by their teachers. Although this method of learning is not new, it currently is the only way for passing indigenous knowledges across generations.

The absence of manuscripts is most strongly felt in the advanced schools. For instance, in the school of Qene, poetic literature is created through an in-depth study of the vocabulary and grammar of Ge’ez. A Qene student is required to develop a deep knowledge of Ge’ez in order to understand ancient and medieval Ge’ez texts, which are used to produce poetry with multiple meanings. Without Ge’ez manuscripts, students cannot draw their creative works from the broad intellectual tradition of their ancestors.

Prayer in Ge’ez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Many students interrupt their studies and work as laborers to save up and buy paper textbooks, but they still don’t have access to the finest works taken to Europe. Most Ge’ez manuscripts remaining in Ethiopia are locked away in monasteries, church stores or other places to prevent further looting. The manuscripts in Addis Ababa University and the National Archives are available for researchers but not to the students of the indigenous system, creating a condition of internal knowledge grabbing.

While the absence of Ge’ez manuscripts denied, and continues to deny, Ethiopians the chance to enrich their indigenous education, it benefited Western orientalists to garner intellectual authority on the field of Ethiopian studies. In 1981, British Museum Director John Wilson said, “our Abyssinian holdings are more important than our Indian collection.” In reaction, Richard Pankhurst, the Director of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, responded that the collection was acquired through plunder.

The manuscripts are valued based on their contribution to Western scholarship only. Local knowledges are used as raw materials to produce Eurocentric knowledge, which in turn is used to teach Africans as though they had no prior knowledge. Scholars are defined as those Western educated persons who can speak European languages and can travel to modern institutions to access the manuscripts. Knowledge grabbing regards previous owners as non-existent or irrelevant. Knowledge grabbing also means indigenous scholars are deprived of critical resources to produce new knowledge based on their intellectual heritage.

There is a common myth that indigenous knowledges are artefacts belonging to the past, not the present. But there are millions of people who still use this knowledge, but the conditions necessary for their reproduction and improvement is denied through knowledge grabbing. The view of Ge’ez manuscripts as artefacts dismisses the Ethiopian view that Birana manuscripts are living persons. As a scholar told me in Gondar, “they are creations of Egziabher (God), like all of us. Keeping them in institutions is like keeping living bodies in graveyards.”

Recently, the collection of Ethiopian manuscripts by Western institutions has also been conducted digitally. Thousands of manuscripts have been microfilmed or digitized. For example, the EU funded Ethio-SPaRe project resulted in the digital collection of 2,000 Ethiopian manuscripts. While digitization promises better access for people who may not be able to visit institutions to see physical copies, online manuscripts are not accessible to indigenous school students in Ethiopia. They simply do not have computer or internet access and the manuscripts are catalogued in European languages.

Worse is that European scholars have monopolized the field of Ethiopian Studies by producing books, encyclopedias, and digital archives based on Ethiopian manuscripts, almost exclusively in European languages. The contributions of their work for Western scholarship is undeniable. However, Kebede argues that one of the detrimental effects of this orientalist literature is the thesis of Semiticisation, the idea that Ethiopian civilization started with the arrival of Middle Eastern colonizers.

Orientalists such as Ludolph attributed the origin of Ethiopia’s writing system, agriculture, literature, and civilization to the arrival of South Arabian settlers. For example, in his translation of the Kebra Nagast, E.A.W Budge wrote: “the SEMITES found them [indigenous Ethiopians] negro savages, and taught them civilization and culture and the whole scriptures on which their whole literature is based.” Christian Dillman wrote that “the Abyssinians borrowed their Numerical Signs from the Greeks.” The views of these orientalist scholars have been challenged. For instance, leading scholar of Semitic languages Professor Ephraim Isaac considers the thesis of the Arabian origin of Ethiopian civilization “a Hegelian Eurocentric philosophical perspective of history.” Isaac shows that there is historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence that suggest Ethiopia to be more advanced than South Arabia from pre-historic times. Various Ethiopian sources including the Kebra Nagast, the works of historian Asres Yenesew, and Ethiopian linguist Girma Demeke provide evidence for the indigenous origin of Ethiopian civilization and languages.

The epistemic violence of the Semeticisation thesis lies in how this Eurocentric ideological construction is the dominant narrative in the field of Ethiopian history and the education system. Unlike the indigenous view, the orientalist view is backed by strong institutional powers both in Ethiopia and abroad. The orientalists control the field of Ethiopian studies and have access to Ge’ez manuscripts. Due to native colonialism, a system of power run by native elites through the use of colonial ideas and practices, the education system is the imitation of Western curricula, including English as a medium of instruction from high school onwards. Students study the West more than Ethiopia. Only the Eurocentric interpretation of Ethiopian manuscripts is regarded as scientific and objective.

Items such as manuscripts that are held in Western institutions are not dead artefacts of the past to be preserved for prosperity. They are living sources of knowledge that should be put to use in their intended contexts. Local Ethiopian scholars cannot study ancient and medieval Ethiopia without travelling and gaining access to Western institutions. This lack of access and resources has made European Ethiopianists almost the sole producers of knowledge about Ethiopian history and culture. Here we see epistemic violence in action.

Western control over knowledge production has the detrimental effect of inventing new identities, subjectivities, and histories that translate into material effects in the lives of African people. In this way, Ethiopians and people all over Africa internalize Western understandings of themselves and their history as primitive and in need of development or outside intervention. African’s intellectual and cultural heritage, these living bodies locked away in graveyards, must be put back into the hands of Africans.

Further Reading

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