With a recent gift of more than 600 handmade leather manuscripts, the Catholic University of America is now home to one of the most important collections of Ethiopian religious manuscripts in the United States.
The collection includes Christian, Islamic, and “magic” texts. It is
the largest collection of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of
Dr. Aaron M. Butts, a Professor of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and
Literature at Catholic University, said in a statement that the
manuscript collection “provides unparalleled primary sources for the
study of Eastern Christianity” and reaffirms the school’s standing as
one of the leading places to study Near Eastern Christian language,
literature, and history.
The manuscripts are handmade of goat, sheep, or calf hides, and most of them date to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
In total, the collection includes 125 Christian manuscripts, such as
psalters, liturgical books, and hagiographies. Within the 215 Islamic
manuscripts of the collection are Qurans and commentaries on the Quran.
The collection also contains more than 350 so-called “magic” scrolls –
Christian prayer talismans. Each talisman, Butts told CNA, is
handwritten by a “debtera” – a lay person or cleric in the Ethiopian
Church, and contains the name of the person for whom it is written.
The scrolls are worn around the neck, and are created to help the
wearer with a certain kind of ailment, such as headaches. Many of these
talismans are dedicated to women’s ailments – such as childbirth or
painful menstruation – and Butts said it is clear that some of these
“magic” scrolls have been passed down through the generations from
mother to daughter.
Butts also noted that at various times in Ethiopian history, use of
these prayers has been discouraged within the Ethiopian Church. Because
of this status, as well as the domestic, personal nature of their use,
he continued, not much research has been done on these devotional tools.
Many of the manuscripts in the collection, including the “magic”
scrolls, contain intricate illuminations and other decorations on the
According to Butts, the collection’s age is fairly typical for
Ethiopian manuscripts. He explained that while many Western and Middle
Eastern manuscripts can date back centuries and even more than a
millennium, Ethiopian scripts tend to be much more recent, in part
because Ethiopians still use the manuscripts in daily life for prayer
and reading, and also because the alternating rainy and dry climate
destroys the hides.
The manuscripts will be stored at CUA’s Institute of Christian
Oriental Research (ICOR), a research auxiliary of the Semitics
department. The donation expands the already-impressive collection of
more than 50,000 books and journals as well as antiquities, photographs,
and archival materials documenting early Christianity in the Middle
East ICOR houses.
The new collection, valued at more than $1 million, was donated to
Catholic University by Chicago collectors Gerald and Barbara Weiner.
Butts told CUA that the couple wanted the Ethiopian people to use the
scrolls for prayer, along with making the manuscripts available for
study by students and researchers.
The Washington, D.C. area is home to one of the largest Ethiopian
populations outside of Ethiopia, and there are several Ethiopian
Orthodox and Ethiopian Catholic churches, along with cultural centers,
in the area.
CUA officials are currently working with the community to
coordinate the scrolls’ use.