Ancient manuscripts in Ethiopia: preserving an historical and cultural heritage
19 August 2015

Ethiopia has the most ancient tradition of written culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Until today old monasteries and churches, scattered all over the country, hold thousands of precious manuscripts. Yet, for most part, these cultural treasures are stored in precarious conditions. Prof. Denis Nosnitsin intends to preserve and study this rich heritage that soon could be lost forever.

Cover image of Ancient manuscripts in Ethiopia: preserving an historical and cultural heritage

The written sources of ancient Christian Ethiopia (which included part of contemporary Eritrea) are considered by scholars as the most important element of the cultural and historical heritage of the region. Experts estimate that currently at least 200,000 manuscripts from the past millennium belong to local monastic libraries and archives. These collections, including biblical and liturgical texts, hagiographies, legal documents and local historical writings, are the witnesses of an African Christian culture born as early as the 4th century A.D. All these documents are currently insufficiently researched and are in danger of disappearing because of improper storage conditions, fires and thefts. 

Supported by an ERC grant, the team led by Prof. Nosnitsin made several field trips to North Ethiopia to identify the most important collections of manuscripts, create inventories and make digital copies. The researchers visited over 100 monasteries and churches, many of them with large libraries, and were able to digitise over 2000 manuscripts. Next steps have been classification, scientific cataloguing in the project’s databases, publication of selected studies and research results. In addition, a unique manuscript conservation programme was carried out in the framework of the project.     

The field trips were also an opportunity to train local researchers on preservation and proper cataloguing of manuscripts, so that this work can continue now that the ERC project is completed.

The study of these manuscripts will provide new insights into the history of Ethiopia and the whole region.

Project information

Cultural Heritage of Christian Ethiopia: Salvation, Preservation and Research
Denis Nosnitsin
Host institution:
Universitaet Hamburg
Call details
ERC-2009-StG, SH5
ERC funding
1 746 080 €