Ethiopic Bible Selections - Inside Cover and page 1
Inside Cover and Colophon
Copyright © The British Library Board
The inside cover is lined with silk cloth. The manuscript begins with a colophon or statement, which contains a letter from John, Patriarch of Alexandria, to King Iyasu I written by a later hand, dated 1743. The volume contains copies of many deeds of grants and donations made to churches and monasteries in Ethiopia by three rulers: Iyasu I (ruled 1682-1706); Iyasu II (ruled 1739-1740) and Sahla Dengel (ruled 1832-1840).
The manuscript is written in classical Ethiopian, known as Ge'ez, which survives today only as a church language. Ethiopian is a Semitic language, in the same group of languages as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. The ancient Ethiopians borrowed the basic parts of their letters from Arabic. These 26 basic letters only expressed consonants so a system of short lines and circles were added to the letters to mark vowels. The consonant forms were also modified. In modern Ethiopian, Amharic, there are seven forms of each letter, each expressing a consonant and vowel, for example he, hu, hi, ha, he, ho or ke, ku, ki, ka, ke, ko. Uniquely among Semitic languages, Ethiopian is written from left to right. Punctuation marks in the text are as follows - words are divided by :, sentences are divided by ::, and paragraphs by ::=::.
The pigments used in the painting were limited and consisted mainly of red cinnabar (red mercury sulphide), yellow orpiment (arsenious trisulphide), charcoal, white chalk and indigo blue, a plant extract. All were local to Ethiopia, except the indigo, which was imported from India. The pigments were mixed with an animal protein, forming a tempera, which was applied directly to the prepared sheet.
The main text is written in black ink made of gum, water, gallnuts, and strong acid, while the titles and necessary rubrics are written in red ink. An ancient recipe for making ink is set out in an Ethiopian manuscript of the ninth century. It instructs: "Take 2/3 oz of gall-nut, pound it, and put it in a new pot. Pour on it a quart and a half of water and boil it till one third evaporates, then strain it through a coarse cloth, and put it back in a pot on the fire. Take 1/3 oz of gum Arabic and pound it till it becomes like dust. Let the water cool; then take the gum Arabic and throw it in little by little. Take an ounce of copper and pound it very fine and throw it in. Then put it (the pot) on the fire again until it boils. Then take it off, put it in a bottle, and let it stand forthree days."
The structure of an Ethiopian manuscript
The thick parchment of this volume is made of either goatskin or sheepskin. A manuscript of this length would require the skins of 120 goats - one goat provides enough skin to make only two leaves. The cost of the parchment was the most expensive aspect of sponsoring such a manuscript. After the skin had been prepared, small holes were pricked along the edges of the parchment using a template to mark the position of each line and column of text. A blunt instrument, such as the back of a knife, was used to score faint lines joining the holes to guide the scribe. The pens are made of a type of tall reed. The width of the pen nib dictated the size of the script used. Different pens were used for red and black inks. A book of this size would take a scribe about eight months to complete.
When the writing and painting was completed, the individual sections (between six to sixteen) were sewn together between wooden boards. This volume is almost square in format, which was typical of 17th-century books. The sewing thread is made of animal tendons. The key feature is the use of independent pairs of link-stitch sewing to join the section together and attach them directly to the outer wooden boards.
Olive wood was used for the covers. Occasionally the boards were covered in cowhide and dyed red or reddish brown before being pasted over the wood. Decorative patterns were often stamped on the leather using heated iron finishing tools. The inside covers were then lined with woven multi-coloured fabrics. The design of the fabric in this manuscript is made up of horizontal bands against a white background.