The Ethiopian collections include over 600 manuscripts in the liturgical language Ge’ez and Amharic, dating from around the fourteenth to the twentieth century in addition to recent monographs and serials.
About the collection
Our collection was assembled over the past 266 years, firstly by the British Museum and India Office Libraries, and since 1973 by the British Library. The manuscripts were acquired through donation and purchase, and also from expeditions and private collectors. The earliest were acquired by the British Museum in 1753 as part of the Harley collection, while the largest single acquisition, 349 items formerly belonging to the royal library of the Emperor Tewodoros (reigned 1855-1868), was made in 1868 following the battle of Magdala.
All aspects of Ethiopian literature are represented in the manuscripts collection, notably Gospel Books, Apocrypha, hymns, liturgy, ecclesiastical and civil law, Psalters, Patristic literature, Saints’ lives, as well as letters, medicine and philology. A particular strength are the Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. The collection is equally strong in illuminated manuscripts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
- Or 510 - The Four Gospels . Gondar, Ethiopia, 1664-1665. A richly illustrated manuscript displaying European artistic influences
- Or 533 - The Revelation of St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia, 1700-1730, profusely illustrated with 126 paintings
- Or 719 - The Life and Acts of Lālibelā. Ethiopia, c. 1400, a history of King Lālibalā of Lāstā (1162-1221)
- Or 728 - The Acts and Life of St. Takla Haymanot. Ethiopia, 18th century. This profusely illustrated manuscript has the only known example of a metal cover with carvings of figures and the cross, outside of Ethiopia.
The printed book collection totals some 2,500 items. Apart from Amharic and Ge’ez, the collection also includes printed items in other Ethiopian languages, among them Tigrinya and Tigre, as well as vernaculars of the Semitic, Cushitic and Nilotic groups. We currently acquire a small numbers of printed books and serials bearing on Ethiopia and Ethiopian studies.
Notable rare Ethiopian imprints include:
- The Song of Songs edited by Joannes Potken. [s.l.], 1513 (in Ge’ez)
- Testamentum nouum cum Epistola Pauli ad Hebreos tantum…Alphabetum in lingua gheez …. Romae, 1548
- Alphabetum Aethiopicum sive Abyssinum ….Romae, 1631
What is available online?
As part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital (HMD) project, we are currently in the process of cataloguing and digitizing cover to cover, 304 Ethiopian manuscripts. To-date 79 manuscripts have already been uploaded, and are searchable on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (use keyword Ethiopian). The remaining manuscripts will be uploaded in the weeks and months ahead. Details of these manuscripts are included in our online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts, which also includes archival material on Ethiopia and its history.
Books and periodicals relating to Ethiopia and Ethiopian studies, can be found in our main catalogue Explore.
Other online resources
The British library hosts the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) which includes some digitized collections on Ethiopian topics, as for example Archival records from Digitising and conserving Ethiopian manuscripts at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies.
Collection items are sometimes described in our Asian and African Studies blog, for example:
- African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia
- Henry Salt and the Highlands of Ethiopia (Abyssinia)
- Haile Selassie and the United States of America
- The 1937 massacre in Addis Ababa
We also tweet information on news, discoveries, bibliographical resources and collection items on Twitter using @BLAsia_Africa
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Once you have obtained a Readers’ Pass, you can consult Ethiopian manuscripts and printed materials in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Some especially valuable or fragile items are restricted, so, if you wish to view original material, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and your request will be redirected to the relevant curator. The major printed catalogues of the Library’s Ethiopian manuscripts are also available in the Reading Room available on open access.
Self-service photography is permitted for certain categories of material, provided that its condition allows this.
What is available in other organisations?
UK and Ireland
- The Bodleian Library, Oxford
- Cambridge University Library
- Rylands Library, the University of Manchester (45 MSS)
- Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
- Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa (c. 1500 MSS)
- The Ethiopian Patriarchate of Jerusalem has 764 manuscripts, one of the largest collections outside Ethiopia. A shelf-list of the manuscripts can be found here
- The Vatican Library (c. 1,082 MSS). The Library has digitised 222 Ethiopian MSS from its collection
- Bibliotheque nationale de France (over 1,000 MSS)
- Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Minnesota (filmed and digitised some 8,000 Ethiopian MSS)
- Princeton University Library, New Jersey (180 codices and 500 scrolls)
- Staatsbibliothek Preusischer Kulturbesitz (c. 328 MSS)
- National Library of Russia (34 MSS)
The major printed catalogues of the Library’s Ethiopian manuscripts are:
- Dillmann, August. Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars tertia: Codices Aethiopicos amplectens. Londoni: Impensis curatorum Musei Britannici, 1838-1871 (describes 82 manuscripts)
- Wright, William. Catalogue of the Ethiopic manuscripts in the British Museum acquired since the year 1847. London: The British Museum, 1877 (describes 409 manuscripts)
- Strelcyn, Stefan. Catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library acquired since the year 1877. London: The British Library, 1978 (describes 108 manuscripts)