The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., received a rare and beautiful gift recently — a collection of religious manuscripts from Ethiopia dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The manuscripts, given by Chicago collectors Gerald and Barbara Weiner, include more than 125 Christian manuscripts, 215 Islamic manuscripts, and 350 “magic” scrolls. Valued at over $1 million dollars, this is one of the most important collections of Ethiopian religious manuscripts in North America.
Made from goat, sheep, and calf hides, the manuscripts reflect Ethiopia’s still-flourishing culture of handmade books. According to a press release announcing the acquisition, “the manuscripts range in size from less than 2 inches to more than a foot long, and many contain ornate hand-painted illuminations. The so-called ‘magic’ scrolls are personalized prayer scrolls meant to be rolled into amulets and worn on a person’s neck. Each one is designed to help with a specific physical ailment, from headaches to fatigue.”
The Weiners gifted the manuscripts in hopes that students could use them for research. Assistant professor of Semitic languages and literatures Aaron Butts says he plans to incorporate the manuscripts into his classes immediately, including a course he will teach next spring on editing texts of the Christian Near East.
“The Gerald and Barbara Weiner Collection at CUA provides a wonderful resource for the study of Ethiopian Christianity, which is part of the broader Christian tradition. Thus, the housing and study of the collection falls within the purview of the mission of the Catholic University of America,” he said. “By studying these manuscripts, we can learn about the rich diversity of the Christian tradition.”
The collection includes probably the most significant body of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of Ethiopia. “These Islamic manuscripts provide unparalleled access to the study of Islam in the Horn of Africa.” said Butts “…Muhammad is said to have spent time in Ethiopia, so the country has a long connection with Islam. Ethiopia also provides another place in which Islam and Christianity have existed side by side for centuries, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not (from both sides). Given the current political climate worldwide, it is important to keep in mind that the interactions between Islam and Christianity are not new but have been going on for centuries. There is much we can learn from the past.”
The manuscripts will be housed within the University’s Institute of Christian Oriental Research (ICOR), a research auxiliary of the Semitics department. ICOR has a world-renowned library that includes 50,000 books and journals as well as antiquities, photographs, and archival materials documenting early Christianity in the Middle East.
The donation, says Butts reaffirms ICOR’s standing as “one of the leading places to study the languages, literatures, and histories of Christianity in the Near East, including Arabic, Coptic, Syriac, and now Ethiopic.”