Eritrean manuscript: A rich written patri¬mony, says Pro Bausi

Articles - Q & A

Professor Alessandro Bausi is a professor at the Asien-Afrika-Institut and Director of the Hiob Ludolf Centre at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He started his journey in Italy and then moved to Hamburg where he is currently working in different capacities. He and his team were here in Eritrea in the last week of August to give a workshop that focused on the importance of preserving and cataloging Geez manuscripts. The workshop was conducted in the premises of the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church and was attended by 25 experts from the Adi- Keih College of Business and Social Science, the newly established Debre Sina Theology College, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewhdo Church as well as from the Research and Development Centre. Ancient manuscripts are found abundantly in Eritrean monasteries. The well-kept heritages have been attracting great attention from inside and outside of the country. We spoke to Prof. Bausi during the workshop’s concluding ceremony. Here follows our talk.

  • You have known Eritrea for a while now. When was the first time you came?

I first came to Eritrea, for several years, in 1992 and stayed until 1997. I was here with a mission carried by the University of Bologna to study manuscripts in several monasteries of Eritrea which, in fact, is a rich patrimony for Eritrea.

In this part of Africa, especially the region in which Geez was used, there are manuscripts that date back in time and have religious and historical information documented in them. The documents vary in kind -- some are political texts, some are on economics, science, law and the list goes on. Therefore, the content of the manuscripts are not strictly religious but documents that reflect centuries of social dynamism which civilizations of this area represented.
This heritage is still uncharted. Yes, during the last few years notable efforts have been made to identify and catalogue the manuscripts but there is much more that needs to be done as it is, like I said, a very rich patrimony for Eritrea.

  • How important is it for Eritrea to safeguard such patrimony?

It is extremely important. It should be one of the nation’s fundamental priorities because we learn about the ancient medieval history in those times exclusively on the basis of the manuscripts as evidence. The historical phases that are described in manuscripts speak about the will of elites. We have also peculiar intellectual features through which we can monitor the creation of literary works in the course of time. These and more topics documented in the manuscripts are definitely expressions of the national identity. So I would say that the task of safeguarding manuscripts has belonged to the Eritrean tradition and it is a task that needs to be furthermore executed with diligence.

  • Safeguarding the national patrimony in the Eritrean territory would be good to countries of the Horn of Africa and maybe even the continent at large. What is your opinion?

I believe that there are strong connections between several features of the African narration, especially in these parts. There is some overlapping in terms of literary contents between Christian and the Islamic traditions but still I would be persistent on the idea that Africa is a continent whose history is mostly based on oral narrations that are sadly being abandoned and so such documentation, found in big numbers in this region, is extremely useful. Ancient languages such as Geez can serve as the earliest testimony of African accounts.

  • There is this wrong assumption about Geez. Many think that Geez is exclusively a liturgical language. According to your studies, is it so?

Geez is not linked exclusively to the advent of Christianity in these parts. It predates Christianity; therefore, it is not registered as a liturgical language. It is a mark of Christianity in religious institutions. Besides, from the language people were speaking in the course of time, we have early evidence of Tigrigna and Amharic too dating back to those times. The language is described as ‘Habasi’, a forerunner of ‘Habesha’. So we definitely cannot underestimate Geez and the power it has to depict accounts of the past. Likewise, manuscripts written in this language are powerful written documents that can definitely fortify the oral accounts of African cultures.

  • Can you say a few words about the workshop? How was it?

I personally enjoyed the workshop because it was a bonus for me as I had a chance to revisit a city that I love very much, Asmara. I am back now after 27 years. I also had the occasion of meeting people I had met back then. Abune Lucas was the one that accompanied me during the visit to Debre Libanos, so I was moved to see him again.

In Hamburg, we feel the need of sharing and working on key words like ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘capacity building’. According to my colleagues, and this is also a strong opinion of mine, the workshop in Asmara has been extremely extensive and the most attended summer workshop we had so far. We are happy and we were really satisfied by the outcome. Moreover, we are so humbled to be amongst people who are representatives of a rich tradition.

  • What does the future look like for you and your team?

We would certainly be grateful if the opportunity of keeping this project on is granted for the long run by future conditions. We would like to conduct research on the ground alongside Eritrean colleagues, and we hope for the international community to discover this patrimony and for knowledge on this matter to be shared and transferred vastly.

  • Thank you!