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The Technological and Historical Aspects of Geéz Parchment Manuscripts

Located in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, a place where traditional culture, firmly fixed in the past, continues to be challenged by the customs of modernity. One of the remarkable treasures of this country is the rich manuscript culture, inseparably tied to the monastic institutions. Many monasteries in Eritrea store parchment manuscripts ( brana in the Tigrigna vernacular) which contain ancient and sometimes unknown religious texts.

The common writing surface of ancient Ge’ez, the “brana,” is a parchment made from animal skin and because of its organic nature is subject to degradation over long periods of time. It was a fairly common practice to transfer aging texts onto new brana in order to preserve the written word. It is impossible to date ancient manuscripts using common scientific methods. Yet, it is generally agreed upon that the Geéz writing has been stable for over 2000 years, achieving perfection by the fourth or fifth century and further culminating in to its height with the development of the production of parchments during the medieval period.

The libraries of many old monasteries in Eritrea contain a variety of parchment manuscripts. Gianfrancesco Lusini, for instance, has reported that the greatest manuscript collection in Eritrea is at Däbrä Bizän, holding 572 manuscripts. Jacek Tomaszewski and Michael Gervers stated that the ancient monastery of Däbrä Libanos in Eritrea is known to have had at least 84 manuscripts in 1994. The libraries of these monasteries not only hold the standard set of books needed to perform the liturgy and other services, but also important texts for the study of the history of Eritrea and the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the literature of the Christian and Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the history of the manuscript, book. Most of the manuscripts appear to have been copied in the course of centuries and attract the attention of cultural heritage experts, conservators, archivists and historians when viewed from technological and historical perspectives.

The examination and recording of manuscripts in Eritrea recently has until recently been tackled by the Research and Documentation Center permitting an inventory of the parchment manuscripts housed in several monasteries. A broader study of the technological and historical features of the Eritrean manuscripts, however, remains to be systematically addressed and, thus, it will be important to highlight certain aspects revolving around the technological and historical importance of these manuscripts. From a technological perspective, Geéz parchment manuscripts are interesting through the analysis of the writing and painting layers, the construction of the book blocks and the binding process. Geéz parchments have distinctive features that differentiate them from their European counterparts. Dissimilarities result mainly from different methods of manufacturing and indirectly from the type of mainly goat leather used to produce Geéz parchments. The making of Geéz parchments often involved a fairly basic process, without strong chemical processing and often resulted in a relatively raw, rigid, uneven and sometimes hairy product, with large areas of gelatinization on the surface.

It is believed that structure involved in the binding process of Geéz parchment manuscripts is very similar to that of early Coptic codices. Presumably, all decorative elements of the binding also stem from this early period in the development of the codex. It is also believed that patterns have travelled as the tradition of writing and bookbinding spread particularly across the Levant, Nile Valley and the northern Horn in the medieval Period and, accordingly, the technological aspects of Geéz manuscripts found in Eritrean monasteries should be seen in light of particular ornamentation and binding processes inherent to manuscripts found in the Nile Valley, Levant and elsewhere in the Horn. A comprehensive study of manuscripts from the early Coptic period is, however, required to trace the direction of influence involving these regions. Another intriguing aspect that involves the technological process of Geéz parchment production deals with the use of adhesives in the binding of book blocks. It is mentioned in some cases that a starch paste is commonly used for this purpose currently and starch glues, gums and gum resins have been suggested as adhesives originally used on the binding of manuscripts. Yet, survey tests through physico-chemical studies are required to identify the binder material and provide a full comprehension of these technological processes. The decorative conventions visible in several Geéz parchments and the tools prescribed in the bookbinding process are also interesting aspects of the technology of manuscript production that was established centuries ago in this part of the world. Decorative motifs, subtle differences in design, representation of holy figures in miniatures as well as the use of different pigments in the writing and paint layers of these old manuscripts further resonate around the technological aspects of the production of Geéz parchment production. An overview of traditional manuscript repair and their scope is indeed important to note to understand the maintenance of the integrity of the whole book and its binding. Therefore, when viewed from these the production of Geéz parchments becomes an interesting artistic and cultural ensemble that evolved over centuries in this part of the Horn. In the words of Jacek Tomaszewski and Michael Gervers “not only did the diligence and accuracy of a scribe’s handwriting serve as testimony to his artistry, but it also promoted the splendour of the decorative binding that he prepared for his book´´.

This rich cultural heritage, however, is particularly vulnerable to damage, loss and destruction, and requires a variety of approaches for its preservation. Physical examination of individual manuscripts and the direct assessment of the condition of an entire collection help to determine what lay behind their relative states of deterioration. Analysis of existing damage to the parchment and to the writing and painting layer, as well as to the construction of the book blocks and the bindings becomes crucial to understanding the deterioration of Geéz parchments. Visual assessment of the condition of inventoried manuscripts in Eritrea indicates that, as a consequence of the progressive gelatinization of the parchment, further deterioration appeared in the form of a glass-like layer on the surface of most of the folios, and inadequate storage as well as insufficient repair further make preservation of these manuscripts challenging.

The examination and recording of manuscripts by the Research and Documentation Center have provided the opportunity to develop a more general conservation strategy for manuscripts found in Eritrea. The compromising storage conditions and the state of preservation of the collection are common throughout the country. Many of these manuscripts are vulnerable to loss and destruction. Embarking from these needs, a digitization project has been launched by the Research and Documentation Center as an immediate preventive measure. Digitization is an extremely important and effective tool for the protection and preservation of this heritage. While digitization becomes a crucial tool, the nature of deterioration of the extant manuscripts also requires a broader cooperation among a wide range of stakeholders involved in the field. The study, preservation and conservation of these valuable literary works and manuscripts, therefore, should be sustained through training in modern conservation methods, involvement of cultural heritage experts and, wherever possible, by supporting surviving scribal practice and local management schemes of monastic complexes in Eritrea .

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission

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