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Preserving manuscripts; a role Eritrea has to assume for the greater conservation of the world’s historical heritage

For a week a workshop that shed light on the importance of preserving and cataloging Geez manuscripts, which are found in abundance in many monasteries around the country, was conducted in the premises of the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church.

Geez, an ancient spoken and written language that is said to have given birth to the local languages of Tigre and Tigrigna, is a rich heritage that makes the parts in which Eritrea is situated a land of singular history and identity dating back to centuries before the advent of Christianity in the Horn of Africa. Nowadays, Geez is used as a liturgical language mainly in the Orthodox Church. But its alphabets are still used in Tigrigna and Tigre.

Invaders such as Hamed Gray who put on fire so many local monasteries and their enormous libraries, followed by western colonizers who disbanded the manuscripts to the delight of collectors, have certainly made the preservation of manuscripts a formidable task for the faithful monks living in monasteries.

The guarding of manuscripts was for the most part a task left for monasteries until Eritrea’s Independence in 1991 and the official establishment of the Eritrean Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in 1996. RDC is an independent office that works to ensure the preservation, cataloging and digitalizing of Eritrea’s historical gems in collaboration with local and international parties to safeguard records from the past while serving as a colossal archive of reference to students, researchers, historians and other interested people who want to travel back in time for a myriad of reasons.

As part of its endeavors, RDC has worked closely with local monasteries in a bid to preserve manuscripts. For almost twenty years, now, the institution has made the preservation of manuscripts a top priority, not only to deepen its collection, but to safeguard and fortify the Eritrean identity, which many are convinced has existed within a lengthy ancient legacy, and to reinforce the historical and cultural inheritances of the Horn of Africa in its peculiarity.

Ms. Azieb Tewolde, director of RDC, says that the task is difficult and takes a long time. For the spiritual men living in the hideouts of monasteries, manuscripts are precious inheritances that they pass down with customs particular to the conventions of the monasteries. Moreover, with ravening crooks hovering over their libraries to either destroy or strip their possessions, the monks guard their primeval manuscripts literally with their lives. They don’t trust, and rightfully so, anyone with the manuscripts. Even after Independence, they still put their guards up mightily high.

Nevertheless, some monasteries showed a slight trust in Eritreans who go from the cities to visit. Ms. Azieb Tewolde told me a beautiful story of how their office earned the trust of many monasteries. Every time the office or independent historians, who work under the supervision of the office, want to borrow an actual manuscript or a piece of document, the office took the responsibility of returning them only after binding them, fixing bent pages, coating them and wrapping them with brand-new leather. That was not all. The last touch and the office’s token of appreciation to the monasteries’ unremitting effort of safeguarding age-old manuscripts was a custom-made wooden compartment box for each and every borrowed text! For the first time, local monasteries could finally trust an office with their precious valuables. They, eventually, agreed to work with RDC to make manuscripts and other heirlooms national treasures that are open to the public.

With that, RDC started its preliminary inventory in 2000. After a search that took seven years the office ended its first pilot project in 2007, concluding that the number of manuscripts in several religious convents is massive and diverse in content and form. The biggest manuscript, so far registered, weighs over 45 kilograms.

Afterwards, RDC started partnering up with local entities as well as international universities and research groups to shed light on the treasures while looking for ways to preserve them, catalogue them and digitalize them. Also, RDC aims to introduce the national treasures to the international community and make Eritrea’s national heritages a valuable contribution to the world at large. After all, the history of humankind is interlinked.

Now, the matter has become a concern of many: students, historians, journalists and researchers. In fact, the five-day workshop held in Asmara from the 26th to the 31st of August 2019 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 RDC. The training was provided through a joint venture coordinated alongside the Research Center of Hamburg University of Germany.

Professor Alessandro Bausi, Director of the Research center at Hamburg University and Head of the group of experts who provided the workshop, said that it is vital that research centers come together and rely on each other’s findings for deeper attainments. He went on to explain the importance of Geez and manuscripts written in the language. Similarly, Ms. Azieb reiterated that the thousands of manuscripts all over the Nation are of great contribution not only to Eritrea but also to countries of the Horn as well as the continent at large. She explained that her office is eager to expand its connections and work diligently towards preserving the manuscripts and digitalizing them.

Besides inventorying, cataloguing and preserving, the exchange of local experts and international experts is one of RDC’s immediate plans, according to RDC’s director. The office will also work with the Board of Higher Education and international universities to secure scholarship awards and other training programs for students.

The workshop was mostly animated by the young college students’ enthusiasm to learn and discover more about the national heritage that had been built in the long process of human evolution. Sharing knowledge and knowhow of preservation is a task Eritrea should endorse wholeheartedly as a contribution for the greater preservation of historical accounts of mankind.

The historical expressions are one of the most beautiful things Eritrea and its people can offer the citizens of the world!

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