Couple donates Ethiopian religious manuscripts to Catholic University

Friday, Feb. 17, 2017
By Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — A massive donation of Ethiopian religious manuscripts to The Catholic University of America in Washington makes the school one of the largest holders of such texts outside Ethiopia.
The value of the donation, by Gerald and Barbara Weiner of Chicago, is estimated to be more than $1 million. The collection includes more than 215 Islamic manuscripts, 125 Christian manuscripts and 350 so-called “magic” scrolls with prayers to protect the owner or reader from particular illnesses.
What makes the manuscripts valuable is that they’re handmade, according to Aaron Butts, an assistant professor of Semitic languages and literature at Catholic University. What makes them rare, he added, is that such texts are rarely seen outside Ethiopia, and that the East African nation’s rainy season often renders the books and scrolls unusable or illegible after repeated use. That so many texts – most of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, with a few even older – still survive, and in a usable condition, he told Catholic News Service, is “amazing.”
“Every one of them is a treasure,” Butts said.
The donation makes Catholic University the holder of the fifth largest collection of Ethiopian Christian manuscripts in the United States, and the largest collection of Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts outside of Ethiopia.
Butts said Gerald Weiner had hoped to collect holy books from Ethiopian Judaism, but “when he realized how few were available, he started collecting books from Ethiopian Christianity and Islam.”
Although modern bookbinding techniques exist in Ethiopia, the nation’s religious leaders still greatly prefer to use handmade books. Their makers use the skins of sheep, goats and cattle to make the books; even the “parchment” pages come from these animal hides.
Each book’s contents also must be written by hand with ink. Frequently, there are illustrations in the books – and definitely on the scrolls – making the production of even one book a prolonged and relatively costly venture.
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