Armed with a bamboo ink pen and a steady hand, Ethiopian Orthodox priest Zelalem Mola carefully copied text in the ancient Ge’ez language from a religious book onto a goatskin parchment.
This painstaking task is preserving an ancient tradition, all the while bringing him closer to God, the 42-year-old said.
At the Hamere Berhan Institute in Addis Ababa, priests and lay worshippers work by hand to replicate sometimes centuries-old religious manuscripts and sacred artwork.
The parchments, pens and inks are all prepared at the institute, which lies in the Piasa district in the historic heart of the Ethiopian capital.
Yeshiemebet Sisay, 29, who is in charge of communications at Hamere Berhan, said the work began four years ago.
“Ancient parchment manuscripts are disappearing from our culture, which motivated us to start this project,” she said.
The precious works are kept mainly in monasteries, where prayers or religious chants are conducted using only parchment rather than paper manuscripts.
“This custom is rapidly fading. … We thought if we could learn skills from our priests, we could work on it ourselves, so that is how we began,” Yeshiemebet said.
‘It’s hard work’
In the institute’s courtyard, workers stretch goatskins tightly over metal frames to dry under a weak sun.
“After the goatskin is immersed in the water for three to four days, we make holes on the edge of the skin and tie it to the metal, so that it can stretch,” Tinsaye Chere Ayele said.
“After that, we remove the extra layer of fat on the skin’s inside to make it clean.”
With two other colleagues, the 20-year-old carried out his task using a makeshift scraper, seemingly oblivious to the stench emanating from the animal hide.
Once clean and dry, the skins will be stripped of their goat hair and then cut to the desired size for use as pages of a book or for painting.
Yeshiemebet said most of the manuscripts are commissioned by individuals who then donate them to churches or monasteries.
Some customers order small collections of prayers or paintings for themselves to have “reproductions of ancient Ethiopian works”, she said.
“Small books can take one or two months. If it is a collective work, large books can take one to two years.
“If it’s an individual task, it can take even longer,” she said, leafing through books clad in red leather, their texts adorned with brightly coloured illuminations and religious images.
Sitting in one of the institute’s rooms with parchment pages placed on his knees, Zelalem patiently copied a book titled Zena Selassie (History of the Trinity).
“It is going to take a lot of time,” the priest said. “It’s hard work, starting with the preparation of the parchment and the inks. This one could take up to six months to complete.”
“We make a stylus from bamboo, sharpening the tip with a razor blade.”
The scribes use different pens for each colour used in the text – black or red – and either a fine or broad tip. The inks are made from local plants.
‘Talking to saints and God’
Like most other religious works, Zena Selassie is written in Ge’ez.
This dead language remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and its alpha syllabic system – in which the characters represent syllables – is still used to write Ethiopia’s national language Amharic as well as Tigrinya, which is spoken in Tigray and neighbouring Eritrea.
“We copy from paper to parchment to preserve [the writings] as the paper book can be easily damaged while this one will last a long time if we protect it from water and fire,” Zelalem said.
Replicating the manuscripts “needs patience and focus. It begins with a prayer in the morning, at lunchtime and ends with prayer.”
“It is difficult for an individual to write and finish a book, just to sit the whole day, but thanks to our devotion, a light shines brightly within us,” Zelalem added.
“It takes so much effort that it makes us worthy in the eyes of God.”
This spiritual dimension also guides Lidetu Tasew, who is in charge of education and training at the institute, where he teaches painting and illumination.
“Spending time here painting saints is like talking to saints and to God,” the 26-year-old said.
“We have been taught that wherever we paint saints, there is the spirit of God.”