Armed with a bamboo ink pen and a steady hand, Ethiopian Orthodox priest Zelalem Mola carefully copies text in the ancient scriptural language Geez from a religious book onto a goatskin parchment.
This painstaking task is preserving an ancient tradition, while bringing him closer to God, 42-year-old Mola said.
At the Hamere Berhan Institute in Addis Ababa, priests and lay worshipers work by hand to replicate sometimes centuries-old religious manuscripts and sacred artwork.
The parchments, pens and ink are prepared at the institute, in the Piasa district in the historic heart of the Ethiopian capital.
Hamere Berhan head of communications Yeshiemebet Sisay, 29, said the work began four years ago.
“Ancient parchment manuscripts are disappearing from our culture, which motivated us to start this project,” she says.
The precious works are mainly kept in monasteries, where prayers or religious chants are conducted using only parchment rather than paper manuscripts.
“However, 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.
In the institute’s courtyard, workers stretch the 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.”
Once clean and dry, the skins are stripped of the goat hair and cut to the desired size for use as pages of a book or for painting.
Yeshiemebet said that most of the manuscripts are commissioned by individuals who donate them to churches or monasteries.
Some customers order small collections of prayers or paintings 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.
Sitting in one of the institute’s rooms, with parchment pages placed on his knees, Zelalem patiently copies a book, entitled Zena Selassie — “History of the Trinity.”
“It is going to take a lot of time. It’s hard work, starting with the preparation of the parchment and the inks. This one could take up to six months to complete,” Zelalem said. “We make a stylus from bamboo, sharpening the tip with a razor blade.”
The scribes use different pens for each color used in the text — black or red — and either a fine or broad tip, with the inks made from local plants.
Like most other religious works, Zena Selassie is written in Geez.
This dead language remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its alpha syllabic system — where the characters represent syllables — is still used to write Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic, as well as Tigrinya, which is spoken in Tigray and neighboring 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,” Zelalem said.
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