Parchment book-making and folk belief

Ethiopian writing is believed to have started with inscription on stone before the birth of Christ until parchments replaced it in the days of the Axumite dynasty. Therefore, the last 15 hundred years of Ethiopian history, letters and books were recorded on parchments until the use of papers and modern printing were introduced into the country in the 19th century.

At a recent discussion organized by Music May Day, Tamirat Hailu presented a paper based on his Masters Thesis on how parchments making started in Ethiopia and the folk beliefs associated with it. It is not known exactly when parchment use began in Ethiopia but it is known that it came from the Middle East countries with which the Ethiopia had commercial and cultural ties, Tamirat said. Parchment making is believed to have flourished with the coming to Ethiopia of the nine Egyptian abbots whose major work after settling here was translating the Bible into Ge’ez.

parchment book
parchment book

The abundant population of goats in the country is said to have provided ample source of hides and skins for making parchments. However, Henock Yared, a reporter for the Reporter newspaper and moderator of the discussion, said that the use of parchment had begun when Christianity came to Ethiopia around the fourth century, long before the arrival of the nine abbots from Egypt. For example, a translation of the bible into Ge’ez was made in the days Frumentius came to Axum around the fourth century. Existing parchment writings contain politics, history, calendars, tables and paintings besides religious literature. And both Amharic and Ge’ez versions of the Koran have been written on parchments.

The process Parchment is made throughout the year except during the rainy season in June, July and August, because the skin does not dry up quickly enough without sufficient heat. Some say the making of parchment begins when the animal is slaughtered while others maintain that it begins after the skin is doused in water. Those who argue that it begins when the animal is slaughtered reason that an animal whose skin is thought fit for making parchment is treated with care before it is slaughtered. It must be washed alive and slaughtered at a clean site.

The inside of skin is rubbed with a small rough stone to remove bits of flesh from it. Then it is stretched and pegged to the ground to dry up in the sun. After that the fur is shaven by a razor sharp blade. Folk belief Parchment makers in south Gondar supply their products for exclusive use by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Tamirat had asked them if there was anything wrong with using parchment for writing other works besides religious book. The parchment makers said that there was nothing wrong with that, no law against writing the works of other religions besides that of Christianity. But when a Muslem once asked one of them to sell a parchment for him he would not. He told Tamirat that he refused because the Muslim would have the Koran written on it. They have a deep-rooted belief that it is sacrilegious to use the skin of horses and donkeys to make parchments because these are unclean animals according to the Old Testament and, therefore, their skin unfit to bear the words of the holy books. “Goats in the New Testament represent sinners. How come you have no qualms about using their skin for printing the holy writ?” Tamirat challenged. Goats were likened to sinners only while they live. After they are slaughtered, their flesh is eaten and their skin is used for making carpets and parchments.

The color of ink chosen for writing on parchments in religious texts has its own significance. The names of deity, saints and martyrs are spelled in red while all other words are written in black. And the name of the devil is sometimes written with upside down letters. The parchment makers in south Gondar have preserved their craft for many centuries and will pass it on to the coming generations. Although is has been confined to religious use so far, Tamirat concludes that if the art of making parchments is practiced by the youth on a larger scale, it can be a source of income.

Source Reporter newspaper Dec 30th,2018(By Yelibenwork Ayele )