Commentary – Multiple Layers of Manuscript Dispersal
Following the Battle of Magdala, fought by British troops with the Abyssinian forces of Tewodros II in 1868, the royal palace of Magdala was looted and its treasures dispersed (Pankhurst 1972, 15–42). While there are many sources about the event in European languages, no contemporary Ethiopian record of the looting is known. Though it was written much later, in 1943–44, Täklä-ṣadəq Mäkwərya’s brief account in his »History of Ethiopia« (Yä-Ityoṗya tarik) provides a rare Ethiopian perspective of the event.
In the passage commented here, Täklä-ṣadəq focuses on the forced removal of specific Ethiopian objects through British troops and thereby implies the value these objects had for Ethiopians. For example, while other sources listing the looted items generally relate that many manuscripts and/or books were looted, Täklä-ṣadəq mentions some of these manuscripts with their title: He explicitly talks about liturgical books, such as a »Synaxarion« and »Faith of the Fathers«. The two manuscripts are typically bulky items. This implies that a scribe needed a lot of time to copy them and that they required many parchments, which in turn meant that they were costly to be produced. Such manuscripts were commissioned by people who were either well-to-do or were members of higher social strata. In addition, they are important in the Ethiopian Täwahədo Church as they are service books used in everyday rituals.
Beyond this Ethiopian perspective on the value of objects that were subjected to a forcible translocation through the British troops, however, Täklä-ṣadəq’s History also presents multiple other layers of translocations: both regional and involving broader geographical and political contexts. These multiple types of translocations can in fact be considered as characteristic for the objects once held in Tewodros’ treasury.
One object Täklä-ṣadəq mentions is a chalice with a clear local Ethiopian provenance, i.e. the church of Qwəsqwam Maryam in Gondar. It is known that Emperor Tewodros was involved in the sacking of the city of Gondar in 1856 (Stuart Munro-Hay 2002, 113). This chalice, together with valuable manuscripts and other precious items was probably taken by force and brought to the treasury as a result of the plunder, as Munro-Hay states »But he sacked Gondar. The churches were systematically plundered. It was largely [this] plundered treasures and books that the British later seized as loot at Maqdala in 1868 after Tewodros‘ decline and suicide…«. Another object, which Tewodros had »collected« and which was subjected to a regional translocation is the abovementioned »Synaxarion«.
It is recorded that the British expeditionary force gave many manuscripts to the church of Səlassie Čäläqot a few kilometers west of Ḥayqi Ḥəlät where the manuscripts might have been distributed (Seckendorff 1869, 177). Though Rita Pankhurst travelled to the church of Səlassie Čäläqot in 1972, she could only find a few manuscripts from the Magdala library. Nevertheless, having interviewed local informants, she recorded a list of other possible churches and monasteries where manuscripts from the Magdala collection might have been brought among which Mika’el ’Arra is included. (Pankhurst 1973, 23). Since Mika’el ’Arra is located some kilometers to the east of Ḥayqi Ḥəlät, I visited the Monastery of Mika’el ’Arra in October 2018 and was able to locate a Synaxarion with ownership marks pointing to Magdala. This Synaxarion is complete. Another, incomplete Synaxarion from the Magdala collection is recorded as Codex Orient. 667 in the British library manuscript catalogue (Wright 1877, 152).
Other types of translocations which Täklä-ṣadəq records for the treasures of Magdala include gifts as tokens of political relations: for instance, Emperor Yohannes IV (1872–1889) was presented with armour by the English. In another example, a gold crown was a gift to Tewodros from an Alexandrian patriarch. Although Christianity had been adopted as a state religion in the 4th Century AD, Ethiopia did not have its own see until 1959, when it secured the ordination of an Ethiopian patriarch and bishops, and was therefore dependent on the investiture of the Alexandrian see.
This crown, Täklä-ṣadəq recounts, was looted by the British troops but returned to Ethiopia in 1925. This was the second repatriation success for the Ethiopians after the return of a manuscript (a Kəbrä Nägaśt, »Glory of Kings«) from England during the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872–1889). In what could be considered a double misfortune, this very crown was looted again by the Italians. Richard Pankhurst gives the following summary of the events:
Another article looted was the crown of the Emperor Tewodros II. This crown, which had been captured by the British at Magdala in 1868, and long preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was returned to the Ethiopian Government on July 11, 1925, the year after the visit to Europe of Ras Tafari Makonnen, the future Emperor Haile Selassie. Photographs of this unique crown, the whereabouts of which is today entirely unknown, were widely published in the British press, perhaps the best reproductions appearing in the Sphere and Illustrated London News of July 26, 1924, during the Regent’s visit to England.« (Pankhurst 1969, 96)
Long after Pankhurst’s account of 1969, in a blog on an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, its director Tristram Hunt matched a crown in the collection to a description of the long-lost crown. The exhibition entitled Magdala 1868 ran from 5 April 2018 to July 2019, in the Silver Galleries, Room 66 (Hunt 2018). How the crown made its way back to the Victoria & Albert Museum is yet to be researched.
Gidena Mesfin Kebede is a PostDoc fellow in the translocations research cluster at Technische Universität Berlin.
Sources and literature
Tristram Hunt, Magdala 1868, in: V&A Blog, 04.04.2018, online. Last accessed on 16 September 2019.
Stuart Munro-Hay, Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide, New York, 2002.
Richard Pankhurst, »Ethiopia and The Loot of the Italian Invasion: 1935-1936«, in: Présence Africaine Editions, 72, 1969, 86–95.
Rita Pankhurst, »The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla (Magdala)«, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 36.1, 1973, 15–42.
Götz von Seckendorff, Meine Erlebnisse mit dem englischen Expeditionscorps in Abessinien, 1867-1868, Potsdam, 1869.
William Wright, Catalogue of the Ethiopic Manuscripts in the British Museum Acquired Since the Year 1847, London, 1877.
Cite this article as:
Täklä-ṣadəq: Ethiopian History (1943), commented by Gidena Mesfin Kebede, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike
, published 18.09.2019.
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