Boards: Types of Wood

There are a total of thirteen types of wood used in the binding of manuscripts cited across the available literature. Table 1. Table 1. Wood Types
Amharic (romanized with Amharic characters in parentheses), scientific, and common names of types of wood used in Ethiopian bookbinding as cited in available literature
Unless otherwise noted, the American Library Association-Library of Congress (ALA-LC) Amharic romanization table has been used to transliterate all native terminology. “Amharic.” ALA-LC Romanization Tables; accessed on 12 February 2018.
Amharic Scientific Common
Bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ) Eucalyptus globulus Tasmanian Blue Gum
Bisānā (ቡሳና) Croton macrostachyus Broad-leaf Croton
Gatam (ገተም) Heptapleurum abyssinicum
Grār (ግራር) Acacia spp. Acacia
Hayā (አሀያ) Salix subserrata Willow
Koso (ኮሶ) Hagenia abyssinica East African Rosewood
Lol (ሎል) Ekebergia capensis Cape Ash, Dogplum
Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል) Euphorbia spp.,
possibly Euphorbia candelabrum
Ṭed (ጥድ) Juniperus procera African Pencil Cedar
Wānzā (ዋንዛ) Cordia africana
Warka (ዋርካ) Ficus vasta Fig
Wayrā (ወይራ) Olea africana Wild Olive
Zegba (ዝግባ) Podocarpus gracilior East African Yellowwood

Fig. 1. Wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana, “Wild Olive”)

Fig. 1. Wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana,
Fig. 2. Wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana)

Photo: Sue Christian Bell
Fig. 2. Wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana)
Fig. 3. Koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica, East African Rosewood)

Photo: Brandt Maxwell
Fig. 3. Koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica, East African Rosewood)

The oldest reference to a specific type of wood comes from 1859: Antoine d’Abbadie notes in the preface to the catalog of his Ethiopian manuscripts that many of them are bound between thick boards of wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana) and, to a lesser extent, wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana, “wild olive”). d’Abbadie, Catalogue, xii. It would be relatively easy to differentiate between these two woods as wayrā is a much harder and heavier wood. Kane also lists Olea africana under the definition for 'eṡa zayt (ዕፀ፡ዘይት), “wild olive tree.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1672. Figs. 1 & 2. Over a century later, in an account of his time in Ethiopia, Sydney Cockerell reiterates the use of both of these woods. Cockerell, “Ethiopian,” 6. He does this somewhat in error, writing that “[w]ooden boards are used which generally seem to be made from a wood called wanza, which I understand is olive.” Sergew Hable Selassie, shortly after, adds cedar, known locally as ṭed (ጥድ, Juniperus procera, “African pencil cedar”). Sergew, Bookmaking, 24. He also lists wäyra and wanza. This is the work to which J.A. Szirmai refers when listing woods in Archaeology, 48. Fekade Selassie Tefera lists gatam (ገተም, Heptapleurum abyssinicum), koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica,) [Fig. 3], warka (ዋርካ, Ficus vasta, “fig”), grār (ግራር, Acacia spp.), and bisānā (ቢሳና, Croton macrostachyus)—in addition to wanza, but notably excluding wayrā, a wood that is often indicated as “preferred” in texts. He does cite the use of cedar, but not in an entirely favorable light, describing it as becoming “delicate and brittle when shaped.” Fekade, Ancient, 203. Kane also lists Brayera anthelmintica Kunth. alongside Hagenia abyssinica in the definition for koso. Kane, Amharic–English II, 1403. John Mellors and Anne Parsons round out the list of known woods, adding bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ, Eucalyptus globulus), hayā (አሀያ, Salix subserrata, “willow”), lol (ሎል, Ekebergia capensis), zegba (ዝግባ, Podocarpus gracilior), and “cactus”—mislabeling qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia spp., possibly Euphorbia candelabrum) [Fig. 4]. Mellors and Parsons, “Manuscript,” 194. They also list wayrā, grār, and ṭed. Richard Pankhurst states that the Ethiopians refer to their Eucalyptus trees as bāḥr zāf, or “tree from across the sea,” in Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 127. Bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ) is identified as Eucalyptus globulus in Kane, Amharic–English II, 1682. It should also be noted that Eucalyptus is not indigenous to Ethiopia. The fast-growing tree was introduced to the region around the turn of the 20th century, during the reign of Menilek II, in order to combat rampant deforestation. Pankhurst, "Deforestation," 127. Salix subserrata appears under the definition for 'ahayā (አሀያ) in Kane, Amharic–English II, 1093. Lol (ሎል) Ekebergia capensis. Kane, Amharic–English I, 41. Kane lists the alternate spelling of zagbā (ዘግባ) alongside a definition of “Podocarpus gracilior, a large tree resembling the cedar.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1678. See Winslow, Ethiopian, 209 (f.n. 25) for clarification on the mislabeling of Euphorbia via John Mellors.

Although wayrā, the African wild olive tree, is often cited as a “preferred” or, at least, common wood for bookbinding, it would seem that this is only accurate in a historical sense. Sergew,. Bookmaking, 24; Mellors and Parsons, Ethiopian, 16 Richard Pankhurst, in his essay on deforestation in Ethiopia, describes massive losses of olive trees in the Addis Ababa region by the middle of the 19th century. Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 125. Sean Winslow echoes this, explaining that “olive wood has become scarcer, and … wanza … has become favoured for use, as it is light and strong.” Winslow, Ethiopian, 207.

The word “preferred” is used throughout the literature when describing suitable woods for making boards. The most common qualities referenced in regard to these woods are: decay-, pest-, and crack-resistance. Woods which hold up well against decay and do not attract pests may be specifically sought out because of a history of burying precious manuscripts underground or hiding them in caves during times of unrest. Sergew, Bookmaking, 24; Winslow is skeptical of this, writing, "there are enough practical reasons to choose resistant woods on their own merits" and that the tradition of burying manuscripts might be a "post-facto justification." Winslow, Correspondance, 23 February 2018. Kane’s definition for wānzā (ዋንዛ) states that “the wood of which being worm-resistant is used in making planks and doors.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1544. Ethiopia’s climate, which can experience significant fluctuations in humidity throughout the year and high levels of precipitation during the rainy season, would undoubtedly be an important factor guiding the selection of wood, especially given that the storage conditions in most churches are far from the climate-controlled facilities found in many modern repositories. According to Sergew, “although wood curve is known in Ethiopia, it does not seem to have concerned the men who made the boards.” Sergew, Bookmaking, 24. By "curve" he likely means "warping." Jan Tomaszewski and Michael Gervers cite “cracking and warping being characteristic features of the wood used for the purpose in the region.” Tomaszewski and Gervers, “Technological Aspects,” 101. Another consideration is the weight of the wood. Fekade notes that, historically, some scribes without access to suitable woods would use other types indiscriminately, resulting in books with covers which are disproportionately heavy compared to the text block, sometimes weighing as much or more than the combined quires. This practice, he adds, could lead to distressed parchment, vulnerable to tears and flaking of the inscription it carries. In these cases, covering the boards with leather only adds additional weight, further contributing to their damaging effects. Fekade, Ancient, 203

When discussing the woods used in these bindings, it is important to consider the impact of Ethiopia’s long history of deforestation dating back to the middle ages. Centuries of wastefully cutting and burning of woodland—for firewood and charcoal; clearing of pasture lands; and flushing out of rebels, wild animals, and pests—with little regard toward replacement of what was removed, left enormous areas entirely treeless. Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 122–123 Contemporary perspective, of a sort, can be found in an 1844 account in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine which describes English engineers demonstrating their woodworking techniques to Ethiopians “who waste a tree on every plank.” Blackwood’s, “Ethiopia,” 288 As a consequence of these practices, bookbinders were forced to become more resourceful when finding materials for protecting their manuscripts. Sydney Cockerell is the first to mention the product of this necessary expanded resourcefulness, describing book covers made of recycled wood from packing crates “still labelled Shell Petrol and … Cognac.” Cockerell, “Ethiopian,” 6–7 Mellors and Parsons write that all woods once commonly used for bookbinding “are now very difficult to obtain so many books have to be bound in boards purchased from carpenters.” They mention the use of plywood, noting that its thinness requires the elimination of the holes traditionally pierced through the edge of the board, which is certainly detrimental to the longevity of the thread due to increased abrasion as it rubs against the sharp edges of the boards. Mellors and Parsons, "Manuscript," 195 Dovetailing with this, Steve Delamarter and Sarah Vulgan note the twentieth-century arrival of “sawed boards and planed boards and even plywood and particle board.” Delamarter and Vulgan, "Introduction," 20

Fig. 4. Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia candelabrum, Cactus)

Photo: Stock
Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia candelabrum,

It is unclear how much of the identification of these woods is based on tradition, however outdated, and anecdotal accounts provided by scribes. I am not sure if there is a non-invasive method of positively identifying the woods used on any particular manuscript. Obtaining samples of each of the species native to Ethiopia would be an important first step in developing a method for identifying those used on manuscripts. If anybody knows how acquiring these samples may be possible, please feel free to reach out.

Next: Boards: Shaping
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