Bookbinding in Ethiopia is arguably one of the oldest continuously-practiced material traditions in the world. Despite its steady decline during the last century, little has changed in the production of an Ethiopian bound manuscript since at least the 14th century—if not for more than 1400 years, if the recent radiocarbon dating of one of the Abba Garima gospels to the 5th century is accurate. Sergew, Bookmaking in Ethiopia, 23. Bausi, “The ‘True Story’ of the Abba Gärima Gospels,” 19. This can likely be attributed to both the delayed introduction of printing technology to the area, arriving near the start of the 20th century, and a reverence held for manuscripts by many Ethiopian Christians. Pankhurst, “The Foundations of Education,” 260, 262 The preparation of parchment and ink, as well as scribal and bookbinding methods, have remained remarkably similar to those used in the earliest known Ethiopian codices created during the growth of Christianity in Ethiopia in the 4th century.
Fig. 1. Alwan Codex 5 (EMIP 00110), a 19th-century Psalter, a typical Ethiopian codex with an added parchment spine cover.

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 1. Alwan Codex 5 (EMIP 00110)

The format of the typical traditional Ethiopian codex varies very seldomly from the following: a parchment text block sewn with animal- or plant-based thread using paired sewing stations in which the thick wooden boards, cut flush with the text block on all four sides, are attached directly to the text block by means of the primary sewing. Fig. 1. If the boards are not left bare, as they often are, the codex will be covered with heavy goat leather dyed red or brown. The decision to cover the book with leather brings with it a number of other features including leather endbands, textile board linings, and blind tooling of traditional motifs on at least the front and back covers, but perhaps also on the spine, inner surfaces and edges of the boards. The volume may also be supplemented with a parchment spine cover, a cloth chemise, and/or satchel to aid in transportation, protection, and storage. Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. Alwan Codex 18 (EMIP 00132), a 19th-century Psalter, with its cloth chemise (lebas) and satchel (mahdar).

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 2. Alwan Codex 18 (EMIP 00132)

The isolation of Ethiopia by the rise of Islam in the 7th century resulted in very limited contact with the outside world, bringing about a cultural stasis that is most certainly responsible for the consistency in the practice of book production over the centuries since. Sergew, Ancient and Medieval History of Ethiopia, 191. This consistency coupled with a tradition of anonymity by artists within the church make it exceedingly difficult to date or localize these bindings. In the absence of specific dates within the text, or mentions of the sitting Emperor, paleographic analysis can provide only a range of dates of around plus or minus 50 years. Davies, "The Dating of Ethiopic Manuscripts," 292–293.

The majority of the known manuscripts and other works of art originating in Ethiopia date from the 17th century onwards. Appleyard, Ethiopian Manuscripts, 7. This can be attributed to the vast amounts of art and writing that was destroyed, as tradition holds, during the Ethiopian–Adal war of the 16th century, but also due to the cultural renaissance that occurred in the early 17th century with the moving of the capital to Gondar, resulting in increased production of manuscripts. Ibid, 7–8. Other factors which have contributed to the loss of older manuscripts include a tradition of burying manuscripts with their owners, hiding them in remote places during conflict, and generally poor storage conditions in a climate hardly conducive to the preservation of materials such as parchment and wood. Haile, "The Scriptorium at the Imperial Palace," 218. Sergew, Bookmaking in Ethiopia, 24. Additionally, the British capture, and subsequent looting, of Maqdala in the 1860s and the Ethiopian–Italian war of the early twentieth century, which resulted in the loss of an estimated 2,000 churches, both lead to the removal of precious manuscripts either through theft or destruction. Barker, Rape of Ethiopia 1936, 159. Despite these massive losses in cultural heritage, estimates range from 100,000 to one million manuscripts extant, preserved in the approximately 13,000 churches and 800 monasteries across Ethiopia and Eritrea; many of them difficult to access due to rugged terrain or refusal of clergy and monks to reveal their collections to outsiders. Pankhurst. "History of Ethiopian Art and Manuscripts;" Sergew. Bookmaking, 35; Haile, "The Scriptorium at the Imperial Palace," 218; Bausi. “Ethiopian Manuscripts,” 56–57; Delamarter and Vulgan, Introduction, 14.

Given this significant longevity and profusion of manuscripts, very few texts give an extensive treatment of the subject. Although some of what has been published is quite revealing, much of the available scholarly literature does not present a comprehensive picture. Some sources provide detailed information on a small segment of the overall topic, but more common is a general overview, which only touches upon key features of these bindings. Unfortunately, the scarcity of many of these texts makes them exceedingly difficult to access outside of (and even within) major research libraries, rendering them of little benefit to scholarship. Moreover, the popularity of Ethiopian-style exposed link stitch sewing within the bookbinding community and beyond has led to an abundance of instructional tutorials with historical descriptions of varying quality, if any. The result is a dilution of the term “Ethiopian bookbinding,” which is often indiscriminately, and misguidedly, equated with historical Coptic bindings from Egypt based on an early historical connection and a few structural similarities.
Fig. 3. Interior of the Abyssinian Library in the Monastery of Souriani on the Natron Lakes.

Robert Curzon, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, 1849.
Fig. 3. Interior of the Abyssinian Library in the Monastery of Souriani on the Natron Lakes

This website aims to elevate Ethiopian bookbinding as a significant tradition in its own right by providing detailed descriptions of the historical methods, tools, and materials used in the creation and binding of these manuscripts, and their subsequent use, storage, and repair. Particular attention will be focused on characterizing individual techniques and structural elements in an effort to contextualize them within the greater scope of bookbinding history and to aid in differentiating their subtleties from other similar historical methods. The technical descriptions will be enriched by relevant information from the history of religion, literature, art, and education in Ethiopia.

An on-going survey of the available literature will allow for the consolidation of historical and technical information only previously available in dispersed periodicals, catalogs, and broad-theme bookbinding histories. Through this survey, a number of gaps have been identified which have and will continue to provide the basis for research conducted on primary sources in private and institutional manuscript collections, as well as online resources such as the image database for the Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project.

In an effort to stimulate scholarship, I am providing this information in a freely accessible format. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. See full notice at bottom of entry. It is my hope that by doing so, this information might serve as a foundation for future research and provide insight for managers of private and institutional collections, allowing them to better understand and catalog these manuscripts and increase awareness and access to them worldwide.

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