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Ethiopic Manuscripts Collection

Identifier: Coll-2068

Scope and Contents

This is a small yet significant collection of manuscripts in the Ethiopic (Ge’ez) script, comprising 12 items. These include devotional texts: Psalters, the New Testament, the Gospels, collections of prayers and stories of the Christian saints, all of which are parchment codices. It also includes three small protective scrolls, containing sections of devotional writings and illuminations.

Many of these manuscripts are illuminated, the codices largely preserve their wooden board bindings and are stitched across an open spine; a couple have leather carrying satchels. Prominent among the collection is a copy of Gadala Georgios, The Acts of St George according to Theodotus of Ancyra, in two volumes (E.Or Ms 461 and 462) that includes 16 full page illuminations. Overall, this collection is little understood and specialist research is much welcomed.

In terms of provenance, the collection includes at least four items that are highly likely to have been taken by British soldiers during the 1868 sacking of Magdala (Mäqdäla), seat of the Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868). See “Custodial History” and “Immediate Source of Acquisition” in the additional information below for further discussion.


  • Creation: 18th-19th century

Language of Materials

Ge’ez, Amharic

Conditions Governing Access

Open. Please contact the repository in advance.


12 items

Other Finding Aids

Handlist H8.2.

Clavis Aethiopica (Hamburg-based project Beta maṣāḥǝft) [external link. Accessed 30 May 2023].

Custodial History

Three of the items amongst this collection are accompanied by testaments from the donors stating that they were acquired at the Battle of Magdala (Ethiopia) in 1868 (E.Or Mss 461, 462,and 655). A further item, E.Or Ms 651, states within the Ethiopic text that it was formerly the property of the Church of the Saviour of the World (Madḫāne ʿĀlam) at Magdala, and before that the church of Baʾatā of Gʷandar (Gondar).

Additionally, two other items (E.Or Ms 656 and E.Or Ms 673) were given to the University Library in 1869, the donation being connected to a member of the British Expedition to Abyssinia. Records of the Society of Antiquaries, through whom said donation was made, indicate that the individual in question acquired manuscripts at a number of locations whilst travelling overland to Magdala, some of which lie within the borders of modern Eritrea.

Magdala was the seat of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-68), remembered largely as a modernizer, who sought to unify Ethiopia and centralise governance. This included founding a new church and creating a centre for Christian learning at Magdala, to which ends he had gathered religious texts from across Ethiopia, in particular Gondar, assembling a vast library. The British Expedition to Abyssinia was launched in 1868 to secure the release of a group of British prisoners held at Magdala. Punitive measures were taken during the mission, including the citadel being burned to the ground. It is estimated that thousands of manuscripts, liturgical items and other valuable goods from the Magdala treasury were looted. The first-hand accounts in the memoires of those present record the vast scale of this plunder. For details of many such memoires see Rita Pankhurst, "The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla (Magdala)." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36.1 (1973): 15–42.

Archival history

These manuscripts used to belong to the collection formerly entitled "Oriental Manuscripts Collection" (reference codes starting with "Or Ms"). In September 2022, the title was changed to "Manuscripts of the Islamicate World and South Asia" to better represent its contents and move past the use of outdated terminology, and the Ethiopic manuscripts were given their own separate collection (Coll-2068). However, their original "Or Ms" reference codes were retained, with the addition of an "E" ("E.Or Ms") to differentiate them from the rest of the "Or Ms" manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

E.Or Ms 461 and 462, Gadala Georgios in two volumes, were donated to the library in 1871 by a John Wilson. Accompanying the donation was a letter from Wilson to Sir Alexander Grant, Principal of the University, stating that the manuscripts were "Acquired by my friend Captain James after the taking of Magdala."

E.Or Ms 655, a Psalter, was donated to the University by Professor Robert Christison in November 1869. A flyleaf annotation states that it was from the library of "King Theodore at Magdala." It had been given to Christison by a Dr Currie, "Inspector General of Hospitals, and Principal Medical Officer of the Abyssinian Expedition", in July of 1869.

E.Or Ms 656, another Psalter, and E.Or Ms 673, a parchment protective scroll, appear to have been donated by a Charles McInroy, in 1869 via David Laing and the Society of Antiquaries. Charles McInroy was a member of the Madras Staff Corps, and Captain of the Transport Corps of the British Abyssinian Expedition of 1868. The proceedings of the Society (11th February 1869) record McInroy as having acquired the manuscripts "... mostly in the neighbourhoods of Senafé, from churches and villages." Senafé lies within the borders of modern day Eritrea and lay on the route taken by the British Abyssinian Expedition as they travelled to Maqdala.

Processing Information

Collection's description created by Dr Eleanor Lucy Deacon in October 2022 and updated in May 2023, with additional provenance research carried out by Dr Andy Grout. Data formatted and imported into ArchivesSpace by Aline Brodin in October 2022.

Data for individual items' entries provided by the AHRC–DFG-funded project ITIESE (ref. no. AH/V002910/1) and produced by Jonas Karlsson (Universität Hamburg), with descriptions of the miniatures by Jacopo Gnisci (UCL).

Ethiopic Manuscripts Collection, 18th-19th century
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379