By Nancy Haught, The Oregonian Oregon Live!
Before he opened it, Steve Delamarter knew the book before him would be extraordinary. The smooth sienna leather was worn in a few places but hand-tooled and carefully fitted together inside the cover. The rough edges of its yellow parchment pages didn’t look hand-cut. Then he recognized the intricate section headers, entwined lines of red, green and yellow ink, as the work of a government scriptorium.
Delamarter, an Old Testament professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, is founder and director of the Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project. In the past five years he’s tracked down 900 rare books owned by dealers and collectors outside the African country. He and his team digitize the contents, creating copies for Ethiopian libraries. It’s an attempt to preserve some of the cultural heritage that’s been lost in the turmoil of Ethiopia’s history.
So Delamarter is used to handling rare manuscripts. Those he works with are often well-worn religious volumes, handwritten in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He’s examined many Psalters, books of Psalms and other texts used for prayer.
But this one was different.
Buried inside was a rare marker that Delamarter had seen only once before. In a kind of handmade reverse, a line of white letters stood out against a line of red ink. He ran his index finger under the words as he translated aloud: “This book belongs to the king of kings, Menilek.”
Delamarter took the book to Saint John’s University in Minnesota, where he showed it to his mentor and colleague, Getatchew Haile, an Ethiopian expatriate and expert on Ethiopian manuscripts. “This,” Haile told Delamarter, “is a national treasure.”
Emperor Menilek II (1844-1913) united the separate kingdoms of modern Ethiopia in 1889 and thwarted an Italian invasion in 1896. He modernized his country by introducing banking, a postal system, railway, electricity, telephones, telegraphs and automobiles. But he’s also remembered in Africa and parts of Asia for resisting imperialism.
“This was his personal Psalter, with which he’d pray every morning,” Haile says in a telephone interview. “It was one of the items that he touched. This is important museum material.”
Except that it belongs to someone else.
Ethiopia has struggled — and still does — with its own diversity and violence from inside and out. Political unrest has forced thousands to flee. Some have taken manuscripts and other cultural treasures with them, Haile says. His own story attests to the violence that has plagued Ethiopia. A coup deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Haile, a Ge’ez scholar at what is now Addis Ababa University, was shot as he resisted arrest. Haile was allowed to leave Ethiopia to receive medical care — he is a paraplegic — and came to the United States in 1976. A MacArthur Fellow, he is curator of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota.
Delamarter, interested in scribal communities who still transcribe religious texts by hand, first visited Ethiopia in 2004. He saw widespread poverty tempting Ethiopians to sell religious manuscripts to tourists or book dealers. A personal prayer book, worth the equivalent of $100 to another Ethiopian, may be sold to a tourist or book dealer for $300 or $400, Delamarter says. Collectors will pay $1,200 for the same volume, $2,000 if it’s illustrated. And some take manuscripts apart and sell the pages separately.
Menilek’s Psalter, which Delamarter dates from the late 19th or early 20th century, is owned by Gerald Weiner, a manuscript collector who is also a senior vice president of Morgan Stanley in Chicago. The Psalter was in a batch of books Weiner bought from a dealer. Neither was aware of the book’s value until Weiner entrusted it to Delamarter for digitalization.
It was Haile’s idea that Delamarter ask Weiner to give the book to a new museum planned in Ankober, Ethiopia, to be dedicated to Menilek. Delamarter had never made such a request of a book owner, he says. He’d been content to create digital copies and preserve the contents for the use of students and scholars.
“The more I tell collectors how valuable a book is, the more they want to hold on to it — or sell it,” Delamarter says. He estimated that Menilek’s Psalter was worth about $18,000, but he prepared “a 19-minute presentation” for Weiner and made the call.
A manuscript collector for about eight years, Weiner specializes in Ethiopian Jewish texts and plans to donate his collection to the University of California at Los Angeles, which is home to many Ethiopian refugees. Delamarter says Weiner listened to the opening of that 19-minute pitch.
“As soon as he told me how important this work was, its importance to the Ethiopian people, I wanted to do the right thing,” Weiner says. “I wanted the book to be back where it belonged, honoring the man who owned it.”
Delamarter leaves Monday to return the book to Ethiopia, where eventually it will be displayed in the Ankober Municipal Museum. Much as he’d like to, Haile can’t go with him.
“I never thought the owner would just give it back,” Haile marvels, “so precious a book that is his own property. That was my first thought, but some people have a good heart.”
Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625; email@example.com