Ethiopic Manuscripts in the Princeton University Library

Among the latest additions to “Treasures of the Manuscripts Division” in the Princeton University Digital Library is Garrett Ethiopic Manuscript No. 42: The Book of Enoch (Mäṣḥafä Henok), which is part of the Robert Garrett Collection of Ethiopic Manuscripts, 1600s-1900s (C0744.03), the gift of Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1897. Click for access. The Ethiopic Book of Enoch (or 1 Enoch) is a complete translation into Ge’ez, the sacred and liturgical Afro-Asiatic language of Ethiopian Christians, of an ancient Jewish religious text, which claims to have been written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church regards the pseudepigraphic text as canonical. The present manuscript was one of those used in R. H. Charles, ed., The Book of Enoch, Translated from Professor Dillmann’s Ethiopic Text… (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893). For conservation reasons, the manuscript was recently rebound by Mick LeTourneaux (Princeton University Library, Preservation Office) in an Ethiopic-style binding, replacing a nineteenth-century European binding that bears the ownership stamp of H. C. Reichardt, probably identifiable as Henry Christian Reichardt (d. 1897), a missionary for the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews. Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Princeton Class of 1897, acquired the Enoch manuscript shortly after Reichardt’s death. Also online is the Library’s finest Ethiopic illuminated manuscripts, Garrett Ethiopic MS. 2 (Homilies of the Archangel Michael), digitized in 2016. Click for access.

The Princeton University Library is fortunate to have one of the largest collections of Ethiopic manuscripts outside Ethiopia, including nearly 180 codices and more than 500 magic scrolls, as they are called. Garrett was the principal collector. He acquired the bulk of his Ethiopic manuscripts from the eminent German philologist Enno Littmann, who (with Garrett’s financial backing) led a Princeton expedition to Tigray in 1905. The following year, Littmann led a German expedition to Aksum. In the 70 years since the Garrett donation, Ethiopic manuscript holdings have continued to grow by gift and purchase. In recent years, Bruce C. Willsie, Princeton Class of 1986, has been the principal donor of Ethiopic manuscripts, especially magic scrolls. Nearly all of the Ethiopian manuscripts at Princeton are in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections; plus one each in the Scheide Library and Cotsen Library, and an additional one in the Princeton University Art Museum.

Since King Ezana of Aksum embraced Christianity in the 4th century, Ethiopia’s history has been intertwined with that of its Church, and manuscripts have played a vital role in this history, along with other forms of artistic expression, such as processional and hand crosses, folding and pendant icons, and church murals. Despite a host of foreign influences over some 1,600 years, the style of religious art remains distinctively Ethiopian, with a Christian iconography to match. Manuscript production and illumination can be traced through the medieval centuries. Yet extant manuscripts, especially in North America, date predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Text manuscripts include Gospel Books (such as Garrett Ethiopic MS 1, 2nd half of the 17th century), Psalters, homilies, liturgy, chant, saints’ lives and miracles, theology, law, and compilations of texts related to divination and popular magic. Nearly all of the manuscripts are in Ge’ez. Manuscripts are written in carbon-black ink on parchment, then bound with unsupported link-stitch in an archaized style reminiscent of early Coptic Christian or Byzantine manuscripts, looking much older than they are. There are also several manuscripts illuminated in the Second (or late) Gondar style, which emerged in the old imperial capital of Gondar in northern Ethiopia from the 1720s and 1730s.

Far less elegant, but no less interesting as expressions of Ethiopian spirituality and traditional beliefs, are the magic scrolls. These are textual amulets, copied on parchment by unordained clerics called debtera using written exemplars. Magic scrolls are concatenations of prayers, incantations, charms, invocations of divine names and helpful saints, and other brief apotropaic texts, written on narrow strips of parchment in roll format. These words and images offered protection against disease, death in childbirth, demonic possession, and malevolent spirits. The name of the person for whom they were prepared is often indicated. Contributing to their protective and healing power were painted images of guardian angels with drawn swords, magic squares and eight-pointed stars, the net of Solomon to capture demons, and other figurative illustrations and designs. Magic scrolls were generally rolled up and kept in small leather suspension capsules, so that they could be worn protectively around the neck and over the heart.

Over the past ten years, the Manuscripts Division has been able to catalog its Ethiopic manuscripts as a result of generous financial support from the David A. Gardner Class of 1969 Magic Project. The bulk of cataloging has been prepared by Professor David L. Appleyard, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; and a portion by Kesis Melaku Terefe, with assistance of Professor Wendy Belcher, in Princeton’s Department of Comparative Literature. There is now a 450-page online catalog. Potential researchers should contact Public Services staff of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, at

Book of Enoch
The Book of Enoch
Manuscript, mid-19th century