The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

A fragment of a manuscript of the discourse of Cyriacus of Behnesa (MS. 76)

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A fragment of a manuscript, possibly 17th century, of the discourse of Cyriacus of Behnesa

Where: Bodleian Library, Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BG

Pencil note at f. 1a: “said to have been taken from a Church at Magdala in 1868′.

MS 44 “no doubt formed part of a fine specimen kept in the Church of Madhana ‘Alam at Magdala, and was brought to the country by a member of Napier’s Expedition in 1867/8,” according to Edward Ullendorff’s Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: Volume II. “Acquired between 1868 and 1886,” he adds.

Ullendorf’s book describes 66 manuscripts in the Bodleian collection. He writes: “On the whole, it is safe to assume that the majority of the MSS here described, were acquired in Ethiopia by individual members of Napier’s expedition in 1867-8. After the death of their owners many found their way to auction sales and were then purchased by the Bodleian Library.”

Rita Pankhurst’s paper The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla is more conservative and lists MS 76 as one of five manuscripts in the Bodleian Library that certainly or very likely came from Magdala, on top of six manuscripts that probably did.

She adds: “Thirty-two other manuscripts in the Bodleian could conceivably have also come from Maqdala although there is no evidence to this effect.”

Many of the Western academics who got a first look at the manuscripts were scornful.

Here is Jacob Leveen on some of the manuscripts listed in Ullendorff’s catalogue:

“Of the 66 items catalogued here, a large proportion consists of copies of those magical scrolls, which are perhaps too well represented in the libraries of Europe. They offer a melancholy spectacle of the depths of credulity and superstition to which Abyssinians sank. The hagiographical literature is no less depressing, with its exhibition of ‘Mariolatry run mad’ (as Willliam Wright so aptly called it).” [Jacob Leveen’s review of Ullendorff, E. (1951). Catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: 2 7. Oxford: Clarendon Press]

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