Work in Progress: Ethiopian Archives in Jerusalem

by Stéphane Ancel, Open Jerusalem

Picture 1-Example of files from Ethiopian Archives

The presence of Ethiopians Orthodox in Jerusalem is attested at least from the 13th century. But during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox community knew a great revival: the number of Ethiopians increased, buildings dedicated to them were bought or erected. Among others, historians like Littmann, Cerulli, Pétridis, Meinardus, Makonnen Zäwde or Pedersen have proposed valuable studies about the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem, especially Kirsten Pedersen who for the first time proposed a very clear and precise history of this community during the 19th and 20th century. But if the outline of the history of the community is known, there is a great lack concerning its involvement in Jerusalem city life during that period. Besides, the characteristics of the archives of the community are basically not known: only few documents had been accessible to historians and even Kirsten Pedersen, herself member of this community had a restricted access to these documents.

It is clear that during this period the community should have produced many documents. In fact, the main idea leading Open Jerusalem research is that the archives of the community should provide documents which permit to understand the involvement of the community in the daily life of Jerusalem at that period and its relationship with the local municipality and the other communities established in the town.

After a meeting with OJ director Vincent Lemire and me, the Ethiopian Orthodox community in Jerusalem was enthusiastic about the project and his Holiness abunä Matthias, Patriarch of Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa, and his Grace abunä Enbakom, Archbishop of Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Holy Land, gave us the access to the archives of the community in Jerusalem.
The study of these archives has just started. For the moment, documents found in the archives are administrative and financial documents, such as payment receipts, cheques, bank documents, financial reports, letters and correspondences concerning daily problems of the community, registers, etc. As a whole, these documents permit to open a window to the daily life of the community, and to understand all the problems and opportunities for a religious community established abroad, concerning installation, supplies, access to public services, administration or worship.
Here are some examples among the documents collected:

– Receipts and payment document are witness of Ethiopian involvement in local network:

Document in French, Ethiopians using middle men from Jerusalem for searching houses to rent, here Pascal Seraphin in 1913.
Document in French, Ethiopians using middle men from Jerusalem for searching houses to rent, here Pascal Seraphin in 1913.
Picture 3-Payment document for Russian Community 1914
Payment made by Ethiopian community to Russian community in 1914 for using a machine (“pompe à eau”).

– Receipts and payment documents to the municipality:

Payment dated to 1934 for cleaning the cesspit of Ethiopian building.
Payment dated to 1934 for cleaning the cesspit of Ethiopian building.

We can observe that Ethiopians had different interlocutors, according to the needs and opportunities. Interesting enough, each interlocutor supposed the use of a specific language, for example with the British municipality in English, with Russian community in French, local merchants in different languages.
Worship activities posed also problem and documents bring to light the role of the municipality to solve the problems and at first the problem of the usage of the Holy Sepulcher.

Also some documents bring to light ownership problems of the community. The problem of the Dar Es Sultan monastery is much known: Ethiopians during that period claimed the ownership over this monastery located at the roof of St. Helena chapel, in the Holy Sepulcher. This claim was contested by Coptic community (and it is still today the case). This case is known especially thanks to the work of Cerulli, Pétridis and Pedersen, and some documents concerning this case were published by abunä Philippos, first Ethiopian bishop of Jerusalem.
No spectacular documents concerning especially this case came out from our investigation in Jerusalem for the moment. But a very interesting book could be identified.

Picture 5-Wäldä Mädhen dairy 1891
A manuscript, in paper, written in 1883 E.C. (1890-1891 AD) by an Ethiopian monk called Wäldä Mädhen could be found. In his manuscript, Wäldä Mädhen describes the daily life of Ethiopians in Dar Es-Sultan at that time, their difficulties and their relations with other communities. Makonnen Zäwde could describe it shortly at the beginning of 1970s but Kirsten Pedersen could not have access to this book. Analysis and study of that book is in progress, in addition with the study of the known text called “History of Der Sultan”,
Picture 6-History of Der Sultan
An Amharic text dated to the beginning of the 20th century and preserved in a large manuscript in paper (Ms. JE692E) containing also the Kebrä Nägäst.

Maybe less known, documents present the case where Ethiopian community was the owner of houses rented to institutions or individuals. These documents are crucial to understand how the community built and managed its properties in the Holy Land.

Administrating worship place in Jerusalem have supposed a great flexibility, in using a specific language with specific interlocutors, in establishing relations with different middle men involved in local social network, in using specific network of merchants for supplies, and in establishing itself in Jerusalem scene. Thanks to full collaboration of Ethiopian Orthodox authorities, the ongoing study of Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem will open a great window on daily life of the Ethiopian Orthodox community in Jerusalem between 1840 and 1940.


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