The National Archives Strive to Safeguard Treasures, Make History Approachable
Much has been made of the looting of treasures from African countries. Recently, the argument over the ownership of relics taken from Meqdela during the reign of Emperor Tewodros II has sparked renewed interest about the raiding of national treasures in Ethiopia. One of the major institutions responsible for the safeguarding of Ethiopia’s possessions is the National Archive and Library Agency. The Archive is currently undergoing changes, including the construction of a new 13 floor building to better organise its collection. EBR’s Menna Asrat went behind the scenes to see a side of the Archive few visitors get to see.
Many Ethiopians still know it by the name ‘Wemezekir’, a label that stems from its long history of safeguarding Ethiopia’s most valuable assets such as ancient manuscripts that date back hundreds of years. Inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1944, Wemezekir, now known as the National Archive and Library Agency ,has been serving as a public library for more than six decades.
Although it has made a number of structural changes in the past, the Archive, which is located behind the Ethiopian Television building, between Yared and Sudan streets, is once again in the midst of transition. The old two storey building is now dwarfed by a four-storey white marble building that houses some of the Archive’s collections, as well as the public reading room and library. It is part of an expansion that will see better storage, and better organisation for the many treasures that the Archive houses.
The Archive is a national institution, made up of an archive and a library open to the public, with extensive collections of historical and modern materials, both fiction and non-fiction. Since its establishment, the Archive has been empowered to collect three copies of all printed materials produced in Ethiopia, including wedding invitations, brochures, movies, and music. It is also the country’s first line depository for precious historical artefacts, such as manuscripts that date back hundreds of years, and letters as well as documents belonging to Ethiopia’s most revered and powerful figures. However, most people don’t get to see most of its holdings.
Hoping to address this, the Archive opened a permanent exhibition in May 2018, with copies of some of the artefacts from the Agency’s collection that most visitors would not normally be able to access. In a naturally well lit room, copies of photographs from the royal family’s collection, significant publications (like the country’s first printed newspaper, established in 1916, and entitled Aimero, which used to be published in Amharic and French) and centuries’ old manuscripts are posted around on the walls and notice boards.
“Many of the items here are not available to the general public,” explained Kassaye Sime, an expert from the Agency’s Ancient Manuscripts division. “By making copies available, we hope to make more people aware of the treasures that we have in the country.”
Posters showing the tools used to create the vellum pages of some of the Archive’s most valuable possessions decorate the wall, along with some showing the pages that were so painstakingly created hundreds of years before the advent of modern printing methods. Pictures of them are stored in the Agency’s microfilm collection. “The churches and religious institutions have kept the texts safe for hundreds of years,” Kassaye explained. “So we only have microfilm.”
The texts, housed not only in the Archive’s collection, but in religious institutions all over the country are written exactly, each stroke uniform, no matter who the writer was. The process for preparing to write the texts was just as exacting as writing them.
“The religious texts, both Christian and Muslim, are unique,” Kassaye explains. “Preparing the ink is as painstaking a process as preparing the spices we use in Ethiopia cooking, and just as precise. If you started to make the ink in the summer, it would take six months to get a finished product. If you started in the rainy season, it would take you a year.”
The intricate work is even more visible in the originals of the posters in the exhibition. In a small but airy room large windows, ancient manuscripts and scrolls from Ethiopia, and places as far afield as Jerusalem line sturdy wooden shelves. A heavy grey door leads to a safe where the more delicate items of the collection sit, including the 12 manuscripts that are registered with UNESCO. Taking up the place of pride in the middle of the room is a glass bookcase with bronze accents, resting on carved lions’ paws, a gift from the Emperor when the archive was set up. Etched on the specially prepared leather covers of the books, as well as on the actual pages, are complex designs reflected everywhere in the decorations of traditional clothing, places of worship and traditional art.
Berhanu Abera, who has worked at the Agency for the last 24 years, takes care of the manuscripts. “We don’t use any chemicals,” he explained. ‘The treatment of the vellum when it was produced makes the pages resistant to dirt, as well as most bacteria and microbes. As long as they don’t come in contact with moisture or fire, they will last forever. We simply dust the books every day and keep them out of direct sunlight.”
While the exhibition is part of the Agency’s open collection, most people never have the chance to see the original manuscripts, as they are part of the closed collections. To get in, a person would need to submit a letter from a legal entity, such as a church or a school, verifying their identity and the reason they need access to the materials.
“The treasures stored there are very precious,” Kassaye explains. “We need to be able to track who handles or uses them, for safety purposes.”
One of the closed collections is the Records department. Stretching over three dimly lit and air-conditioned floors, with metal shelves in neat rows stretching almost the entire length of the building, bundled box files contain the correspondence and documentation that made the country what it is today. Letters, deed agreements, border agreements dating back to colonial days, the papers have been collected, donated, and bought from all over Ethiopia to the protection of the archive, kept safe from dust and sunlight by an air filter and eagle-eyed Agency employees.
Just as extensive is the legal collection, where three copies of everything printed in the country reside. Amharic language primers used in schools 20-30 years ago decorate shelves by the admin desk, which sits in front of a huge collection of shelves. The collection is mostly made up of books, but the printed materials are also meant to include things like wedding invitations, brochures, textbooks, and funeral booklets, as well as audio-visual material like films and albums (although wedding invitations rarely make it to the collection). “You can learn everything about a certain era through these materials,” said Kidist Getachew, who works in the Agency’s Audio-visual collection. “You can see the country’s technological progress, see how the art has evolved, everything.”
The Agency also operates a library, located in the same building as the exhibition. Sponsored partly by the Embassy of the United States, the library has internet facilities and reading areas, as well as hundreds of books. Students, professionals, and everyone in between crowd the desks of the library, reading, studying and spending their time in the cool silence. “I loved coming here as a student,” commented 30-year-old Adam Hailu. “I still come when I get the chance. You learn a lot, and you can finish any work you have in silence. ”
But the real jewel of the Agency is in the old building. A sturdy two-storey stone building located behind the library, the Amharic department contains works spanning from decades ago, to just a few years ago, fiction and non-fiction, open to members of the public. Outfitted with long wooden tables, antique cabinets that wouldn’t look out of place in Rosalind Franklin’s laboratory, and huge windows, the spacious room is nothing if not a time capsule of the 1960s and 70s.The path to the closed Ethiopian studies collection leads to a small section of the library reserved for those checking materials out of the closed collection. Crowning the far end of room is a mural depicting the Emperor in full ceremonial dress, sitting on his throne in the midst of historic scenes from his rule, such as the banishment of Fascist soldiers, the spread of education, and angels watching over the country from Heaven.
Right underneath is a raised dais and podium, where the Emperor would read when he came to the library.
“The mural is the first thing many people comment on,” said one of the library employees. “But it is in desperate need of restoration. Rain has been coming in through the ceiling and damaging it. We have notified the authorities and we are waiting for an answer. It would be a shame to lose it.”
The state of the mural calls to mind the issues being raised about protecting historical artefacts in the country. Interest in the country’s historical treasures has peaked in recent months, after it came to light that attempts to secure the return of treasures taken by the British Army after the Battle of Meqdela had ended in stalemate: the British Museum offered the items back on loan, but the Ethiopian government refused anything less than a permanent return. It also turned a spotlight on the protection of historical manuscripts and artefacts. In fact, a few years ago, some books from the Agency’s collection were sold to private collectors, although they were later returned.
“The Agency has no authority to sell anything,” Kassaye explains. “It was a misunderstanding between people at the Agency, but it was caught early, and now nothing is missing. An individual cannot sell what belongs to the country.”
While new construction and exhibitions are raising the Agency’s profile somewhat, attracting a new generation of readers and history lovers is proving challenging. Kassaye explained “Young people do not have the culture of reading that their parents and grandparents have.”
6th Year . June 16 2018 . No.62