“From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering.”
— Zephaniah 3:10 (ESV)
SEVEN YEARS AGO, just before the spring semester was about to begin, Professor Alice O. Bellis sent a terse email at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening to Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick. Her message contained reference to the adverse publicity the university would receive if it came to light that Howard was in possession of a rare Ethiopic manuscript stolen from its monastery of origin, probably more than a decade before it came to the United States. Urgently, she asked for Frederick’s office to get in touch that week for a meeting, risking the ire of her deans by going directly to the school’s top administrator.
Within two hours, a surprising response beckoned from her inbox, interrupting her usual bedtime plans. President Frederick was requesting a call to discuss the matter. Bellis, a sharp, slender woman with a cautious demeanor, had expected days to prepare what she would say to him in person, but within seconds of sending her number the phone rang. Extemporaneously, she conveyed to him in the night watches that there were activists in the Ethiopian community who were pressing for the return of this ancient codex, which had been donated to the university by a prominent — but now deceased — American collector.
“It’s a complicated history,” intoned Professor Bellis, slowly and deliberately, with a measured cadence marked not so much by weariness as by a persevering intimacy, the way one might speak of a close friend after years together. In this way she began recounting to me the story of Howard University’s 2016 repatriation of Tweed MS150 — a rare manuscript containing a 15th-century Acts of Paul and Acts of Sarabamon codex — to its place of origin in the highlands of Ethiopia, a tale that had consumed much of her professional life over the last decade. It is a story that, in scope, spans multiple continents and centuries, involving a labyrinth of monks, antiquities dealers, postcolonial activists, philologists, archival researchers, and theologians, and I realized from the outset that clarity amid this complexity would not be easily granted.
At first blush, one might question why there should be any commotion about such a little book. With a cover taking up less surface area than an iPad, the parchment pages of Tweed MS150 were rebound sometime in the early 20th century in Ethiopia. Frowzy black patches on the rough-hewn wood casing and at some page corners suggest a resilient patina forged by mold, fire, and the wear of time. While the majority of the text is written in black ink, several illuminated portions — marginalia containing drawings and other textual adornments — are highlighted or decorated in red, added by medieval rubricators who wanted to emphasize the names of saints, deity, the owner, or scribe. Braided ribbons, known as harag (“tendril”) in Ethiopian illumination tradition, are displayed, and drawn headshots of haloed saints — Andrew, Paul, and another, unidentifiable from the caption — hover above labyrinthine crosses. This copy of the Acts of Paul and Acts of Sarabamon once belonged to the ninth abbot (floruit 1477) of Debre Libanos Monastery in the Shewa region of Ethiopia. Included at the beginning of the codex is a “guest text” that was not part of the original design but added later, with some Amharic characters, and that presents a rare and valuable African royal historical record on encounters with the West in the early 17th century.
The Acts of Paul and Acts of Sarabamon are, likewise, no common texts. Though even a trained eye could mistake their content, it is widely agreed that surviving Ethiopic copies are extremely rare. So the late Professor Getatchew Haile, an eminent scholar of Ethiopic manuscripts and of the ancient Ge’ez language, told me when I spoke to him last fall. The Acts of Paul is one of the earliest of a series of noncanonical New Testament writings known collectively as the Apocryphal Acts. According to Haile, the text from the André Tweed Collection may be one of the oldest versions of the Acts of Paul in existence today. Tweed MS150 may be the only extant copy of the Acts of Sarabamon in the world, thus making it the former crown jewel of the Howard University collection.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, a worldwide campaign is emerging to reclaim the encoded heritage of sacred artifacts for the ancestral communities from which they came. The return of Tweed MS150 to Debre Libanos Monastery in 2016 — the first time that any Western university has formally returned an artifact from its collection to Ethiopia, or to the African continent — marked a watershed in the engagement of Western institutions with cultural repatriation. This decision, however, has been far from the norm.
The debate escalated during the annus horribilis of 2020, as major collections in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands have endured siege from protestors decrying the ill-gotten gains of the colonial era. The British Museum, which has 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its collections, enshrines its holdings by forbidding removal of almost all objects, engaging instead in partnerships with African countries to make loans and to advise on the building of infrastructure in museums and curatorial teams. Campaigners have sharply criticized such paternalism in response to calcified legal frameworks, urging the British Museum to give back the Benin Bronzes, ostensible “blood artifacts” — including carved elephant tusks, ivory leopard statues, wooden heads, and 900 brass plaques — that were looted from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) during the British massacre and conflagration of Benin City in 1897.
Once nestled amid the wooded backdrop of the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, DC, with its serene Franciscan monastery and towering Catholic Basilica nearby, the Howard University School of Divinity is where Professor Bellis, who is white, has spent almost the last half century. She was first a student there in the 1970s and has been a faculty member since 1991. The HUSD, the only historically Black theological school connected to a comprehensive research institution, made the transition to Howard’s Van Ness campus in 2015, next to the Howard University School of Law where Thurgood Marshall studied. It is an appropriate setting for Howard’s successful repatriation of the codex, given the cultural and geopolitical factors involved.
Why the press surrounding this seminal repatriation has been muted remains a mystery, but one can hazard a guess. Bellis, professor of Hebrew Bible at the HUSD, is unequivocal that if Ivy League or Oxbridge scholars had done the same, the news would have been splashed across the headlines of multiple international papers. More than 5,000 artifacts, looted from an archaeological site in southern Iraq, were returned by Cornell University in July 2021, after being urged by the US Justice Department to do so in 2013. About 170 artifacts were returned to Italy by the Princeton University Museum of Art in 2012, after an antiquities curator there became the focus of a criminal investigation into illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. Comparisons with Cambridge University’s late 2019 announcement that it would return a bronze cockerel stolen from Benin City in 1897 are also instructive; almost two years later, there are no clear plans or timeline for restitution.
Bellis’s leadership in creating a digital catalog of the André Tweed Collection in 2012 coincided with her urging officials at the university to take action in exploring viable options for returning the text to Ethiopia. Dr. Gay L. Byron, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the HUSD, remarks that before coming to HUSD, the Tweed Collection was on exhibit from 1990 to 1991 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In Byron’s review of the exhibit, she determined that the manuscript, misidentified as the Acts of Peter in the exhibit description (prepared by Ephraim Isaac of the Princeton Institute of Semitic Studies), was actually the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Sarabamon.
Byron’s role in the discovery of the provenance of Tweed MS150 should not be understated. In 2006, Byron documented her sabbatical journey to HUSD to study the Tweed Collection, which also took her to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota to consult with Professor Haile. In her report to the Lilly Endowment and the Association of Theological Schools, Byron pointed out that the Acts of Paul and Acts of Sarabamon codex at HUSD had been microfilmed by representatives from HMML under Haile’s direction in Addis Ababa in 1976. Haile confirmed that the text — then cataloged as the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library #6533 — was indeed the same text from the Tweed Collection, a stunning serendipity considering that HMML’s records at the time indicated that it should have still been preserved in the library at Debre Libanos Monastery.
Dr. André Reynolds Tweed, a 1942 graduate of the Howard University College of Medicine who in 1950 became the first board-certified African American psychiatrist in California, eventually came into possession of the codex. He had amassed one of the largest private collections of Ethiopian sacred artifacts in North America, which he then donated to Howard shortly before his death in December 1993. The Tweed Collection has over 240 pieces, including icons, crosses, and other religious artifacts and texts.
As with many stolen artifacts, the details of the text’s journey from Ethiopia to the West are murky. Sometime after the codex was microfilmed by HMML in Addis in 1976, the text was likely smuggled out of the country during the Marxist-Leninist junta known as the Derg, which had been hostile toward the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and monastic traditions. Because the 1976 microfilming was the last public record of the manuscript in Ethiopia, some parties were not immediately supportive of its being returned to Debre Libanos Monastery, as questions of responsibility for the theft would likely be raised.
While it is unknown exactly how Tweed obtained the manuscript, Byron explains how these treasures can end up in the hands of unsuspecting Western collectors. She notes a parallel historical connection with Ethiopic manuscripts housed in the British Museum, highlighting that the British Army in 1868 looted well over 300 texts from Maqdala’s Church of Medhane Alem and elsewhere during the reign of King Tewodros II. In a similar manner, collectors and holding institutions can obtain their rare manuscripts, whether knowingly or not, downstream from illicit accessory and commercial dealers. Such dealings have taken on renewed contemporary significance, as the current military conflict in Tigray between the federal Ethiopian and regional Tigrayan government has precipitated the theft of manuscripts from churches and monasteries, to be sold at antiquities markets abroad.
Undoubtedly, restoration of what was stolen — physically, culturally, and historically — is a complex and delicate business. In the case of Tweed MS150, the long journey from discovery of its provenance to its return in 2016 was bedeviled by a great many obstacles, but it was also surrounded by an improbable air of the miraculous, spiced with the familiar allure of intrigue and controversy that surrounds rare artifacts. On the night when Professor Bellis solicited the intervention of President Frederick, he promised to talk with the university legal counsel’s office about the gravity of the situation and request. By the end of the next day, Howard counsel was moving, but even though the president approved of the action, it would be another two years of struggle due to the challenges that loomed.
Memeher Dr. Zebene Lemma, a double alumnus of the HUSD, is a very busy man. A child prodigy, he grew up in Ethiopia and goes back to the country a couple of times a year to preach, conduct tours, and promote missions. As a preacher in the global Ethiopian Orthodox community, general manager in Washington, DC, and surrounding archdioceses, and head priest of Debre Genet Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, the longest sermon he ever gave — entitled “Who is Jesus?” — was in Debre Sina city in Ethiopia and lasted six hours, with people coming and going throughout. I caught up with him in between appointments and services during the two-week fast of the assumption of Saint Mary, an important time for many believers in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.
Punctuated by bursts of Amharic to his congregants, the Memeher conveyed in fast staccato the events surrounding the return of Tweed MS150. As Lemma described how he would introduce me to the “12 apostles” of Debre Libanos Monastery, he also acknowledged the heavy burdens taken up by his church to return the manuscript, and the internal tensions within the community: “There are a lot of expenses to return that book to Ethiopia. It’s expensive in Addis, but I did my responsibility to return that book for the owners.” The political situation also was not ideal, as some vocal Ethiopians in the Diaspora did not want the manuscript returned because of their distaste for the Ethiopian government. Questions were raised about whether Howard would be held responsible by Ethiopia for the state of the manuscript, even though it had been donated to the university after presumably many prior, intermediary transactions.
“If it hadn’t been for Zebene, we wouldn’t have returned the manuscript,” says Bellis, without hesitation. “Zebene is a combination of the Beatles, Billy Graham, and Jay-Z all rolled into one. Everyone in Ethiopia was asking for him to bless them, and we soaked up his glory. I’ve never experienced anything like that. His shoes never got dusty; his clothes never got dirty. He’s like Jesus. He has his enemies. But he’s a smart guy, and the real deal.” Lemma was able to cut through a lot of the back-and-forth between legal counsel and the monastery about who “owned” the manuscript. Howard wanted formal confirmation that the monastery was receiving ownership by transfer from the university, but the monastery, of course, saw this request as exceedingly presumptuous.
When the HUSD delegation arrived in Addis in January 2016, they met with the patriarch of Ethiopia, Abune Mathias. The issue of ownership transfer had yet to be fully resolved, and the tension in the room was palpable. Sharp words were exchanged, fueled by a lingering distrust among the parties and the insistence from Howard counsel that a deed of gift be signed by the monastery exculpating the university from liability. The conversation, mediated by Lemma, was conducted entirely in Amharic, and so the details are unclear from Bellis’s point of view, but whatever blockade existed was removed. By force of will and charisma, combined with an intimate knowledge of all parties at the table, the Memeher negotiated the manuscript back to its home.
The delegation proceeded to Debre Libanos Monastery afterward. Lying about 100 kilometers north of Addis, off the Gojjam Road, the monastery sits on a terrace in a gorge carved by the Blue Nile, the river some believe to be referenced in Genesis 2:13. No original buildings have survived, but the tomb of Saint Tekle Haymanot, who founded the monastery in the 13th century, marks the current church that Emperor Haile Selassie ordered constructed in 1961. It is a short walk uphill to the nearby cliffs, where Saint Haymanot is purported to have prayed and meditated for seven years (or 29 years, depending on whom you ask). From this cave flows a spring whose water is used to anoint the queues of pilgrims seeking healing and restoration. The Howard cortège, following this route, was greeted with hymns by a multitude of more than 2,000 Ethiopians, and the biblical text for the restitution ceremony was, fittingly, the prodigal son of Luke 15.
If it is a truism that biblical interpretation is conditioned by the surrounding culture, then restorative acts like this suggest an alternative motivating order at work. The West, as Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson reminds us, has been fond throughout its history of using a combination of Greek mythology, poor interpretation of divine will, and fears of cultural “pollution” to forge racist and oppressive laws. However, such fallacious hermeneutical strategies — including justifying Black enslavement with the imprimatur of “Canaan’s curse” in Genesis 9:18–29 — have been thoroughly debunked by Gene Rice, the late professor of Old Testament at HUSD. Rice, who taught at HUSD for 51 years and whose critical essays were recently compiled and edited by Professor Bellis, received an exceptional homegoing prize: he passed away just three months after the repatriation of Tweed MS150.
For Lemma, the main significance of this codex’s return is clear: “The return of Gebra Sarabamon and Gebra Paulos gives a lesson to other institutions for what Howard University did. They also have to return the original manuscripts.” Going beyond mere virtue signaling, the sometimes precarious tabernacle of a historically Black institution had again made a way out of no way, ushering the West beyond the precipice of the impossible.
As Europe began its violent rise to ascendancy in the late 15th century, leveraging technologies for navigation, warfare, and industry to rapidly seize and sell enslaved Africans, a long tradition of monastic, theological, and philosophical reflection in Ethiopia was producing the Ge’ez manuscript at the center of Howard University’s 2016 repatriation campaign. This seminal restitution has unveiled the lacunae in our commonly accepted history regarding early Christianity and the civilizations that produced it.
Largely absent from this conversation is the Axumite Empire, which flourished from at least the first through the ninth centuries. The empire was considered one of the four great kingdoms of antiquity alongside China, Persia, and Rome, becoming a major player on the commercial route to Ancient India. Although the exact date for when Christianity was introduced in Axum is uncertain, scholars generally agree that by the early 4th century, as a result of the conversion of King Ezana, Christianity became the official religion of the empire, fully independent from Constantine, the ruler of its Roman contemporary. Thus, at the same time as the political winds pushed Constantine to support Christian tolerance and belief, an East African movement in Christendom was being consolidated, absent of coercion or colonialism.
One reason why we do not know much about the Axumite Empire is that the language of Ge’ez is not accessible to most students in Western seminaries or divinity schools — not in the same way as Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, or even Coptic are. Professor Byron laments that
Even when I chose to go beyond the Ethiopian eunuch story (Acts 8:26–40) by exploring the many symbolic representations of Ethiopians and Blacks in early Christian writings, I was still confined to Greco-Roman sources and the normative orientation of the Roman Empire as the center of the ancient world. I did not have “access” to the sources that would have informed me of the history, language, culture, and Christian self-understandings of the ancient Ethiopians.
As Byron puts it, scholars studying the New Testament disregard this history. It has been effectively relegated to heresy, because it is not written in the language of the “true empire.”
This disheartening state of affairs is a result of a warped mental prism, with the purported whiteness of Europe enthroned in the Western imagination. Repatriation of cultural artifacts, then, is a movement away from a deracinated and arrogant imperialism toward an affirmation of those who created the art in the first place. One historian notes that, in approximately AD 324, the Axumite King Ezana made a significant change in the iconography of his coins. Ezana replaced the traditional religious iconography of the Axumite sun and moon gods with a new symbol, the cross, which predates any analogous depiction on Roman coinage. If Ezana made this numismatic change in AD 324, what might this say about the currents of Christian thought in Axum, before the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in Rome?
Indeed, it is largely unknown to American Christians that the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament contains a direct reference (Jude 1:14–15) to the Book of Enoch, which today survives in its entirety only in the Ethiopian Ge’ez language. Considered by early Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Tertullian as canonical, the Book of Enoch is now regarded as scriptural by both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities and as pseudepigrapha by most Catholics and Protestants.
The root of the problem is systemic in Christendom, even among the church fathers and their theological heirs. James Cone, an exponent of Black liberation theology who passed in 2018, distilled in his seminal work God of the Oppressed the essence of the aporia between presumably cultured people and historical violence:
Although Irenaeus and Augustine differ in many respects, neither has much to say about God’s empowerment of the oppressed to fight against injustice. The same is true of theologians of Western Christianity who were influenced by them. […] [Thus,] white people have a distorted conception of the meaning of violence. They like to think of violence as breaking the laws of their society, but that is a narrow and racist understanding of reality. There is a more deadly form of violence, and it is camouflaged in such slogans as “law and order,” “freedom and democracy,” and “the American way of life” […] the problem of a whole social structure which outwardly appears to be ordered and respectable but inwardly is “ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions” — racism and hatred.
Cone is right. John Calvin, in his 1536 text Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that
it truly behoves Christians to be a people, as it were, formed to bear injuries and reproaches, exposed to the iniquity, impostures, and ridicule of the worst of mankind; and not only so, but they ought to be patient under all these evils; that is to say, so calm and composed in their minds, that, after having suffered one affliction, they may prepare themselves for another, expecting nothing all their lifetime but to bear a perpetual cross.
The disinherited in the ghettos of the West and across the peripheral outposts of empire have disproportionately shouldered this perpetual cross, and the Augustinian and Calvinist admonition to “do that which we see tends to the advantage of those to whom we ought to feel benevolent affections” reads like an apologetic for oppressive systems rather than a salve for the wounds of the oppressed.
Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher whose mission was to “reintroduce Christianity to Christendom,” excoriated such self-righteous self-love, distinguishing it as mere human preference when compared to the surpassing greatness of the difficult command to love the other — specifically those for whom we should not, or do not, feel affection — as one loves the self. This peculiarity of Christian love, which is willing to receive even hatred from its object in due proportion to its quality, finds its consummation in rejection and debasement, without expecting human recognition, reward, or understanding. No performance of world-renunciation or misanthropy can be substituted; in the words of Kierkegaard, “to stand on this elevated peak […] at the lowest point of contempt” is, divinely understood, the highest honor and the deepest sacrifice — though it would bring us to the brink of madness. Such a connection was embodied and exemplified in the Golgotha-bound Christ. Human admiration for this suffering, while humanly merited because it is so rare, is maddening because a lesser sacrifice can evince greater admiration. The deception is thus completed: one can win the world without bearing one’s cross.
Professor Bellis was quick to highlight that “Cush” or “Kush” — the word translated in most English Bibles to signify ancient Ethiopia, and referenced in Genesis 2:13 as the land encompassed by one of the four tributaries of the river watering the Garden of Eden — is closer to what we now call Sudan, but in the broadest sense represents all lands south of Egypt, and as far east as India. In an unpublished essay, she cites the classical geographer Strabo, who wrote of the report by Homer that the Ethiopians were “sundered in twain.” The map shown below depicts the western (Africa) and eastern (Asia) division of Ethiopia, at the time a transcontinental land mass, but incorrectly shows the Nile (called the Egyptus) as the dividing point. According to Strabo, Homer actually thought it was the Red Sea that divided west from east. It is well known that Christianity followed trade routes down the Red Sea, and Christian communities were established along the Kerala coast in southwest India, possibly by the Apostle Thomas as early as two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.
One New Testament scholar, Stephanie L. Black, marks the origin story of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to Ezana’s conversion under the influence of Frumentius, a Lebanese-born Christian slave who rose to prominence in Axum. She pays special attention to Ezana’s only known post-conversion inscription, which maintains an explicitly trinitarian formulation. The inscription is of particular interest in light of the Arian controversy in which the larger Christian world was engaged through most of the fourth century, pre-dating by approximately 100 years the christological controversies associated with the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Such reflections on the nature and mind of God begat reflections on order, creation, and the physical world. The acknowledgment that Ethiopians contributed to the earliest Christian understandings of the Trinity underscores their vibrant philosophical heritage.
How would our views of culture, of history, and of God be reanimated if our axiological grid were less informed by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and more by King Ezana’s slave-turned-confirmant Frumentius and the host of African worshippers of Yahweh? What if our Western courses in philosophy were less inclined toward Descartes and Bacon, and more toward Zera Yacob? Yacob, who was born in Axum to a family of poor farmers in 1599, wrote philosophical treatises containing many so-called enlightenment ideas that pre-dated the writings of Locke, Newton, Hume, Voltaire, and Kant.
Given these revelations, Western scholars should be more open to the awareness of Black contributions in antiquity — championed most notably by the late Howard University classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr. — and of the critical non-European contributions to mathematics and science, even during viral epidemics. Recountings of Europe’s scientific prowess and lineage by soi-disant scholarly giants have tended to minimize, for example, the diverse forebears of Newton and Pythagoras, suggesting unacceptable elisions in their reconstructions of “Western” culture. What might be gleaned about the legacy of Ethiopian and other African intellectuals from a shift in our cultural orientation?
The importance of these early developments in Ethiopic Christianity is not lost on Steve Delamarter, professor emeritus of Old Testament at George Fox University’s Portland Seminary. He began digitizing manuscripts in 2006 as leader of the Ethiopic Manuscript Imaging Project and the Textual History of the Ethiopic Old Testament Project, and was instrumental in the digitization of the Tweed Collection that eventually led to the HUSD’s return of Tweed MS150 in 2016. He is particularly cognizant of the anthropological and sociological questions surrounding access to, and the valuing and ownership of, ancient manuscripts, in particular who can sit down with them and turn a page:
There’s a whole set of patterns and values and systems that are conditioned by a postcolonial world — and mainly decided by old white men. There is a matrix required for entry and membership into the guild, a rite of passage. There are conditioned behaviors around these manuscripts and sometimes no reasons — a sociology of practices to control access and create hoops you have to jump through to position yourself to see the documents and study their wonders.
Delamarter tells the story of a “fantastic encounter with Armenian Four Gospels manuscripts” at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, where he was denied the privilege of taking pictures because the Library had four staff who were salaried through paid access to images of their manuscripts. When the legitimate challenge for institutions to stay economically viable becomes part of the structures of exclusion, an extravagant opulence arises, associated with bragging rights and institutional prestige, and a picture can truly be worth more than a thousand words.
In 2007, Delamarter’s work brought him in touch with Gerald Weiner, a senior vice president and wealth advisor for Morgan Stanley in Chicago, who has also assembled some of the largest private collections of Ethiopic manuscripts in the world. Weiner made UCLA the leading repository in North America for Ethiopic manuscripts in 2011, with a tranche that then surpassed those of the Library of Congress and Princeton University. He made news again in late 2016, donating a $1.5-million collection to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, home of the largest Ethiopian community in the United States.
Weiner has also been personally involved in an act of repatriation, returning a book belonging to King Menelik II, the founder of the modern Ethiopian state who thwarted Italian invasion in 1896, to the Ankober Museum in the highlands of central Ethiopia. Delamarter was once again involved in the book’s digitization and, upon Professor Haile’s suggestion, convinced Weiner of why its importance made its return essential. Contrary to the instincts of most collectors, Weiner immediately wanted to do the right thing, to honor the man and people who first owned the text.
Imaging and digitization of rare artifacts are becoming increasingly essential for repatriation efforts. “Tweed MS150 got its way back to where it belonged because it had been photographed by Ethiopians in Ethiopia back in 1976,” Delamarter says. “There was documentation of its provenance. If a holding institution is claiming responsibility but won’t share images, it undermines their commitment to the security of the artifact. Holding institutions may tell themselves that although they took this object by force at another time and place, they have nevertheless been faithful custodians and made it available to users since then; but the original owners would call this little more than the rhetoric of self-excusing.” Stewardship cannot be predicated on stealing. Such an argument, however, is still compelling for some scholars, who find the timescales for access at Ethiopian manuscript collections in Addis Ababa much longer than those at the British Library or UK regional libraries.
If stewardship boils down to being adept at procuring, securing, and controlling manuscripts in pristine environments and reading rooms, this requires a huge financial commitment from holding institutions. But digitization of artifact records allows for potentially universal access, the protective storage of the artifact itself, and access to the text in case the artifact is ever destroyed, lost, or stolen. The change in mindset for stodgy cultural guardians upset by calls for repatriation has been stimulated by digitization, says Delamarter: “Old sociologies are being dismantled and changed. There has been a huge transformation in their policies in the last few years.” Alternative options like digitization and 3D printing may supply sufficient legal cause for return of the original objects, as these technological advancements are considered by the courts.
Delamarter highlights the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. The EAP was set up by support from the Arcadia Fund, a charity established with Rausing family wealth. It supports through grants the digitization, in 90 countries worldwide, of archives that are in danger of destruction, neglect, or physical deterioration. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis, for example, approached him about their EAP proposal, and together the group received £70,000 to digitize more than 5,000 manuscripts, with metadata.
After completing the EAP grant, his team began digitizing the Tweed Collection, without pay. At the same time, according to Delamarter, staff at the HMML in Minnesota began gathering information to expose the provenance issue of Tweed MS150, threatening to go straight to the church authorities in Addis without even talking to the HUSD. They did not do so because Father Columba Stewart, the Library’s executive director, intervened.
The Global Alliance for Justice: The Ethiopian Cause also called for the manuscript’s return. GAJEC has pursued reparations from the Italian government and the Vatican for the Fascist genocide and atrocities of 1935–’41, which claimed no less than one million Ethiopian lives, including the entire monastic community at Debre Libanos. Independently, Delamarter had traveled to London for backchannel talks with two Ethiopian Orthodox bishops, who expressed their insult at being asked to assent to HUSD’s ownership of the manuscript before its return.
Delamarter, who is white, was not prepared to understand, as he puts it, the “very powerful engine of distrust” at work among the various communities involved. When the HUSD delegation arrived in Addis with the codex, and the Ethiopian patriarch was sitting at the table with members of the church council around him, including the two bishops, there could, in the Fanonian sense, be said to be blood in the air. Naturally, tensions irrupted. “One of the bishops got up and gave an angry speech that gets back to the people in GAJEC,” Delamarter told me. “I thought they would be allies, but instead they fanned the flames of insult.”
His moment of catharsis may lie in the full appreciation of how his actions were perceived by Professor Byron and others. Leaders at historically Black institutions have been sensitized to the misunderstanding of well-meaning but uninitiated colleagues from predominantly white institutions who frequently cannot discern the nuanced social dynamics at play, and who therefore misread intent. “It is clear that we at Howard were already in a process of returning the manuscript to its rightful place of origin,” she emphasizes. The efforts of Professor Bellis to make more visible the previously underutilized Tweed Collection stand out in this regard, and HUSD’s recruitment of Memeher Dr. Lemma was crucial since he served as soothsayer and interlocutor among parties, ensuring that Tweed MS150 returned to its legitimate home.
Such points of friction are to be expected with seminal repatriation efforts, and they would likely be accentuated when initiated by elite predominantly white institutions, notwithstanding the renown often afforded them, especially in the postcolonial world. Assumed status boundaries demarcating subordinate and dominant were blurred in HUSD’s case: a historically Black school framed with respect to Ethiopia by possession of the codex in the guise of Western empire, albeit guided by distinctly countercultural principles. Dilatory approaches when the lines are sharpened — as with, for example, Cambridge’s still-unreturned bronze cockerel — suggest that these cultural, relational, and legal hurdles can dwarf the potentially transformative effects that repatriation engenders.
Delamarter has some ideas for how to motivate institutions with Ethiopic manuscripts of questionable provenance (which no one in the scholarly community wants to buy) to deliver them back to their rightful communities:
What if you get these institutions to go to the church and say, Let’s make a three-way deal where the artifact donor gives to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the institution holds it in trust and every so often exchanges it in trust, and we put the right incentives in place to make sure the manuscript eventually goes back to Ethiopia after a defined period. About 60 manuscripts right now are lost in limbo because the Western institution is unsure of the provenance.
Though he has purchased manuscripts with his own money to donate to Ethiopian institutions, he is also fully aware of the criticism leveled against borrowing and returning Ethiopic manuscripts held by antiquities dealers in order to digitize them. This creation of a visual record signals to dealers the actual value of what they have, increasing the price tag and therefore the efficiency of mechanisms for moving manuscripts out of the country. His rejoinder: “How can I do good without doing harm? I want to minimize the harm while maximizing the good. I’m sick and tired of hearing Western scholars talk about ‘do no harm,’ while none of them talk about ‘doing good.’ If your ethical system is only the former, it is indistinguishable from a system guided by self-preservation and cowardice.”
Such drama seems to play out time and again with our talismans of cultural memory. A few centuries ago, expeditions of the nouveau riche to Italy and Southern Europe — first referred to as the Grand Tour in 1670 — presented enticing opportunities to satiate their high-end lust for the jewels of antiquity. Unleashed by an almost predictable physics, this lust mutated in collusion with British aspirations. In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon and transported them by sea to Britain. Facing accusations of looting, Bruce sold the Parthenon Marbles to the British Government. They were then passed to the British Museum and currently remain on display, despite repeated efforts by Greece and UNESCO to restore the complete frieze in Athens. Almost inexorably, the virus of empire tends to cannibalize its own image, as reflected in the objects of its worship.
On a quest of discovery, it is inevitable that one will encounter apparent contradictions and paradoxes, just as early explorers confronted the known boundaries of their existing world maps. Physicists wonder how the orderly choreography of celestial bodies can be reconciled with the turbulent indeterminism of the subatomic world. Historians and humanists wrestle with the stories that can be rigorously documented from the primary source record and those that can only be imagined from its tattered and often hazy purlieus. Theologians and philosophers struggle to understand the nature and mind of the infinite Creator from the vantage point of the finite. Reaching beyond mere mechanistic reason, challenging logic with language, and pushing humanity toward the unexplored, seekers have contemplated how to unlock the perplexing truths of human existence through various puzzles: koans, thought experiments, aphorisms, and apophatic theology. They are the zephyrs of consciousness, soul, and spirit within our knowledge systems. As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix (1999), with a sage unknowingness, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
The quest to return Tweed MS150 has revealed another paradox about the righting of historic wrongs: no one is culpable, and yet all are complicit. No blame can be assigned to those who receive trafficked or looted goods without their knowledge. But turning the gaze away from past injustice, motivated by present-day demands and profit calculus, ossifies the structures of complicity for all — whether in the paying of taxes or the patronage of archival collections. Certainly, some individuals and institutions benefit more than others from this blindness. Yet, as with any discussion of atonement for the sins of a previous era, we fall prey too easily to the argument that we are not in any way responsible. The past remains with us.
Returning rare artifacts is but one prong of assault, admittedly on the margins of the larger discussion about reparative or restorative justice. With global protests in support of BLM and in response to the murder of George Floyd gripping the attention of government leaders and corporate executives, we have witnessed renewed calls for the toppling of statues of racist, genocidal, and colonial figures, from Christopher Columbus to Cecil Rhodes, King Leopold of Belgium, John C. Calhoun, and Winston Churchill, and for the renaming of Army bases across the American South named after Confederate stalwarts. The protestors, at least, have spoken: the cultural memories we have enshrined must be revised, and re-remembered, for redemption to take hold.
What museum culture in the West has nurtured is, in the words of the late Toni Morrison’s immortal heroine Sethe, “the world done up the way whitefolks loved it” — a curated and often sterile depiction of how nonwhite societies behave, live, and create. Yet for all these troves of objects, it is still unusual for Westerners to hear of the life of Enbaqom, a monk at Debre Libanos in the 15th and 16th centuries and a convert from Islam. Enbaqom was a student of several languages, including Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Ge’ez, Coptic, Hebrew, and his own native Arabic, and perhaps as a result defended Christianity’s multilingual translation of the Scriptures. Of Yemeni or Iraqi origin, he adopted Ethiopia as his home, possibly even handling Tweed MS150. His work demonstrates how spiritual and cultural transformation was effected by interpreting sources from the perspective of those who created them. He did not remain closed to such possibility due to prejudices of culture, religion, language, or empire. Rather, his wisdom characteristically transcended them, without sacrificing their unique particularities.
I grew up just outside Charleston, South Carolina, where mawkish field trips to Boone Hall and Magnolia Plantations could only be feasibly reconciled with the horrors of slavery through conspicuous omissions from our textbooks — a grand conspiratorial ellipsis at the heart of the American mythos. In the sixth grade, my Baptist school planned an overnight excursion to Atlanta, and we made a side visit to Stone Mountain. What my white teachers were not prepared to address with my predominantly white class was the enormous rock relief carving on the mountain’s north face. I did not appreciate at the time that this monument to heroes of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson — looms larger in its monadnock frame than the iconic sculpture of four US presidents at Mount Rushmore.
Now, reflecting on what some have called “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world,” I am humbled by what generations of Black Georgians have had to endure since 1965, when Stone Mountain was opened to the public, exactly 100 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It is a place where Ku Klux Klan rallies coexisted with Sunday picnics, where white terrorism and a heritage of hate were normalized. It is a psychological signal that white supremacy continues to be celebrated in the public square — essentially, a message from those in power that Black lives do not matter. It is a fitting tribute, in the words of Frederick Douglass, to “a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves […] and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.” Just as Douglass surely would have, we should see Stone Mountain for what it is: an abomination in the sight of God.
Black people have lived in the literal shadows cast by this monstrosity, a temple built with their taxes for the worship of white violence and of those who flouted the Constitution’s authority by seceding from the Union. The Georgia voters mobilized by Stacey Abrams and her diverse coalition for the 2020 presidential election had to struggle to overcome continued attempts to disenfranchise and suppress Black and Latino citizens. Such violations of minority political rights are unsurprising in light of what is tolerated by government officials in the form of Stone Mountain, where discriminatory public displays undermining Black human rights are sanitized and accepted.
The attempted coup by domestic terrorists who stormed the US Capitol wielding Confederate battle flags, just weeks before the inauguration of the duly elected president, demonstrates the latest apotheosis of America’s golden calf: sacrificing democratic values at the cultish altar of totalitarian whiteness. A significant segment of otherwise cordial Americans has been turned into feckless zombies beholden to the empty, self-serving promises of autocrats opposed to their own working-class ambitions. While they must all be held accountable for their actions, it is also clear that the American educational system and our major cultural institutions — shaped and informed as they are by white supremacy — have nurtured violence in the soul of the nation.
And yet, amid this resurgent white nationalism, there are nonetheless signs of hope. A new museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art, is being designed and planned in Benin City by architect David Adjaye and associates to honor and revitalize the community that produced the Benin Bronzes. Organized around the community’s daily rituals and practices, the building will be a reenactment of the palatial turrets and pavilions of precolonial Benin City, and the bronzes are scheduled to be loaned for display after the museum’s notional opening in 2025.
Adjaye is no dilettante in the art of historical recovery; he was the lead designer behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, just a few miles from Howard’s main campus. A tour of the NMAAHC takes the visitor on a moving journey from the agonies of the transatlantic passage and American slavery to the heights of Black achievement, motivating efforts toward national healing and uplift. These settings are models of stewardship, not just for holding and curating objects but also for advancing redemption, restoration, and faithful remembering. In this vein, the return of sacred manuscripts and artifacts to their communities of origin would do a great deal to advance similarly noble goals across the quondam colonies of the West. Marshaling such courage and commitment to challenge empire’s blinkered history remains the legacy of Howard University’s return of Tweed MS150, and the lifelong work of those of us inspired by their example.
Philip Kurian is a writer and (re)search(ing) scientist. He serves as an advisor to the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.