Ethiopia appeals for return of sacred manuscripts

 Two of Ethiopia's most senior politicians have lent their support to a campaign to persuade Edinburgh University to return five stolen sacred manuscripts. Teshome Toga, Ethiopian Minister of Youth Sports and Culture, and Dawit Yohannes, Speaker of Ethiopia's House of Representatives, have written to staff at the University library, asking them to hand over holy books that were taken from Ethiopia by British troops more than 130 years ago. The two high-profile appeals will arrive just days ahead of a key University meeting which could decide the fate of the manuscripts. It is understood the University Court will discuss the issue at its meeting next Monday. Campaigning group AFROMET first wrote to Edinburgh University Library in December after members found out that it had a collection of holy texts seized during the UK's invasion of Ethiopia in 1867/8. The University has now received a stream of letters from people calling for the return of the manuscripts, including one from British MP Derek Wyatt. Mr Wyatt wrote: "These manuscripts were stolen. Had an Ethiopian army stolen the Stone of Scone you would expect them to return it." British troops invaded Ethiopia in 1867 and 1868 after Emperor Theodore II imprisoned a number of European missionaries and diplomats, including the British Consul. The soldiers stormed the Emperor's mountain fortress of Magdala in April 1868, defeated his forces and freed the captives. After the battle they loaded 200 mules and 15 elephants with gold crowns, swords, altar slabs and manuscripts before burning Magdala to the ground. The bulk of the plunder, including more than 400 manuscripts, made its way into institutions like the British Museum, the Queen's Library in Windsor Castle and Oxford's Bodleian Library. But a large number of smaller items were taken home by individual soldiers and ended up in private collections. Edinburgh's five manuscripts appear to have been given to the university by officers, or friends of officers, in the campaign. The parchments include two copies of the Book of Psalms, one portion of the Gospels and two texts detailing the Acts of St George. They are handwritten in Ge'ez, the ancient language still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world with more than 36m followers. In 2002 St John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh returned an altar slab given to the church by one of the officers in the campaign.

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