Scribe at Work
Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production
Writing, Marigeta Haile Selassie, Mek'ele, Tigray, Ethiopia, March 2009


Writing, to the scribe is both a practical matter (books are needed for worship and study) and an act of devotion, glorifying God and the saints to whom the books are dedicated. Working in light from a door or in the shade of a tree, a scribe writes with a quire of parchment resting upon his knee for hours at a time. The largest books may take up to a year to write, while smaller books and scrolls may be written in a single day.

reed pens reed pens and ruling needles


Ethiopian pens are made out of the stalk of the giant cane, Arundo donax, just as those used by Romans and Arabs. Dried sections are cut and carved with a small knife into a point, which is then split to form a well for the ink. Quills are not used in Ethiopia.

  • C Pen with oblique right-handed cut nib.
  • D Pen with acute right-handed cut nib.
  • E Pen with oblique left-handed cut nib.
  • F Pen with flat-cut nib.
  • G Pen with both ends cut as nibs.
  • H Pen made of non-cane material.
  • K A type of hairpin known as mesfe, used as a hard-point, to rule parchment for writing.

Other Tools


Qes Felege, Bahir Dar. Collected in 2009.

Inkhorns, made variously from the horns of sheep or oxen, store ink when it is being used. A small stick or nail is left in the horn in order to stir it, especially the surface film, which disrupts the pen's ability to take in free-flowing ink. The inkhorn on the right was made by Qes Felege, a scribe and craftsman. The sharp point allows it to be driven into the ground, whereas the ring gives a visual cue to the user regarding the depth of the well. On the left of the image is a small bit of a cake of traditionally-made ink, which would be put in the horn with starchy water and left overnight to dissolve before use.



Scribes have no fixed place of work; inkhorns may be pressed into the ground, but many scribes use inkstands made of mud and straw, wood, or other materials, which make it easier to move around and to keep all their tools in one place. In the image to the right, a modern bottle stores the red ink, whereas the black is in the traditional horn.


A smooth stone or piece of pottery called a medmets is used to smooth the surface and raise a nap in order to prepare the parchmnet for writing. Pieces of tile are used by many modern scribes, as illustrated in the image to the right.

burning off the nug oil


Ethiopian inks are known as qalam after the (Latin/Greek) word for the reed of a reed-pen. Black is used for most text, with the names of saints and beginnings of sections in red. Other colors, such as green, yellow, or blue, and gold are rare, but not unknown.

Burning off the nug oil

Melaka Tsehai, Axum, 2009

During the production process, Melaka Tsehai adds nug, a local oil-crop. Oiliness, however, would ruin the ink, so he sets the mixture alight until it is sufficiently burned off.

Ink in fermentation

Resting ink

Andabet, 2009

The best inks, according to the scribes, rest for weeks or months (up to a year) before they are used. During this time, they undergo fermentation and are regularly reground and rehydrated. Here, an ink is resting, with the film on the top stirred back into the mix. When ready, it will be strained through a cloth and then dried into cakes for later use.

ruled page

The Page

Ruled page

A quire of pages which are ruled and ready for writing.

finished page

Finished page