Ge’ez is a Semitic language that originated from northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although it is almost extinct it is still used as a liturgical language, as it has been for millennia. In fact, this language is the medium for important liturgical contents about which we still know incredibly little: if marvelous manuscripts have already been deciphered, the printed tradition in the Ethio- Eritrean areas in Ge’ez is still a foggy matter. This essay aims to shed light on the introduction of the printing press in Ethiopia, which appeared only in 1863. The paper argues that the Ethiopian social environment of the 16th century was not favourable to the development of a network of press offices and a printing market, but the Christian dimension of Ethiopian liturgical production inevitably attracted the attention of European scholars and intellectuals. In fact, the first book ever printed in Ge’ez is the so-called “Ethiopian Psalter”, published by Johannes Potkem in 1513 in Rome, where it is still conserved. Analysing Ethiopian history, literature and relationship with Rome, the paper aims to contribute to the ongoing debate about the interests that led to the spread of Ge’ez all around Europe, and the motivation behind the discontinuity with an Ethiopic spring of printing.


The indigenous name of the Ethiopian language, Ge’ez, derives presumably from the Arab immigrants in the Ethio-Eritrean region; etymologically it seems to have a correlation with the verb ge’eza, to migrate. The first inscriptions appear in the V century BCE, while the literary production started properly with the Christianization of the area in the IV century. Ethiopia, thus, possesses a millenary writing tradition, which is the expression of a syncretism that would shape all of its cultural history. The Ethiopian historical and political contingencies allowed for Greek, Roman and Arabic influences that would lead to centuries of cultural exchange with European and Catholic institutions, allowing for the propagation of Ge’ez and Ethiopic culture as well. In particular, the first pole of the spread of the Ge’ez printing press was Rome, but why Rome? And if the Ethiopian texts were requested and studied, why printing press wasn’t present in Ethiopia itself until 1863?

To answer these questions the paper takes in analysis some of the principal research in the Ethiopistic studies field, such as the one of Enrico Cerulli and Alessandro Bausi, other than Matteo Salvadore’s contribution to the Oxford research encyclopaedia for African history and the linguistic accounts of Samantha Kelly.


Ethiopia, situated on the Horn of Africa, is one of the most ancient places in the world that hosted human life. Thanks to the intense commercial exchanges through the Red Sea, the Ethiopic culture absorbed at its very heart influences from the Arabic, Greek and Roman worlds; the syncretic aspect was fundamental, from the legend of the sacred union of the queen of Sheba with King Solomon, to the Coptic Christian religion. The relationship between Christianity and the royal dynasty was very deep, especially since the 14th century, when the official genealogy of the Solomonic dynasty and their legends, Kebra Nagast, was published and disseminated by monks. The historical legitimization of a dynasty bound to Christianity provided undoubtedly the basis for national unity and ideological resistance to the increasing pushes of Islam forces from the eastern and southern peripheries. As heads of the church, the Solomonic kings actively participated in the consolidation of Christian discipline, repressing pagans and Muslims. However, soon occurred conflict: in 1528 the ruler of the Muslim states, Amhad the left-handed, led his men in the jihad against Ethiopia. The war turned in favor of the Christians just when 400 musketeers were sent by the Portuguese to train the Ethiopian army and protect their interest in the Red Sea.

Together came the Jesuits missionaries, sought to convert Ethiopia to the Western church, and in the first moment they succeded, since the emperor himself, Susenyos, submitted to the Pope; however, when the Emperor abdicated for his son, Fasilides, Jesuits were immediately expelled from the country in 1632, and the authority of Ethiopic church restored, fading away the papal dream of reunifying Christianity[1].


By the early 1400, diplomatic representatives and pilgrims traveled Europe for political and religious reasons, to acquire technologies and forge alliances, the first official one would be with Portugal. With the Ethiopian arrivals in Europe, also European diplomats and adventurers began reaching Ethiopia, unfolding an intense exchange for more than 200 years. But the focal point for the Ethiopian catholic community in Europe was Rome, specifically around the church of Santo Stefano Maggiore, near St Peter’s Basilica –by 1400 known also as “Santo Stefano dei Mori”, “degli Abissini”, or “degli Indiani”.  The presence of their members was confirmed in very important occasions for Christianity such as the Council of Constance and the Council of Florence, mainly with the goal of reuniting the Christian churches against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and later against the Protestant Reformation. In the first half of the 16th century, Santo Stefano Maggiore became Europe’s first center of Africanist knowledge.

The first example of intercultural collaboration that originated in that community was the one between the papal secretary Johannes Potkem and the prior Tomas Walda Samuel, whose effort produced the editio princeps of the Ethiopian Psalter, the first ever printed book in Ge’ez alphabet.

Potkem developed a certain interest in Ge’ez, so he started learning the language and the liturgy with the help of the prior Tomas. Since no book had ever been printed with Ge’ez types he personally had to commission the cutting of the font types; he published the volume as “Psalterium David et cantica aliqua in Lingua Chaldea” and it was based on a manuscript version of Ge’ez Psalter held in Vatican library (Vat. Etip. 20) which he has borrowed in 1511. The book was issued by the German printer Marcellus Silber in 1513, in his press at Campo de Fiori.

However, in referring to Ge’ez as Chaldean, Potkem made a fundamental mistake, since its origin in East Africa has no evident connection with Chaldea. Chaldean is a West Semitic language, used in some Books of the Hebrew Bible, and even if this error could be considered a minor one, it left its mark on the attitude toward Ethiopia, since it was used as a premise for a natural “alliance” between the Catholic church and the Ethiopic one; it is not a mystery that this attitude, that is typically European, often implies not only the religious union as a goal, but also commercial exchange and territorial conquest[2].


The Ethiopian Psalter was printed in red and black: it begins with a full-page woodcut portrait printed in red, representing the crowned King David, depicted while sitting under a tree and playing the Begena, the divine lyre in the Ethiopian tradition; the portrait is framed by an ornamental border with foliate and floral motifs. The preface was made by Potkem in Latin, offering some insights into the life of Rome as a destination for the most disparate pilgrims, recalling also his religious experience with Ethiopian liturgy and Ge’ez in Santo Stefano Maggiore. The edition is divided into two parts: the first consists of the psalms and the biblical canticle and it ends with 2 colophons, one in Latin, in Gothic type dated 30 June 1513, and the other in Ge’ez, from which we learn about Tomas Walda Samuel, denoting himself as a pilgrim of the Ethiopic monastery in Jerusalem; in the following leaves, the first ever printed basic instruments to learn Ge’ez make their appearence: a Latin-Ge’ez syllabary, a Latin note on grammar and pronunciation, and Ethiopic numbers; the second part repeats the same schema with the song of Solomon and a Latin colophon. The book is enriched by a fine interlaced headpiece stamped in red on both the opening pages of the Psalms and the song of Solomon, reproducing the one on the manuscript version.[3]



Despite the international interest in Ge’ez literature, the printing press in Ethiopia has been introduced for the first time only in 1863, moreover by an Italian –not an Ethiopian- Lazarist father, Lorenzo Bianchieri, at the Red Sea port of Massawa; he successfully produced some Amharic books and some missionary texts, but after his death in 1864, the press closed. The first non-religious printing press was established during the Italian colonization (1882-1960), precisely in 1885 at Meenkulo, near Massawa, and it was entirely in Italian mainly for military scopes. The first governmental printing press, “Ye Itopya Mengest Matemya”, was founded only in 1906, in Addis Ababa during the reign of Emperor Menelik II.

The arrival of the printing press in a given society has always been an object of research and disquisition because it implies discourses of power, progress, relationships networks, and knowledge transfer; however, in the African continent this type of research often laked of continuity because of the absence of effective bibliographic tools and agencies[4]; it is a fortune that, in this landscape,  printing historians have been able to trace the millenary manuscript tradition in the Ethiopic area, that since the most recondite times is radicated in a monumental cultural system. But why has this millenary tradition, so bounded to book production, not experienced the technology of the printing press for such a long time?

The answer is not clear, what is actually evident is that even if the Ge’ez printing is part of the printing revolution and its network, it was fully a European phenomenon, and it didn’t correspond with the importation of printing technology to Ethiopia. In this regard, is not possible to ignore the recently funded statement in a manuscript dating back to the first half of the 16th century, preserved in the Florentine national library (Magl. XIII, 84, c. 58 r): in 1524 an Ethiopian religious man, Abba Tomas, passing for Venice and answering to the questions of a curious traveler, remembered that in the capital city of Ethiopia, “there is currently the florentine Andrea Corsali, who is printing Chaldean books in that land”. The hypothesis that Ethiopia requested typographic materials and typographers since the beginning of the relations with Europe is sustained by the Ethiopist Carlo Conti Rossini[5], and the figure of Andrea Corsali fitted perfectly in this eventuality.

Conversely, in a recent interview with the author (May 2023), the philologist Alessandro Bausi described Corsali’s figure more as an outsider, a stranger for the precise conditions in which books were produced in Ethiopia, thus, even if there could have been early attempts to install the printing press system, they must have been totally European impulses. To better understand the causes of the delay in the introduction of the printing press in Ethiopia, Bausi highlights the cultural coordinates in which the written culture lived, first of all, the status of the book: the support that continued to be chosen until very recent times was parchment, not paper: just thinking about the costs that this support implies, it is not difficult to acknowledge that the written culture lived in the monopoly of a restricted elite and traditional –Christian- schools; these communities were extremely distant from any technological or entrepreneurial innovation. The impulses embraced in the Ethiopic written culture from the European importations were cast again into the traditional medium of the manuscript.

Another possible answer to the printing void could be identified in the historical contingency of that times: the Muslim advance, together with the expulsion and prosecution of Catholicism, contributed to the isolation of Ethiopia from European influence during the 17th and 18th centuries, turning the colonial efforts the only occasion of contact; moreover, internal conflicts continuously devastated the country in those centuries, preventing progress as well as encounters. It was only with Emperor Menelik II that the conditions were favourable for technological progress, as well as for telecommunication services, equipped hospital, railways, schools and of course printing press.


Ethiopian history is soaked in syncretism, principally Greek, Roman and Arab impulses shaped literature and, more profoundly, the very cultural identity of Ethiopia. Being one of the most ancient Christian countries, Ethiopia drew the attention of Europe, especially at the beginning of the 15th century, with the aspiration, through dense diplomatic encounters and missionary dispatches, to reunite the two churches against the Muslim enemy and later against the Protestant Reformation. The relation with Catholicism was continuative until the mid-17th century, and one of the most precious products of this collaboration was the first printed book in Ge’ez language in the Ethiopic community of Santo Stefano Maggiore in Rome, the Ethiopic Psalter, which express an interest in Ethiopic liturgy and culture that was destinated to grow. Unfortunately, this contact with Europe stopped with the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries in 1632, and the isolation, caused also by the Muslim encirclement and the internal fights, together with a strong communal attachment to the traditional status of the parchment manuscript, prevented the importation or the development of an Ethiopic printing press, which eventually was established in more favourable conditions.


Marcellus Silber 1513 “the  Ethiopian psalter” the first printed book in ancient Ethiopian language https://opac.vatlib.it/stp/detail/20046454

Lefevre, Renato (1965) “L’Etiopia nella stampa del primo cinquecento” Africa: rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’ Istituto italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, anno 20 (No. 4), pp. 345-369

Kelly, Samantha (2015) “The curious case of Ethiopic Chaldean: fraud, philology, and cultural (mis)understanding  in European conception of Ethiopia” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol 68 (No. 4), pp. 1227-1264

Mehretu, Assefa , Crummey, Donald Edward and Marcus, Harold G.. “Ethiopia”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Apr. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/place/Ethiopia. Accessed 22 April 2023.

Cerulli, Enrico (1961) Storia della letteratura Etiopica. Milano: nuova accademia editrice

Ngetich, Elias Kiptoo. (2016). Catholic counter-reformation: a history of the Jesuits’ mission to Ethiopia 1557-1635. Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae42(2), 104-115. https://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2412-4265/2016/1148

Bausi, Alessandro (2008) “La tradizione scrittoria Etiopica” Segno e Testo, Vol. 6, pp 507-557

Zaccaria, Massimo (2021) “From incunabula to book history: Ethiopia, Eritrea in search for printing past” Aethiopica, Vol. 24, pp. 141- 174

Metikou, Ourgay (1992) “Printing, publishing and book development in Ethiopia up to the era of the Emperor Menelik II” The international information & library review, Vol. 4 (No. 3) pp. 221-227

Margherita Palumbo, “A Publishing First: The Psalterium David et cantica aliqua of 1513, the first book printed in the Ge’Ez language,” 5 February 2020, https://www.prphbooks.com/blog/a-publishing-first. Accessed [8/05/2023].

Salvadore, Matteo (2018) “Encounters between Ethiopia and Europe, 1400-1600” Oxford research encyclopedia for African history


[1] Mehretu, Assefa , Crummey, Donald Edward and Marcus, Harold G.. “Ethiopia”. Encyclopedia Britannica

[2] Kelly, Samantha (2015) “The curious case of Ethiopic Chaldean: fraud, philology, and cultural (mis)understanding  in European conception of Ethiopia” pp. 2-5

[3] Margherita Palumbo, “A Publishing First: The Psalterium David et cantica aliqua of 1513, the first book printed in the Ge’Ez language,”

[4] Zaccaria, Massimo (2021) “From incunabula to book history: Ethiopia, Eritrea in search for printing past”, p. 8

[5] Conti Rossini, Geographica, in Rassdi studi etiopici, II (1943), pp. 177, 180, 183, 194

Penelope Marcovecchio

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