posted June 28, 2000

Video Shows Parchment Creation

An ancient art is chronicled in a new video co-directed by Dr. Neal Sobania of the Hope College faculty.

The video, "The Parchment Makers: An Ancient Art in Present-Day Ethiopia," follows the way that books were created in the centuries before the development of the printing press and paper revolutionized their production. It follows the process from start to finish as Ethiopian artist and scribe Meregete Berhane Abade works on a text for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Sobania and Dr. Raymond A. Silverman of the art history faculty at Michigan State University were co-directors, in addition to co-authoring the script and doing the photography in Ethiopia. The video was produced by the Scriptorium Center for Christian Antiquities of Grand Haven in cooperation with Hope College and Michigan State University.

Parchment is made from goatskin or sheepskin scraped paper-thin. "The Parchment Makers" follows the creation process from the initial stretching of a hide on a frame through the binding of completed pages into a book.

According to Sobania, who is a professor of history and director of international education at Hope, the methods shown in the 19-minute video are much the same as those used by artisans worldwide for hundreds of years, including the monks who a millennium and more ago were creating the impressive illuminated manuscripts that are today treasures of Western culture. The skill remains practiced in Ethiopia, he noted, because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church requires that certain texts be hand-rendered on parchment and not mass-produced on a printing press.

Sobania and Silverman have been working together to chronicle traditions of art in Ethiopia for several years. The results of their work include the 1994 exhibition "Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity" at Michigan State University and a book of the same name edited by Silverman and published in 1999 by the University of Washington Press. They filmed Berhane Abade during a visit to Aksum, Ethiopia, in 1998.

The Scriptorium was a natural partner for the video project, Sobania said, because of the center's interest in historical biblical manuscripts as well as the capability of its Sola Scriptura media production section. The video footage that Sobania and Silverman shot in Ethiopia is complemented by images of works from the Scriptorium's collection, photographed by Dirk Eichhorst, who as media production director with Sola Scriptura served as editor for the project.

"It was a very fruitful collaboration," Sobania said. "All the images in the video either belong to Ray and me or they belong to the Scriptorium. We were basically able to top and tail our footage of a living process with pieces from the Middle Ages, when the Western world was using parchment to copy and record the Bible and all sorts of writing."

Although originally produced with an English-language narrative, the video has also been rendered in two of Ethiopia's languages: Amharic and Tigrinia. Sobania is especially enthused about the translations, and plans to take copies of the video along when he travels to Ethiopia for a conference in November, hoping that they will help build awareness of and appreciation for an important national tradition.

"When doing research like ours, you feel like you are taking from a society or a culture and it's hard to give back," he said. "For me and for Ray, this is an incredibly exciting opportunity to give something back to Ethiopia and to museums and the church and the people that we work with. And we hope that it's the first of a number of things that we're going to do."