[የግዕዝ ፈደላት]


Spelling out Ethiopia in 33 Characters


  The Hornbook of Pêro da Covilhã spells out the history of Ethiopia through a series of  33  biographical vignettes of emblematic Ethiopian lives – with each life corresponding to one of the main 33 symbols of the Abyssinian Syllabary – or Abugida.

  The story begins with Yves-Marie Stranger receiving a mysterious outline of Pêro da Covilhã’s Ethiopian Hornbook containing the long lost memoirs of the Portuguese traveller, an account preserved for five centuries in an Ethiopian hornbook*,  by Pero’s descendants in Ethiopia.

The Hornbook includes sketches of Ethiopian historical characters, associated to numerological annotations from a forgotten work of the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, L’Arithnomancie Ethiopienne. Ensues a romp through the pages of Ethiopian history, that will ultimately lead to an excursion to the summit of Mount Kaka, a 4 000 high peak located in the Rift Valley.

*Hornbook: a primer for study made of horn affixed to a hard surface. Often used for learning to read. Pêro da Covilhã’s hornbook was first used by Pêro’s to learn the abugida, or Ethiopian syllabary, and to transcribe the events of his life during his forty years in Ethiopia.

It is a precious account of the great historical events of those times, and later centuries, as the Portuguese explorer’s descendants continued to use the hornbook to collect events and stories henceforth. As such it constitutes a chronicle of five hundred years of Ethiopian history.

  Part historical fiction and part magic scroll, The Abyssinian Syllabary compounds tentative fact and patent fiction to  breathe a new life into the characters of the Ethiopian palimpsest.

፦  Spelling out the many lives of  Victor Lazlo [], Rimbaud [], King Théodore [], the Monk Théodore [], Munziger Pasha [], Alessandro Zorzi [],  Arab Faquih [], Leonard Cohen [], Umm Delombera [], Menfus Kiddus [] and  more… 


  With a prologue by the distinguished scholar Manuel de Guèz.






፴፫  (33) Lives-Letters-Characters

From  to 


“At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said: ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realised that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same…”

                           The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges




From the prologue of Manuel de Guèze:


 ” (…) so that, of course, one can wonder, not only at the question of what is an Ethiopian – but if there even ever was such a thing. For nations are similar to the knife of yore,  still sharp after 2 000 years. The handle of which was refashioned, then the blade, and this ad infinitum.

And yet – we would like to believe that we are one and the same with the people of yesteryear. In this view, the English are, at all times, the English, and the Ethiopians are, and always were, the Ethiopians. And so, we continue to carve up our histories with this blade – not realising that it is our own razor sharp utensil – our inward eye – which is perpetually refocusing on the needs of the present.

We only delve into the abyss of time, in a desire to shed light on our present predicament – so that I would vouch to say that the English yeoman, the Inuit of Ultima Thule and the swarthy Abyssinian never truly did exist – or if so, never in any form that we ourselves could possibly unravel – The past is not only a foreign land, it is a country peopled by foreigners.”


From the 33 Characters:



Ewastewos, A Heretic


          ፦ Ewastewos partook of sorghum porridge, such as the other little childrens, and he played at  the game shepherd & flock, with clay and white stones, such as is the nature of all little childrens. And, similar again to all other children, he went about naked, without being ashamed, until the age of six years, age at which he was  covered with a piece of rough fabric that held two holes for the arms and one for the head.

          This is also the age at which he was brought to the priests, to learn his syllabary, and the age at which he stopped having his head shaven. The first morning, when Ewastewos sat himself down under the fig tree where the lesson was given, the swarm of bees congregated above him once more, and pulsated in unison to the chanting of the fidels, and the child Ewastewos did not fumble these fidels similar to the other pupils, but to the contrary enounced them to perfection.

          On the second day, this swarm did not return but Ewastewos now possessed his syllabary in its entirety and could read it clearly without even a single mistake. On the third day, he read the Psalms of David in Ge’ez, and he knew them. On the fourth, he initiated his reading of the Old Testament, and on the fifth completed the New (…) 

From the Life of Ewastewos


  Mentewab, A Queen


          ፦ Mentewab was carried away as booty at the time of the wars that ensued her father’s demise, between a Falasha Ras from the Semien and an Arabised chief from the Mitsua lowlands, who each had set their whetted appetites on the fertile strip between Axum and the coast. It is this Ras from Simien who bundled her away to his cold kingdom, where flowers bloomed on shafts at three men’s height from the ground, and where apes cropped grass such as sheep in the paddocks. In these lands, even the jackals wore red-coloured coats, so as to better keep their heat. Mentewab knew the man, who was clumsy and rough, but not a bad sort even though he called himself a Jew, so that she gave him her affections, a little because she had a loving heart, and also because it was so chilly (…) 


From the Life of Mentewab


  Leone, A Painter


          ፦ Leone was a wastrel from his very first years, that he ill-spent in rapine and acts of skulduggery in the taverns and markets of  Florence. He was born during a lull in the war between the Black and the White Guelfs, and as the paroxysms of violence smouldered under the gutted houses, it was a good time for tricksters and all forms of thievery, which was propitious for Leone, as he was a scoundrel, and not a brave one either.

          Defenestration and throttling had become so commonplace in Florence in those years that ground floor rents had tripled in price, and soothsayers peddled copper necklaces they lauded as foolproof charms against the exactions of the garrotter. Leone’s father did not trade in charms himself but was a swindler too as, a baker, he had no compunction in debasing his wheat with chestnut and acorn. From this chicanery, Leone acquired a lifelong dislike of blended foodstuffs and was to persist, to the term of his natural life, in desisting from partaking of any dishes not prepared in his own kitchens – nor was he ever to accept a dwelling reached by a fleet of stairs. This was to later prove itself convenient, as in Ethiopia all foods are basic, and all houses are built of a piece (…) 

From the Life of Leone


  Bariaw, A Leba Shai


          ፦ He was truly born to the Begemder roads, where he forged his first souvenir: a half dozen men in blue loincloths that harry before them a slave gang. These slaves are toweringly tall, with etchings on their naked bodies. They bear an elephant tusk on each shoulder, the stumps festooned with pink flesh and scraps of grey skin. The men in this slaving party sing merry songs, rhythmic couplets they gaily make up, on the riches they shall procure, from the ivory and the towering giants, on the Gondar market. Emmanuel is perhaps four years of age. He is therefore born at the beginning of the 20th century of the Franks. He travels with a salt merchant, who trades in amole, rectangles of crystal salt mined in the Danakil desert and hauled to the markets of Gojjam and Begemder, from the staging post of Kombolcha in Wollo 

From the Life of Bariaw



Evon Borghossian, A French Horn


         ፦  Then came the Rhinoceros Express and its Imperial salon-restaurant, in which the Maître d’Hôtel, a native of Bordeaux who was called Rouget but only  answered to the name Ducasse (because such had been the name of the king’s first cook) concocted for them mousse au chocolat “à la Gojjamite.” The merry train soon pulled into the  tiny monarch’s diminutive capital, with much use of the steam whistle at dawn, and this capital, such as the railway itself, was like a shiny toy, a model town blanketed in a pungent mix of cow dung smoke and eucalyptus vapours.

          But oh, what fun! Open cars awaited them in the station park, and the forty orphans were whisked away to the palace, where they were at first housed in the attics, before being pensioned off with the Armenian families of Addis Ababa. For in those days, the Armenians, together with the Greeks, were the empire’s craftspeople: they were distillers and photographers, tailors and shoemakers, jewellers and stonemasons. Soon, in earshot of the Apostolic Armenian Orthodox Church of the Ethiopias, an Armenian language school was opened by a few masters, who had returned with freshly minted certificates from Marseille, just above the Ras Mekonnen Bridge, plumb in the middle of Seretegna Sefer (the neighbourhood of the workers). The forty orphans were of all the feasts, all the celebrations (…) 

From the Life of Evon



   ፣  Zara Yacob, A Philosopher


          “Raw meat, pepper and flasks of mead, that’s what we need!” imparted a hurried Zara Yacob to his disciple Baêdeu Maryam. “But we are in Lent,” the latter remonstrated timidly. “Splendid!” exclaimed his Master: “the disapproval of all  shall render our feast all the more delectable

From The Apocrypha of Zara Yacob


  Mengistu Haile-Maryam, Comrade Kakocrat


          ፦ And so it passed that the children of the House-of-the-Mule taunted Mengistu,  branding  him with the soubriquet southern bastard, calling him a bula-gruel-slurping-runt, and adding, what is more, that his grandmother, who now wore the yellow skull cap of a nun on her shrivelled head, and who had taken the name Guebre-Maryam, (Slave of Mary),  was in reality called Totit, which means Little Monkey, and that she was a slave in her youth, which, for being injurious, was the plain truth. The grandmother herself had no truck with these stories. She was a very shortish woman, with a spark of mishchief in her eye, and she herself  had a love of good gossip and slander. But Mengistu Haile-Maryam (Government-Force-of-Mary) grew up withdrawn and resentful (…)  

From the Life of Mengistu Haile-Maryam




Yves-Marie Stranger is a writer and translator. He is the editor of Ethiopia through Writers’ Eyes (Eland Books),  and the author of A Gallop in Ethiopia, and Ces pas qui trop vitent s’effacent  (L’Archange Minotaure). He translated the books Menelik and African TrainDjibouti-Addis Ababa (Hugues Fontaine, Amarna).

His exhibition ‘The Abyssinian Syllabary’ was shown both in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, Alliance Éthio-Française) and in France (Carré d’Art, Nîmes). You can also listen to The Abyssinian Syllabary on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Youtube.