U of T’s first class in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopic language, gets underway.
Riding a wave of national and international media attention, the University of Toronto began offering its first class in Ge’ez in January 2017—becoming the only Canadian university where students can learn the language.
Michael Gervers, a professor of history at the University of Toronto Scarborough, was behind the initial push to establish the course. Gervers has explored and preserved the culture of ancient Ethiopia throughout his 30-year career. He donated $50,000 to set up the course, and appealed to the Ethiopian community in Toronto to join him in supporting the cause. As a result of generous donations—some large ones, such as one from Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) and the Arts & Science Annual Fund, and many smaller ones—the Ge’ez course became a reality.
The course attracted interest from U of T students immediately. Isaiah Kidane, an Eritrean Canadian and first-year humanities student, said, “When I heard about the opportunity to take the course, I definitely wanted to take the chance. The Horn of Africa is not represented well enough in academia. It’s a region of the world with a vast history. It is a rare opportunity for students to study a no-longer-spoken language that remains an intellectual cornerstone for an important African and Semitic civilization.”
The Ge’ez course itself is also unique. Robert Holmstedt, a professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, is writing the textbook for the class as he teaches the course. Just two weeks in, students began analyzing digital copies of a number of ancient manuscripts written in Ge’ez. The documents were collected by Gervers, who led a project to digitize the manuscript collection of the Gunda Gunde Monastery in Ethiopia, and this was the first time they had been studied at a Western university. Students are now able to study 219 manuscripts, containing more than 34,000 pages of Ge’ez text.
The study of Ethiopia’s ancient history is underrepresented in higher education. Ethiopia, especially the ancient or pre-modern civilization, is rarely found on a syllabus at universities in North America or Europe. Its vast literary history has thus far remained largely unstudied and underappreciated. With writings dating back over 2,000 years, ancient Ethiopia was the only region in sub-Saharan Africa with a literary culture.
For history student Milen Melles, the Ge’ez course offers an invaluable opportunity to connect with her cultural heritage. “As a second-generation Eritrean, I was born in Canada and I can’t speak my parents’ language. I felt it was important to connect with the history of my parents’ language,” she said. She has found the course challenging, but ultimately really enjoyable. “We’ve learned a lot in a very short time. I really like that I can make a connection with words that I have heard from my parents.”
Another unique aspect of the course has been the presence of Toronto’s Ethiopian and Eritrean community, who have provided cultural context for the course content. Fourth year Near and Middle Eastern civilizations student Jayne Kitchen found the community’s contribution to be invaluable. She explained, “It’s really easy to get lost in grammar, vocabulary and a textbook and forget that there is culture attached to this language. Having people there who have studied it and have an emotional and personal stake in it is really great.”
Connecting to the world outside of Ge’ez grammar was an important aspect of the course. In addition to a guest lecture on Ethiopian scribal tools and manuscripts, the course ended with a field trip to a local Ethiopian restaurant. Holmstedt intends to integrate more cultural connections when the course is taught again, using food, music and perhaps even dance to help the students internalize the language.
U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations are working in partnership with Toronto’s Ethiopian community to secure the financial support required to establish more courses in Ethiopian language, literature and art with the eventual goal of becoming the only university in North America to offer an Ethiopian studies program. The campaign recently received a boost with an anonymous donor coming forward to offer a challenge grant that will match donations up to a total of $30,000.
Story by Phil Boughton
FIRST IN CLASS:
(above) Students, community members and professors at the inaugural Ge’ez class. Photo: Jackie Shapiro.