Ethiopic Studies at University of Toronto Becomes Permanent (UPDATE)

The future of University of Toronto’s Ethiopic program — the only one of its kind in North America — just got brighter. The endowment that makes the program possible has surpassed its goal of $500,000, thanks to another gift from Toronto native, Abel Tesfaye, the international, award-winning singer, songwriter and recording producer known as The Weeknd. (Courtesy photo)

University of Toronto

U of T’s Ethiopic program soars past $500,000 endowment goal on strength of community support — and another gift from The Weeknd

The future of U of T’s Ethiopic program — the only one of its kind in North America and among a handful in the world — just got brighter. The endowment that makes the program possible has surpassed its goal of $500,000, thanks to another gift from Toronto native, Abel Tesfaye, the international, award-winning singer, songwriter and recording producer known as The Weeknd. This support enables U of T to offer at least one Ge’ez language course each year.

“Our heartfelt thanks to The Weeknd for his ongoing commitment to Ethiopic studies at U of T,” said Professor Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “This gift means the endowment celebrates a significant fundraising milestone. For us, it signifies an important partnership with the Ethiopian-Canadian community, one we hope to continue to grow. We share a vision and an understanding of the value in preserving the Ge’ez language. The impact of The Weeknd’s continued support is truly appreciated, for current and future faculty, students and alumni.”

Ethiopic studies at U of T launched three years ago with a course on Ge’ez, an ancient language in Ethiopia used primarily for liturgical Christian services. Currently, U of T is the only university in North America, and one of the very few universities in the world, that regularly offers a course on Ge’ez. It’s part of the Semitic group of languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, and is no longer spoken in Ethiopia but remains a fundamental language for classical studies, such as Latin and Greek.

The program, jointly run by A&S’s Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and the Centre for Medieval Studies, was just shy of reaching its fundraising goal when The Weeknd, recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, made a $30,000 gift.

This is his second donation to U of T in support of the Ethiopic program. His first was a $50,000 gift in 2016, as part of the fundraising drive led by the Bikila Award — an Ethiopian-Canadian organization that fosters academic and business excellence and encourages volunteerism — to galvanize its community to support the new endowment.

Tessema Mulugeta, president of Bikila, called it “a pivotal moment in our history here in Toronto” while recently presenting The Weeknd’s cheque, together with board member Behailu Atnafu and The Weeknd’s parents, Ms. Samrawit Hailu and Mr. Walelegne Teshome, to Dean Woodin on a fall day at Arts & Science.

“U of T’s Ethiopic studies will illuminate to the world the hidden, untouched millennial scripts in Ge’ez, and uncover rich texts of philosophy, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, history, medicine and law,” said Mulugeta. “During this modern age, current and future generations of U of T students can continue to access Ethiopia’s past and unlock tantalizing deposits of wisdom from distant eras of human history.”

For Professor Michael Gervers, who teaches Ethiopian history at the University of Toronto Scarborough and St. George campuses, more than 40 years of scholarly research, including digitizing church manuscripts in Ethiopia, has crystallized “how significant and important this culture is.” He gave the first gift in 2015 to launch the endowment campaign.

“I spent decades in Ethiopia and saw that almost every single church I went to had manuscripts that nobody was reading, except the monks and priests for their daily or weekly services. But there was all this other literature just sitting there.”

Gervers explained that not many people are aware that the King of Ethiopia converted to Christianity before the Roman Emperor Constantine did in Byzantium. “It goes right back to somewhere around 333 to 340 CE. And you can’t have a religion without a book,” said Gervers.

With Ethiopia having a written historical tradition older than any other country in Africa, that’s a lot of books. In fact, it’s been recently discovered that the oldest complete Gospel manuscript in the world is from Ethiopia, opening up a plethora of new scholarship questions.

Bikila Award president Tessema Mulugeta, Bikila board member Behailu Atnafu, The Weeknd’s parents Walelegne Teshome and Samrawit Hailu, A&S Dean Melanie Woodin and Professor Michael Gervers.

Undergraduate student Saba Ebrahimpour, a member of New College, is in the program and said it’s very important for her to read the literature in its original Ge’ez.

“When I was studying for this course, I was going through the Bible in the English translation, and the professors were teaching us how to translate it. I compared the two languages, and there were some differences between the two.”

Ebrahimpour searched for other sources but found there weren’t any. And she said there are few professors who can teach Ge’ez. “So U of T has a very big job to do.”

Ge’ez will be a significant component of graduate student Arshan Hasan’s research, and this first course is a vital start.

“Of the classical Semitic languages, Ge’ez is one of the most understudied despite it being one of the most unique. It has a unique script in its family that really needs to be taught alongside the language, rather than self-taught. Grammatically it is so remarkable and so different from its sister languages while also still being very familiar,” said Hasan. “It reopens many lost horizons.”

Highlighting, remembering and teaching the history, languages and cultures in this cradle of civilization in the Horn of Africa are just some of the reasons Ethiopians in Canada have supported and continue to give to U of T’s program.

“We were and are people of many literatures,” said Mulugeta. “The study of Ge’ez will help us make sense of ourselves, our early civilizations, our beliefs and cultures, and most importantly, our interconnectedness in the world.”

The program, and particularly the Ge’ez course, has put U of T “on the map because we’re doing it and nobody else is,” said Gervers. “The Ethiopic program at U of T has enormous potential.”



Ethiopic Studies Endowment at University of Toronto Update

(Courtesy photo)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Updated: June 10th, 2020

Ethiopic Studies Endowment at University of Toronto Nears Goal of Raising $500k

New York (TADIAS) – They needed to raise $500,000 in order to make the Ge’ez course at the University of Toronto permanent. This month organizers behind the Ethiopic Studies Endowment announced that they have raised $440,000 and are within reach of a milestone achievement by the Ethiopian Diaspora community.

The Board of Directors of Bikila Award — the organization which has been spearheading the fundraising campaign since 2015 — released a report detailing its efforts.

“In 2019 a new fundraising drive was initiated to reach the required endowment fund of $500,000 to make the Ge’ez course permanent, followed by the U of T’s renewed generous matching fund of $75,000,” noted the Bikila Award organization in its report titled ‘Ethiopic Studies & Culture at the University of Toronto.’

Below is the full report courtesy of the non-profit organization Bikila Award:

GE’EZ – An iconic ancient Ethiopian language for humanity

Toronto, Canada

Dear Community Members and Supporters:

First of all, our well wishes to you and family members in these uncertain global times caused by Covid-19 which has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives as well as immense economic ramifications. In history there had been dark days; wars and pandemics, yet the human spirit has always prevailed. By the Grace of God we shall overcome this time as well! Let us all keep the faith and move forward together!

University of Toronto. (Courtesy photo)

In 2019 a new fundraising drive was initiated to reach the required endowment fund of $500,000 to make the Ge’ez course permanent, followed by the U of T’s renewed generous matching fund of $75,000. Members of our community and Society of Friends of Ethiopian Studies made urgently needed generous donations for which we are very grateful.

Professor Michael Gervers. (Courtesy photo)

We are particularly very grateful to Professor Michael Gervers and Dr. Fikre Germa who blessed us with a renewed donation of $45,000 and $10,000 respectively and for their unfailing support without which this good news as well as the certainty of the establishment of Ethiopian Studies at the U of T would not have been possible.

We are very pleased to report that Bikila Award also filled the remaining small gap to reach the required funding in matching the $75.000 goal. So far, we raised a total of $440,000+ to the Ethiopic Studies Endowment.

About Ethiopic Studies and Culture at U of T

The discovery of the earliest history of humanity through the remains of the 3 million-year-old Australopithecus Afarensis, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and known as Dinknesh (ድንቅነሽ) Lucy, show that the first human beings emerged in Africa. In the same vicinity, the invention of writing and the founding of great unified states 5,000 years ago mark the beginning of early civilizations of mankind.

With this and more historical background in mind, Ethiopic Studies initiative at the University of Toronto was undertaken with the objective of building bridges between humanity’s past, present and the future contributing to the increasingly interconnected world.

As we all know concrete step to establish Ethiopian Studies at the University of Toronto (U of T) was taken on the occasion of the annual Bikila Award Ceremony in 2015 during which Prof. Michael Gervers of the U of T challenged members of the Ethiopian community to match his own $50,000 donation towards the establishment of Ethiopian Studies at the U of T. Watch the video.

This unforgettable initiative and generosity led to a matching of $50,000 by internationally recognized artist Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd). Further generous support by the U of T and ongoing donations by members of the Ethiopian community has to date resulted in over $440,000 as endowment fund for the establishment of Ethiopian Studies. This initiative came to fruition when the ancient language of Geez course was given at the U of T beginning in 2017 as a working knowledge of Geez language is necessary without which ancient Ethiopian manuscripts could not be read and/or understood.

The Board of Directors of Bikila Award and members of the Ethiopian community in Canada express their gratitude and utmost appreciation to the University of Toronto Administration for their generosity, unfailing support and encouragement towards the establishment of Ethiopian Studies at this highly esteemed institution of learning.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support.

The Board of Directors, Bikila Award.

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