Mad in Pursuit Notebook

From Ethiopia: The Lost Scrolls of Desire

What is that twinge of longing for something that was never yours?

Z holding 3 Ethiopian healing scrolls

[I have an archive of stories about the interesting curios we've accumulated over the years. Every so often, I pull a story out to see if my writing can be improved or the facts updated. This one is about a mysterious trio of tiny Ethiopian scrolls—how they snagged my imagination... then disappeared.]

Coveting my lover's goods

The story begins around 1980. Z and I were middle-aged lovers, sworn to keep our independence in separate apartments, pursuing our separate passions in our own private spaces.

My passion was calligraphy and hand-lettering. I admired Z for his collections, so I began collecting samples of scripts from various cultures—antique pages of writing in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, anything I could find for ten dollars or less.

Z was beginning to collect old Kodaks and nineteenth-century photos. Still, his apartment was cluttered with gewgaws from his haunting of antique shops around the world.

One day in his study, he showed me a little treasure: three narrow scrolls, one in a silver amulet case (image above). Hunched over his desk, shoulder to shoulder, we unrolled them, just a few inches at a time because the goat-skin vellum was stiff with age.

They revealed a wonder.

The scrolls were from Ethiopia. Did you know that Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world? One story has it that Ethiopia's king was converted by a Phoenician missionary in the fourth century C.E. Its isolation allowed the region to develop its own "Coptic" orthodoxy, which, over the centuries, intermingled with Judaism, Islam, and east African folk traditions.

Z's scrolls were filled with handwritten text and tiny paintings.

"The script is Ge'ez," Z said, "related in some ancient way to Hebrew and Arabic. They are prayers and incantations specifically designed to heal sickness. Probably nineteenth century. The scrolls are as long as the person is tall—a head-to-toe cure."

Ge'ez writing

Wow. I was immediately enchanted. And I coveted them. They belonged with me! My brain leapt to the fantasy of Z pressing them into my hands, telling me I was the perfect conservator of these rare and precious scrolls.

Subscribe to get my newsletterBut that didn't happen. I was silent. And Z put his little treasures away.

But I couldn't forget them. They were the most wonderful, magical, enchanting, mysterious things I'd ever laid eyes on. But they were not mine.

The longing

Years passed. Twenty years. Thirty years. But I never forgot those scrolls. Where were they? What had happened to them?

During those years, Jim had moved to a condo. When we got married in 1993, I moved in with him. As part of the process of integrating our households, I took charge of excavating closets and drawers. I organized. I opened an Ebay store to help clear out the underbrush.

But I never forgot those scrolls. I asked Jim about them. He was vague. Couldn't quite remember where he put them or whether he had traded them to someone.

By 2012, there were few hidey-holes left. Z's many collections had been inventoried and reorganized or sold. With every new mystery drawer or cardboard box, I thought (no lie), maybe I'll find the Ge'ez scrolls in here. No luck.

Isn't it a strange feeling to miss something you never had? Such an odd longing. Such a puzzling nostalgia.


fragment of Ethiopian scrollThen one summer night, I found myself in Z's tiny study, which felt like it was becoming our junk room. I was trying to get books and papers off the floor and into one of the five over-stuffed bookcases.

One of the bookcases was partially blocked by an old file cabinet. The books in it were so heavy that the the shelves sagged and the glass doors would barely slide on their tracks anymore.

At the far end of the bottom shelf were a pile of reprints and catalogs that looked like candidates for recycling. On top was a pamphlet for a 1970s conference in Ethiopia. When I stretched past the filing cabinet and reached around the half-open glass door, deep into the dark shelf, my hand found a small plastic bag.

Oh! I knew immediately what they were. The scrolls!

The bland little package was right where Jim had once thought appropriate—on top of his odd assortment of conference proceedings and articles on the Ethiopian healthcare system. Of course.

I felt light-headed. That mythical big old fish, who I lazily thought about every time I tossed my line in the water—that elusive silver flash disappearing out the corner of my eye—where did you go?—that rascal was finally mine.

I ran downstairs to show Jim. We unwound the leathery vellum, little by little, to gaze upon the strange liturgical script and the charming paintings. Oh, the thrill of it.

a guardian angel from the Ethiopian ge'ez scroll

I went to bed basking in the magic of it all. Feeling like Indiana Jones.

Why so precious to me?

Like antique beads, the Ethiopian scrolls are portable treasures. They are intimate possessions, fabricated by a learned and skilled hand, prized by their 19th-century owners as sources of protection and connections to the divine spirit, and preserved by collectors who respected their origin and their sacred value. Z and I are now protectors of the protective.

But here's another thing. Most lost things are lost forever. How rare is it for a lost thing to surface after more than thirty years? Its reappearance makes it all the more powerful, all the more beloved.

What is your experience with lost things? Can you let them go? Do they leave a small hole in your heart? Have you ever had a lost thing re-emerge after years?


"7 Facts about Ethiopian Christianity" by Greg Pasciuto for The Collector, 8 May 2023.

Ethiopian Magic Scrolls by Jacques Mercier (NY: George Braziller, 1979)

Ethiopian Healing Scrolls, Heilbrun Timeline of Art History Essay by Kristen Windmuller-Luna (Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University) April 2015. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Healing Scroll: Amhara or Tigrinya peoples, description by Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.