Princeton Ethiopian Miracles of Mary Project (የፕሪንስተን የኢትዮጵያ ተዓምራተ ማርያም ፕሮጀክት)

The Princeton Ethiopian Miracles of Mary digital humanities project (PEMM) is a comprehensive resource for the Gəˁəz miracle stories written about the Virgin Mary in Ethiopia between 1400 and the present. PEMM was launched in March 2018. 

Most of these miracle stories appear in the Ethiopian compilation text called Täˀammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary). Drawing on manuscripts from the exceptional collection of Täˀammərä Maryam in Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections, PEMM collects information about these miracle tales to enable better scholarship on their contents across regions, languages, and time. The project is aimed at creating a resource for all scholars and to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church community, providing Ethiopians with better access to their patrimony, and raising general awareness about the beauty, breadth, and variety of these vital works of early African literature.

PEMM was funded during the 2018-19 academic year by Princeton Center for Digital Humanities Dataset Curation and Public Humanities Grants, pairing the creation of the database with an outreach program addressed at engaging the Ethiopian Orthodox community. The second phase was supported by a CDH Research Partnership, for which  the CDH Development and Design Team worked with her to create a robust data structure to store and connect the data, and collaborate on building prototype web interfaces and data visualizations. This was completed in January 2020. The third phase is funded by the Princeton Council of the Humanities David A. Gardner Innovation Grants for New Projects in the Humanities, as Belcher and her team create content and perform analyses of it. The project is due to be completed in June 2021.

To learn more about this DH project, you may also consult: Belcher, Wendy Laura, Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Rebecca Munson, Gissoo Doroudian, and Meredith Martin. CDH Project Charter — Princeton Ethiopian Miracles of Mary 2019-20. Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton. 2019. 

Project Team

Project Director and Principal Investigator: Prof. Wendy Laura Belcher

Project Manager: Evgeniia Lambrinaki

Project Researchers: Dr. Vitagrazia Pisani, Dr. Solomon Gebreyes, Dr. Jeremy Brown, Eyob Derillo

Research Assistants (Incipits): Annabel S. Lemma, Tariku Abas Sherif, Beimnet Beyene Kasseye, Mihret Melaku

Research Assistants (English summarizing): Lauren D. Johnson; Sana Khan; Jason O. Seavey; Leia R. Walker; Nati Arbelaez Solano; Daniel Somwaru

Research Assistants (Italian and French summarizing): Allie V. Mangel; Mika J. Hyman;  Ellen Li; Grace Matthews

CDH Technical Lead: Rebecca Sutton Koeser

CDH Project Manager: Gissoo Doroudian

CDH Project Coordinator: Rebecca Munson

CDH Developer: Nick Budak

Qemer Miracle of Mary Project: Prof. Steve Delamarter, George Fox Seminary, principal investigator of The History of the Ethiopic Old Testament project (THEOT); Dr. Jeremy Brown, Catholic University; Jonah Sandford, and Ashlee Benson.

Other: See end of page for Institutional Collaborators; Project Board Members; Project Advisors; and Project Collaborators.

Research Questions

PEMM was designed to answer some important research questions. 

  • Dating: When is the earliest attestation of each tale (in which century does each first appear)? Are some stories more popular in some centuries than others? In which century is each tale the most popular? Do some stories fade in popularity over time? What are the themes of the Ethiopian Marian miracle stories?
  • Provenance: Where is the earliest attestation of each tale (i.e., in which Ethiopian region does each first appear)? Are some stories more popular in some regions than others? In which region is each tale the most popular? The least popular?
  • Themes: What are the themes of the Ethiopian Marian miracle stories? Which themes are most common (i.e., appear in the most stories)? Which themes most commonly appear together in a tale (e.g., women and healing)? When and where is the earliest attestation of each theme? Are some themes more popular in one region than another? Do manuscripts have overarching themes (i.e., do some manuscripts have stories mostly on healing, or kingship?)
  • Characters: Are men or women protagonists more common? Young or old? Which character professions are most common (e.g., monks or farmers)?
  • Order: Is the order of Miracles of Mary stories within manuscripts random? Is there a standard order of stories (e.g., the same 33 first and in the same order; foreign first, indigenous second; early ones first, later ones second)? Does that order change by century or region? Which stories do most manuscripts begin with? Which stories do most manuscripts end with?
  • Relationships: Which stories appear most often with which other stories in the same manuscript? Where in manuscripts is each story most likely to appear (e.g., early, middle, late)? Is there a standard collection of stories (e.g., the same 33 told in most manuscripts)? Does the standard change by century or region?
  • Recensions: How did individual Ethiopian Marian miracle stories change over time and region? Did they get longer or shorter?
  • Origin: What is the origin of each Ethiopian Marian miracle tale? Which are indigenous and which are foreign (i.e., told first in Europe or the Middle East)? Do foreign Marian miracle stories fade in popularity over time (i.e., told more often in the 1400s and less often by the 1900s)? Are they more popular in some Ethiopian regions than others? Do foreign and indigenous stories vary by theme (e.g., more foreign stories are about knights)? Do foreign and indigenous stories vary by placement (e.g., foreign stories tend to appear at the beginning of manuscripts)?

PEMM Incipit Tool

The PEMM Incipit Tool was developed by Rebecca Koeser with Nick Budak of the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities to allow users to catalog miracle stories properly across manuscripts. The user identifies an incipit from a story in a Täˀammərä Maryam manuscript. They type that line, using the Gəˁəz script (fidəl), into the empty field at the top of the PEMM Incipit Tool page. They then find out which ID number the story is, and then use that number to find out which story it is at the list of stories. Detailed project information about the stories is also available at Github. 

An incipit is the unique opening line of a story, a string of words, ten to twenty in a row. Most Täˀammərä Maryam manuscript have the same exact praises for Mary in the first one to three sentences of every story, so those are not an incipit. That is, they are not the string of unique words that identify the miracle. An incipit in Täˀammərä Maryam often starts with the equivalant of “There was a certain man…”

Macomber Source

The basis of the PEMM database is an extraordinary unpublished manuscript written in the 1980s by William F. Macomber, the cataloger for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library  (EMML), a project of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Father Colomba Stewart, executive director of  HMML, kindly shared Macomber’s document with this project and others. 

By hand, Macomber compiled information using 175 EMML manuscripts (largely from among those numbered 1 to 3,500 plus a few more older manuscripts in the higher project numbers) as well as some 65 manuscripts from published catalogs to identify some 644 unique Ethiopian miracle stories. He also noted where they appeared in some print editions, particularly those by Sir Wallis Budge and Täsfa Gäbrä Śəllase. 


Macomber encountered some challenges in creating this list.

Recensions and variation. Many stories had different recensions or versions. For instance, often one version had a proper name for the protagonist and the other did not. Also, the stories could be radically different lengths, with one half the length of the other, in a summary version. Where they were not too different in plot, Macomber counted them as the same story. If they were very different, he listed them as two different stories. Also, some longer Marian miracle stories appeared together as one story in some manuscripts but were divided up into separate miracle stories in others.

Genre. Macomber chose to treat the ancient apocryphal stories about Mary’s life—her annunciation, pregnancy, giving birth, fleeing to Egypt, dormition, and assumption—as Marian miracles. He rightly included these texts written in the Levant in the second to fifth centuries because they appear in many Täˀammərä Maryam; but, strictly, Marian miracle stories are about what Mary did after passing away, from heaven, for the faithful who called upon her name.

Vastness. Some miracle stories were so common that Macomber did not list all the manuscripts in which they appeared. For such common stories, he named their appearance only in manuscripts written before 1700 and not after, ensuring that he named at least seven manuscripts for each of the most common stories.

Dating. Ethiopian manuscripts are rarely dated, and so the dates Macomber assigned to them are approximate.

Incipits. As Macomber wrote, “the incipits of the Miracles of Mary are hopelessly variable and, at the same time, not sufficiently characteristic for the purposes of identification.” For this reason, the incipits he provided for stories are unusually long. That is, as these incipits easily resembled other incipits (many begin wä-hallo aḥädu bəˀəsi; “and there was a certain man “), he wanted to give a long enough incipit to ensure the story could be properly identified. In a few cases, where the variation between the recensions was too great, he gives two incipits.  

Keywords. Macomber included keywords, but the list is not very standardized nor up-to-date (e.g., Moslems instead of Muslims; brigands instead of thieves).


Part of the purpose of PEMM is to test Macomber’s own analysis.


He identified four main collections, stories he thought regularly appeared together in manuscripts. He numbered together consecutively those that most often appeared together.  

Most common collection. He states of the first group, of several hundred stories, that “stories 1 to 292 represent a relatively fixed collection that existed in Ethiopia at least as far back as the reign of Lebna Dengel (1508-1540).” He considered EMML 2058, 6938, and 7543, as the most representative manuscripts in this regard. However, it now seems that EMML 9002 may be the original Täˀammərä Maryam, which Macomber did not include in the catalog (being outside of his chosen manuscript range or 1 to 3,500). Additional analysis of it is required to identity whether his theory then holds up.

Apocryphal collection. He states of the second group, of about a dozen stories, that “stories 293 to 308 represent the only other consistent collection and are exclusively apocryphal stories, probably from the Nagara Maryam.” He says the oldest known version of this second group is EMML 3051, but other collections of it are EMML 2392, 2999 3572, and 3031. However, further analysis suggests that perhaps as many as 100 of the stories he included were from apocryphal or biblical sources, including the following cycles (stories on a theme). Fifty-two stories are about Mary’s nativity, childhood, annunciation, pregnancy, childbirth, assumption, and dormition. Twenty-six stories are about the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, although some of these are undoubtedly not early apocryphal stories, especially the ones about their continued journey into Ethiopia. Twenty-three stories are about the Ark of the Covenant, many of which come from the biblical book of Samuel. The stories may not appear together in the Täˀammərä Maryam, but their existence has implications for any calculus of how many of the total number of stories are unique to Ethiopia.   

Unconnected collection. He states of the third group, of several hundred stories, that stories 309 to 639 rarely appear together in the same manuscripts. So, he has numbered them from the oldest to the most recent (that is, miracle no. 309 appears in a manuscript older than the manuscript in which miracle no. 316 appears). Of this third group, stories 633-639 appear only in Vatican manuscripts.

Outliers. He states of the fourth group, of just a few, that stories 640 to 642 may not count as Marian miracle stories at all, being more in the nature of hymns or homilies, or about Christ.


Akkonu bəˀəsi set. Macomber believed that stories 135-206 appeared in the earliest Täˀammərä Maryam. He called this set of around 70 miracle stories the Akkonu bəˀəsi miracles. They are “the stories that recur most frequently in the manuscripts as a characteristic collection, and they are the ones that most often illustrated by miniatures.”

He thought a few miracles were added to the collection soon after the Akkonu bəˀəsi miracles came about, being added at the beginning or end of manuscripts. These included stories 13 (the composition of the Miracles of Mary by Bishop Hildephonsus of Toledo), 134 (the nominal Christian from Sidon who encountered a dragon), and 207 (The monk who saved the church of Saint Mary in Atrib). He thought one early miracle, miracle 143 (about a Jew from Jerusalem saved after three days in a dragon), was dropped early on, in the 1400s. 

He believed that the hymns, which appear in many manuscripts after stories, were added later.

Textual History of Qemer Story

Funded by the PEMM project, Prof. Stephen Delamarter has spearheaded a close analysis of one particular Marian miracle story, perhaps the most famous in Ethiopia, the story of the Cannibal of Qemer. This analysis is based on his careful selection of 90 manuscripts with clear provenance and dating information. He then had three research assistants type up each story exactly as it appears in each manuscript (to ensure accuracy) and then used software to analyze difference among the stories by date and place. Such research has suggested strong regional differences and changes over time, adding up to to four recensions. A book on this, Textual History of the Ethiopic Tale of the Cannibal of Qemer, is underway, coauthored by Delamarter, Belcher, and Dr. Jeremy Brown of Catholic University.

Project Collaborators

Rev. Melaku Terefe, priest, cataloger, and scholar,  serving at Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, and on the Ethiopic Manuscript Imaging Project

Dr. Solomon Gebreyes, Research Fellow at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany

Eyob Derillo, curator of Ethiopian collections at the British Library

Meron Gebreananaye, PhD student in religious, theology, and literary studies at the University of Durham, UK 

Sofanit T. Abebe, PhD student in religion and New Testament studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Dr. Habte Michael Kidane, independent researcher on Gəˁəz literature and liturgy

Dr. Hagos Abrha, professor at Mekelle University, scholar of Ge`ez philology and manuscripts

Board Members

Elias Wondimu, CEO and President of TSEHAI Corp., a global knowledge company 

Archpriest Mussie Berhe, priest and scholar, serving at St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles 

Archpriest Woldesemait Teklehaymanot, monk and scholar, serving at St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles 

Rev. Melaku Terefe, Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles

Dr. Solomon Gebreyes, Research Fellow at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany

Eyob Derillo, curator of Ethiopian collections at the British Library

Meron Gebreananaye, PhD student in religious, theology, and literary studies at the University of Durham, UK 

Project Advisers

Prof. Getatchew Haile, Emeritus Professor at Saint John’s College, foremost scholar of Gəˁəz literature

Prof. Samantha Kelly, Rutgers University, scholar of medieval Europe and Ethiopia

Prof. Alessandro Bausi, Professor for Ethiopian Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut; director of the Hiob Ludolf Centre at Universität Hamburg; and head of Beta maṣāḥǝft: Die Schriftkultur des christlichen Äthiopien und Eritreas: Eine multimediale Forschungsumgebung (2016-2040).

Prof. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska, Associate Professor at Uppsala University, Department of Linguistics and Philology, Institute of Byzantine Studies, an art historian in Oriental Christian art, particularly Ethiopian and Syrian

Prof. Aaron Butts, associate professor at Catholic University, scholar of the languages, literatures, and history of Christianity in the Near East, especially Arabic, Ethiopic, and Syriac

Dr. Alexandra Antohin, Senior Research and Program Manager of the Avoice Virtual Library Project at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and scholar of Ethiopian Christianity

Dr. Kristin Windmuller-Luna, Sills Family Consulting Curator, African Arts, Brooklyn Museum; Mellon Research Specialist, African Arts, Princeton University Art Museum; and scholar of Ethiopian art and architecture

Dr. Pamela A. Patton, Director, Index of Medieval Art, and scholar of Marian miracles

Institutional Collaborators

Princeton African Humanities Colloquium. Directed by Prof. Simon Gikandi, PAHC provides a forum to promote research and teaching in the humanities (broadly defined) at Princeton University and to incorporate the study of Africa in existing and future research projects. It hosts conferences, talks, projects, and two-year postdoctoral fellows. 

Beta Maṣāḥǝft: Manuscripts of Ethiopia and Eritrea at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies of the Universität Hamburg. Created and directed by Principal Investigator Prof. Dr. Alessandro Bausi, this 25-year project (2016–2040) aims at creating a virtual research environment that shall manage complex data related to the predominantly Christian manuscript tradition of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands.

Centre for the Study of the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Oxford University. Created in 2005 by Prof. Stephen Parkinson, it provides exhaustive listings of the contents of Latin and vernacular collections of Marian miracles.

Miracula Mariae: Medieval Short Narratives between Languages and Cultures is a collaborative research network concerning medieval and early modern stories about the miracles of the Virgin Mary. It studies their transmission and the pictorial and sculptural counterparts of the texts, resulting in a a database for the written and iconographical material. Prof. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska of Uppsala University works on the Ethiopic manuscripts.

British Library, Asian and African Collections, headed by Luisa Elena Mengoni, which holds two dozen of the most precious Ethiopian Miracles of Mary manuscripts. Eyob Derillo works on these manuscripts, at the direction of the Lead Curator of African Collections, Marion Wallace.

Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, lead by Father Columba Stewart, hosts the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (EMML), with more than 8000 manuscripts microfilmed in Ethiopian churches and monasteries during the 1970s and 1980s. Getatchew Haile and William F. Macomber were the lead catalogers of this collection for many decades. HMML also includes digital copies of UNESCO and Ernst Hammerschmidt Tanasee projects. With special thanks to Julie Dietman, assistant for Development and Library Services at HMML, and John Meyerhofer, Systems Librarian.