Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Preservation of the World’s Oldest Illustrated Christian Manuscript

Here's an interesting story from last year, detailing the preservation in 2006 of two Ethiopian Orthodox manuscripts called The Garima Gospels.  In 2010, the Gospels-- originally believed by western historians to have been created in the twelfth century-- were radiocarbon dated to between 330 and 650AD.  This makes them the second oldest complete copy of the Gospels in the world, after "the Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of the Bible hand-written in Greek which dates back to the third century. Unlike the Garima Gospels, the Codex includes large chunks of the Old Testament, but the entire work is divided between museums and monasteries in Egypt, Britain, Russia and the USA" (The Independent).  The Garima Gospels pre-date all other early Christian texts in sub-Saharan Africa by more than 500 years.  In the second volume, another 14th century Gospels was also included.

The Gospels "are preserved in an isolated monastery in the Tigray region, set among mountains at 7,000 feet."  Abba (Father) Garima, originally from Constantinople, established the monastery.  "The monk is traditionally believed to have arrived in Ethiopia in 494.  Legend has it that he copied the Gospels in a single day.  To assist him in completing this lengthy task, God is said to have delayed the setting of the sun."

The Garima Gospels are bound in two volumes, Garima I & II.  Garima I (348 pages) contains 11 illuminated pages, Garima II (322 pages) contains 17 pages of illuminations, including an unusual depiction called the Temple of the Jews.  This building is shown "with a staircase in a form otherwise unknown in Christian iconography (the architecture is possibly based on a Persian Sassanid garden pavilion for exotic animals, representing paradise)."

The beautiful illuminations are all painted in the early Byzantine style, but it is unclear where they were painted, or by whom.  Jacques Mercier, a French specialist in Ethiopian art, believes that the illustrations in Garima I were painted in Syria or around Jerusalem, while the those in Garima II "show some affinity with those of Coptic Egypt. It is also possible that the illuminations were done by a Middle Eastern artist working in Ethiopia or an Ethiopian in a Middle Eastern studio."

The volumes' text is written in Ge'eze, a language once spoken in the area of the monastery, but no longer in use.  Tigrinya is the language currently spoken in the region.  "The text itself was probably copied in Ethiopia (rather than by a Ge’ez scribe in the Middle East), since it appears to have been added after the illuminations had been completed."

For a more detailed description of the on-site preservation process, see this story.  And here is an interesting essay about the pre-Christian vs. Christian uses of icons and other Christian objects in Ethiopia.

Lastly, I can't help but wonder... what would an evangelical, traditionally-based Ethiopian visual art form look like?


  1. They predate all other Christian works not only in Sub- Sahara Africa but in all of the world. Mainly because of and through the exemplary success at preservation by the tenants and priests of the monastery.

  2. Also, if I may add, to state so boldly that this scripture was painted outside of Ethiopia (i.e Syria: where the 9 monks came as exiles from the prosecution and war of the Ottomans)and transfered back to the country to be wrriten in Geez is clearly preposterous...if not downright insulting.

  3. Thirdly, the style of painting is very much in line with the Indian Orthodox Tradition more so than any Sassinid as the Persian art you are refering to is post Indian contact and is clearly an influenced form of Indian/ Chinese style of painting. As you seem to be moderating the comments, I hope you have the gumption to post these observations.

  4. Thanks for your comments. You seem to have a wider knowledge about Ethiopian manuscripts than I, since I have never studied them outside of the articles I read for this post. I think that ultimately, your issue is not with me but with the writers of the articles that I've quoted from, and the individual scholars whom they reference. I will try to respond to your comments as best as I can, though I myself can only rely on the research and opinion of others, as I have not done any independent research of my own. Do you have any books or other resources that you'd recommend for anyone who'd like to read more on Ethiopian icons?

    Regarding your first comment about the age of the Garima Gospels, you may be right! I checked two other websites (http://codexsinaiticus.org and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Sinaiticus#Date_of_the_codex), both of which said that the Codex Sinaiticus was composed in the fourth century, not the third century as stated in The Independent article. Wikipedia specifies that the Codex Sinaiticus must have been written between 325 and 360. The article from The Art Newspaper that I gathered most of the information from states that "a sample of the parchment (probably goat skin) from Garima II was dated to 330-540 and one from another illustrated page to 430-650… Although it may well be coincidence, Abba Garima is said to have arrived in Ethiopia in 494." So, it is entirely possible that the Garima Gospels could've been written at the same time as the Codex Sinaiticus, or even a little earlier, though that would necessitate that they were written by someone other than Abba Garima.

    I can't really respond to your second and third comments with any facts, as I know nothing about Ethiopian iconography and their dating based on stylistic variations. I"m sorry that you feel offended at the idea of the images being painted outside of Ethiopia. Perhaps you could try to contact Jacques Mercier, the French specialist in Ethiopian art, to express your disagreement (he is the one that believes the illustrations' origins lie outside of Ethiopia). The Ethiopian Heritage Fund, which restored the Garima Gospels, might have contact information for him. Their email address is info@ethiopianheritagefund.org.

    That's all the information I can offer. It certainly never entered my mind that quoting these two articles would offend anyone, and I hope that you will continue reading Indigenous Jesus and feel free to offer other comments at any time.

  5. Scott,

    Remember that when the nine monks arrived in Ethiopia exiled from Ottoman occupied Syria they came knowing that there were Christian Churches and a Royal court based in the country. They surely did not venture out on a wild safari but had a destination. Ethiopian merchants and priests have traveled to the middle east and the Levant since pre-historic times.

    I do apologize for the strong language in my comments but modern 'scholars' have managed to distort the written history of Ethiopia by inserting their new found 'scholarly' interpretations. This liberty is often taken with Ethiopian history and often against the written history already existing in the country. This new 'scholar' now chooses to re write history according to his own parameters which are almost always based on personal gain in fortune and fame clouded by the modern socio-economic climate. The ever increasing demand and interest from Europe and America as these books have started to appear into European circles, has resulted in pillaging, ransacking, and coercive theft of these monasteries in order to gain these books for museums and libraries in the west. Often these 'scholars' are not of the faith and are only interested on the analytical basis.
    That being said, the Garima gospels are documented in Ethiopian history as being written in one night by the divine spirit through the monk Abba Garima. A Miracle. Not transferred to Syria for work then shipped back to Ethiopia for further work etc etc etc.

    Christians spent 1000s of years meticulously copying scriptures, preserving scriptures, staying true to word and yod, of every line and verse with an amazing continuity that spans works clear across three continents. Early Christians monks and clerics were not prone to embellishing style, re interpreting work, or even signing their work for personal glorification as modern secular 'scholars' do thus ....why would they lie? To what gain? That is what the new Mercier seems to suggest.

    It greatly saddens us that these works are now leaving the place of worship(Bete Mekdes) to be housed in museum and library warehouses for only 'scholars' to view. It has been a cause of agitation for many Ethiopian nobles and clerics, who having commissioned and preserved these scriptures for thousands of years, are now unable to use them in worship and in teaching of their people.

    Finally, Codex Sinaiticus, Garima Gospel, Rabulla Gospels... they all have One message. The true and living Word of One God, Christ. The point is not which is older, or prettier, worth more or what not... The point is that we receive the Word and his promise to us of eternal life.

    Thanks for the discussion, it was enjoyable.