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The oldest illustrated Bible is in an Ethiopian monastery

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Christianity has had a long and rich history with Ethiopia, and a recently dated Christian manuscript is testament to this intricate connection, recorded even in Biblical accounts.

Prima facie, this Christian history is visible wherever you are in Ethiopia, what with the ornate Orthodox churches and the rock-hewn monasteries, but you’d have to go beyond the regular haunts in Lalibela to find treasures such as the Abba Garima Gospels, believed to be the oldest illuminated Christian manuscripts in the world.

Long before the Bible became something you could expect to find in any hotel room because Gutenberg had made the printing press a few centuries earlier, like every book prior, Bibles had to be written by hand.

To make them stand out, some of these Biblical manuscripts were inlayed with gold and other precious metals and gems, with several pages dedicated to portraits of saints/apostles and Christian structures, and according to recent carbon dating, the Garima Gospels are the oldest such Christian manuscripts yet discovered.

An Illustration of St. Mark in the Garima Gospels

An Illustration of St. Mark in the Garima Gospels

Originally believed to have been produced around 1100 AD, they are now believed to be from between 330 AD to 650 AD; the upper margin makes it at least 50 years older than the more famous Lindisfarne Gospels currently in the British Library in London, yet, despite its great historical significance, it will probably only be seen by only the most intrepid traveler.

The Garima Gospels are not in some easily accessible museum in Ethiopia; you’d have to go to the Abba Garima Monastery in the Tigray Highlands in northern Ethiopia (7,000ft), and hope the resident monk feels like revealing this sacred book, locked away in the monastery’s Treasure House, a rondavel-like building which also secures centuries-old crowns and silverware.

The Gospels are believed to have been written by Abba Garima, venerated as one of the evangelizing Nine Saints who came from the Eastern Roman Empire to Ethiopia, and, if you believe in legends, here are two about Abba Garima; he wrote the Gospels in one day because God stopped the sun from setting, and that a permanent spring emerged from where he had spat. The Gospels have never left the monastery’s compound in over a millennium.

The Garima Gospels, written in vellum (fine goat skin), are actually three manuscripts compiled into two volumes, identified as Garima 1 and 2.

The volumes are each about 10 inches thick on the spine, but differ slightly in the number of pages; Garima 1 has 348 pages, while Garima 2 is 322 pages long.

The front cover of Garima 1 is made of copper and wood, while that of Garima 2 is made from silver. The Garima 1 cover is also dotted with holes that would have presumably held gems or colored glass as was the tradition with illustrated manuscripts.

The Garima 1 front cover. Image courtesy of  Lester Capon

The Garima 1 front cover. Image courtesy of Lester Capon

As the older of the two volumes, Garima 2 actually takes the crown as the oldest illustrated Christian manuscript yet, even if it has a 14th Century manuscript appended to it.

The text is written in Ge’ez, a language succeeded by Tigrinya and Amharic, making the Garima Gospels the oldest surviving Ethiopic text, of any kind.

There are probably other such treasures waiting to be found in Ethiopia’s cloistered monasteries.