The Ethiopian monastery of Abuna Garima is located in the Tigray region not to far from Axum. In the monastery are two magnificent ancient Gospel books that local Christians still venerate as sacred relics.
Tradition has it that they were written in a day by Saint Garima in the 6th century. Because there were no records of the books for 500 years, the Gospels were previously thought to have been written at turn of the first millennium. EHF have had them securely assigned to the late 5th early 7th centuries by 2 sets of radiocarbon analysis. The dating applied to both their illustrations and their text and puts them among the very earliest extant manuscripts illustrated with Christian images.
Garima 1 contains a complete cycle of ten extraordinary decorated pages comparable to those in the famous Rabbula Codex of AD586. The illustrations of Garima 2 have affinities with Coptic painting and may provide the only testimony of Coptic canon table decoration. This volume also contains some very fine evangelist portraits. Both Gospels have metal covers, one is believed to be contemporary with the manuscript itself and thus figures as one of the oldest known bookbindings.
The two Garima Gospels contains approximately 400 pages of text each, which makes them unique testimonies to the Aksumite Ethiopic language, until now only attested by a few inscriptions on coins and stelae. The texts of the two books are quite different from each other, showing that the translation on which they are based had already been revised at the time of their copying. Thus, their early date suggests that the Ethiopian Gospel translation may be older than commonly believed. Their texts deserve extensive analysis, which should extend beyond the Ethiopic and Greek versions of the bible.
What has been done
In October 2006, the Ethiopian Heritage Fund started its program of work to conserve Ethiopia’s two oldest manuscripts, the Abuna Garima Gospels. In 2006 Lester Capon and Mark Winstanley went the Abba Garima monastery to carry out the first phase of conservation. Their conservation work was mainly on Garima I. The binding was undone and the illustrated pages were conserved and their gilded binding repaired. The book was then rebound.
Lester Capon returned to Abba Garima monastery in 2012 and with the assistance of Julian Pendlebury continued conservation work on the Gospels. The main purpose of the latest visit was to ensure the pages of Garima 2 were correctly ordered, as over the years pages had become loose or had been bound in the wrong place. Daniel Seife-Michael, the patriarch’s representative was at hand to read the Ge’ez text and identify the pages and their correct place within the book. Some of the pages were reversed and some misplaced. There were also pages from Garima I in Garima 2. Once the order had been established the bookbinders undid the appropriate sections and removed and inserted the pages in the correct place. In some cases this involved creating vellum guards to strengthen the binding and protect the pages. The restorers also inserted vellum and paper. The old boards were then reattached.
There is still work to be done on Garima I which the charity hopes to undertake in the near future.
Read a report of the Conference from the Arts Newspaper
Read a resume of the conference from Alessandro Bausi