Ethiopia: Story of world’s oldest illustrated Bible authenticated

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The Abba Garima manuscripts, kept in an Ethiopian monastery and until now considered to be from the 11th century, have made a journey back in time. Carbon-14 dating has revealed them to be from an earlier period—between 330-650 AD. As it stands, Ethiopia possesses the oldest illustrated copy of the Gospel in the world.

No one could have guessed that one of the manuscripts kept at the Abba Garima monastery, near Adwa in the North of Ethiopia, was the oldest illustrated Bible yet to be discovered. However, after recent carbon-14 dating, there is no more doubt that the manuscripts at Abba Garima, named after the monk who founded the monastery, are not from the 11th century AD as specialists were determined to believe, but rather from between the 4th and 6th century AD.

This recent discovery disproves earlier theories put forward by scientists. Ethiopia, well known for its long history of Copist monks, was not known to have any decorated manuscripts from before the 11th century, so much so that experts concluded that the art [of illuminated manuscripts] was developed much later. Now, this recent discovery proves the opposite. The mere existence of this manuscript is miraculous—it escaped the hands of the troops of Muhammad Gran [Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi], ruler of Adal, who invaded the region [Aksum] in the 16th century. The fact that the monastery is difficult to access, being 7000 feet above sea level and surrounded by cliffs, is a likely reason for that.

jpg_manus3.jpgOver 1,600 years old, these manuscripts, which have never left the monastery, are in surprisingly good condition according to experts. “The Garima Gospels have been kept high and dry which has helped preserve them all these years and they are kept in the dark so the colours look fresh,” explains Blair Priday of the London-based Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a charity organization working together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

According to legend, the manuscripts were written in a single day by the monk Abba Garima who came from Constantinople in 494 AD, which fits the recent dating of the manuscript. In order for him to accomplish this feat, God supposedly delayed the setting of the Sun. The scripture exists in two illustrated volumes and is recorded in Ge’ez, a southern Semitic language which exists exclusively in written form as early as the 3rd century AD. The illustrations in the manuscripts depict the Four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and show for the first time the Jewish Temple.

jpg_manusc-2.jpgExperts hope that the Abba Garima manuscripts remain in the monastery, — this is even more likely to happen as the monks have always believed the holy texts to possess magical powers: “If someone is ill they are read passages from the book and it is thought to give them strength,” says Mark Winstanley who helped to preserve the manuscript. All that is left is to convince the Ethiopian authorities—the Abba Garima manuscripts need a miracle right now.

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