If you are to ever make it to the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia’s Tigrai Highlands, you would find a book that is highly revered by local monks and believed to be one of the Christian world’s oldest and most exquisite treasures.
The book, which is kept securely in a bright-blue circular hut at the centre of the remote monastery, is thought to be the world’s earliest illustrated Christian Bible.
Otherwise known as the Garima Gospels, legend says the texts were written in a day in the fifth century after God intervened to delay the sunset.
Experts believe that the book, written on goatskin in the early Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, is also the earliest example of bookbinding still attached to the original pages.
There are two volumes which date from the same time, and the two 10-inch-thick volumes contain illustrations and the four Gospels. Until now, scholars had always presumed that the two volumes, which are brightly illustrated, dated back to the early 11th century.
However, recent carbon-testing has proved otherwise, giving a date between 330 and 650, suggesting that they are among the oldest gospels in existence.
Orthodox Christianity writes that the survival of the Gospels is incredible considering the country has been under Muslim invasion, Italian invasion and a fire in the 1930s had destroyed the monastery’s church where the volumes were allegedly kept.
For about 1,600 years, the Garima Gospels have been in one piece in the same place and generations of monks that have guarded them have their own legend about how the gospels came into their possession.
According to the monks, the Gospels were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who arrived in what was then the kingdom of Axum in 494 AD and went on to found the monastery.
The incredible Garima Gospels (named after Abba Garima who copied them in a day) have since been kept in the Abuna Garima monastery in the north of Ethiopia, which is in the Tigray region at 7,000 feet.
“The survival of the Garima Gospels may have been due to the fact that they were hidden, perhaps for centuries or even for more than a millennium. The hiding spot may have been forgotten, and it could have been rediscovered by chance in relatively modern times.
“In 1520, Portugues chaplain Francisco Álvarez visited the monastery and recorded that there was a cave (now lost or destroyed), where Abba Garima was reputed to have lived. Álvarez reported that the monks would descend into it by ladder to do penance. Although speculation, it is possible that the Gospels may have been hidden in this cave” writes historyofinformation.com.
The world’s first illustrated Christian book is “nearly 800 years older than the King James Version and contains 81-88 books compared to 66. It includes the Book of ENOCH, Esdras, Buruch and all 3 Books of MACCABEE, and a host of others that was excommunicated from the KJV,” said borkena.com.
The Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a British charity which works in preserving the many beautiful artefacts in Ethiopia’s monasteries, recently finished restoring the Gospels that had become fragile.
Lester Capon, a British bookbinder, said he spent three weeks working with the monks in the remote monastery to rebuild and restore the bindings that held the pages together.
“I’d seen photos when I was preparing for this work, but seeing this book in real life was astonishing. It was big – you could fell an ox with it – it was beautiful, the colours were vibrant. But the condition was poor. It had the look of a burst mattress,” he was quoted by the Guardian.
He further told The Independent: “The monks won’t even let the books out of the monastery, let alone the country.”
“To them, it really is a magical book, written by their founder. To begin with, they were very nervous about having someone mark and take the pages out of their book. But they soon understood what we were doing.”
Capon has been binding books for more than 30 years in the UK, but restoring the Gospels turned out to be a serious challenge.
The Guardian reports that he set up a “bindery” in the monastery courtyard, which attracted the attention of monkeys. “I kept an eye on them as I was fearful that one may jump down from the roof, grab a folio, scrunch it up and run off down the hill.”
The Ethiopian Heritage Fund announced in 2010 that it hopes to build a small museum at the monastery to not only house the newly restored Gospels but to enable visitors to view them.
“Ethiopia has been overlooked as a source of these fantastic things,” Blair Priday from the Ethiopian Heritage Fund said recently.
“Many of these old Christian relics can only be reached by hiking and climbing to remote monasteries as roads are limited in these mountainous regions.
“All the work on the texts was done in situ and everything is reversible, so if in future they can be taken away for further conservation we won’t have hindered that.
“The pages had been crudely stitched together in a restoration in the 1960s and some of the pages wouldn’t even turn. And they were falling to pieces.
“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.
“This was the most astounding of all our projects,” Priday said.