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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

11/2012 manuscript  of the month

With the Saints Came the Manuscripts...

The origin of Christian Ethiopian manuscript culture is still unknown, but tradition has it that in the late 5th/early 6th century the Bible was translated into Ge‘ez, the then language of Ethiopia. The Nine Saints, a group of foreign monks, supposedly came to Ethiopia from different provinces of the Roman Oriental Empire, translated the Bible and spread Christianity in the northern part of the kingdom. The process of Christianization did not only lead to the translation of the Bible, but also resulted in the establishment of a manuscript culture based at monasteries. The manuscript presented here provides insight into the legend about Garimā, one of the Nine Saints, who is said to have prepared one of the first translations of the Gospels into Ge‘ez. How is the legend about Garimā’s translating the Bible reflected in this manuscript? And why is this legend about the beginning of manuscript production in Ethiopia of prestigious value for the monastery where the manuscript was produced?

fig. 1: ‘Adwā (Tegrāy), Dabra Madarā, Endā Abbā Garimā,
ms. C2 IV 92, fols. 12v-13r

The present manuscript contains the Acts of Abbā Garimā, one of the hagiographical sources mentioning the legend of the translation of the Bible into Ge‘ez, and is particularly noteworthy because it shows how a written text takes up an oral tradition in order to benefit from the prestige connected to this Saint introducing Christianity and Christian texts to Ethiopia. The manuscript was produced in the 18th century in the monastery of Dabra Madarā (‘Adwā, Tegrāy), the monastery which was supposedly founded by Garimā. The Acts of Garimā is the main text of this multiple-text manuscript, which also contains the story of Walda Śellāsē, the story of abuna Mār Yoḥannes and the royal chronicle of King Adyām Sagad (ca. 1749-1769; throne name Iyo’as I). Only some of these other texts are apparently related to the monastery of Dabra Madarā. The manuscript is composed of 126 leaves with the text generally laid out in two columns of fourteen lines. The first leaves of the manuscript contain twenty-two miniatures, in part drawn from the episodes of Garimā’s and Jesus Christ’s life, in part portraying Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian saints.

fig. 2: ‘Adwā (Tegrāy), Dabra Madarā,
Endā Abbā Garimā, ms. C2 IV 92, fol. 11v

Some of the miniatures are protected by single white leaves, clearly sewed in later, since they are not part of the original binding (fol. 13r, fig. 1). In some miniatures the original captions, which are no longer legible, were replaced by new captions (fig. 2). The manuscript presents at least two different phases of writing. In the second phase a confirmation by King Śarḍa Dengel (ca. 1550-1597; throne name Malak Sagad) of a former land grant to the monastery and several devotional writings were added on the white leaves and in the blank spaces left during the first phase of copying.

This manuscript is remarkable as it presents three different versions of the legend of translating the Bible, through text and images, which are all characterized by supernatural phenomena: 1. One narrative found in the Acts of Garimā tells us that once, while Garimā was writing, he rose up to say the evening prayer. The sun started to set but the monk waved to it, asking it to stop in the sky. The sun then moved back and, while he was still praying, the angels wrote down the Gospels in one hour (fol. 41v, fig. 3). This version is the result of a merging of traditions concerning Garimā writing the Gospels, that is attested in both the manuscript tradition of the Acts of Garimā (in several redactions) and the Synaxarion (a collection of short readings commemorating the death of the saints during the liturgical year); 2. This episode is also portrayed in an illustration specific to this manuscript which shows the saint crouching on the ground and writing a codex in red and black ink that he keeps on his knees. In the sky, the two suns characterize the miracle of the sun moving back. The saint is assisted in his work by two strange white creatures which are difficult to identify. In front of Garimā, we can see an inkwell and a jug. In the caption it is written: “How Abbā Garimā wrote the Gospel in the land of Aterēt”, a district belonging to the monastery of Garimā (fol. 12v, fig. 1). Interestingly enough, the scene shows the way in which Ethiopian scribes are still writing nowadays (fig. 4); 3. Several pages later, a short hymn (salām) celebrates another miracle performed by the saint. Garimā was writing the Gospel when his reed fell down to the ground and suddenly burgeoned, without water being added, turned green and started to grow.

fig. 3: ‘Adwā (Tegrāy), Dabra Madarā, Endā Abbā Garimā, ms. C2 IV 92,
fols. 41v-42r

Although Garimā’s role as Bible translator cannot be verified so far by historical sources, the tradition transmitted in this manuscript seems to have served the clergy of Dabra Madarā to stress the monastery’s claim of being one of the first places where manuscript production took place in Ethiopia. Indeed, the most ancient Gospel manuscripts known in Ethiopia so far can be found in this monastery. They are referred to as The Gospels of Endā Abbā Garimā, three famous manuscripts known in Europe at least since the 1960ies whose age is still a matter of discussion among scholars. A C14 radiocarbon analysis conducted on two painted leaves suggested a date between 330 and 650 A.D., while philological and palaeographical elements do not provide a precise date earlier than 650 A.D.

fig. 4: Ethiopian scribe in Tegrāy,
Ethiopia (June 2012)

BAUSI, Alessandro (2004): “Il testo, il supporto, la funzione. Alcune osservazioni sul caso dell’Etiopia”, in: Böll et alii (eds.), Studia Aethiopica in Honour of Siegbert Uhlig on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, Wiesbaden: Harrassowits Verlag, pp. 7-22.
BAUSI, Alessandro (2005): “Ǝnda Abba Gärima”, in: Uhlig, Siegbert (ed.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vol. 2. D-Ha, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 284-286.
BAUSI, Alessandro (2011): “The «True Story» of Abba Gärima Gospel”, in: Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies Newsletter, 1, pp. 17-20.
BRITA, Antonella (2010): I racconti tradizionali sulla seconda cristianizzazione dell’Etiopia. Il ciclo agiografico dei Nove Santi, Napoli: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” (Studi Africanistici. Serie Etiopica, 7), pp. 32-39, 222-226.
CONTI ROSSINI, Carlo (1897): “L’Omilia di Yoḥannes, vescovo di Aksum, in onore di Garimā”, in Actes du XI Congrès des Orientalistes. Section Sémitique, vol. 4, Paris: Ernest Leroux [1899], pp. 139-177.
SERGEW, Hable Selassie (1981): Bookmaking in Ethiopia, Leiden: Karstens Drukkers B.V.

‘Adwa (Tegray), Dabra Madara, Enda Abba Garima, ms. C2 IV 92
18th cent.
Parchment, 24 x 21 x 7 cm
126 leaves, two columns, 15 lines per page
Wooden board, brown leather cover

Text by Antonella Brita
© for all images: Antonella Brita, Hamburg