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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

08/2015 manuscript  of the month

Serendipity in the Tigray Highlands

When a scholar kneels down to look underneath a church cupboard ...

Only a small number of the 200,000-odd Christian Ethiopic parchment manuscripts which are estimated to be extant in Ethiopia, Eritrea and libraries and collections abroad predate the seventeenth century, and even fewer the sixteenth and fifteenth. Those written before the fourteenth century are extremely rare. Non-biblical manuscripts with such early dating are absolute exceptions. The discovery of two folios of a non-biblical pre-thirteenth-century manuscript in 2010 underneath a cupboard in the church of ʿUra Mäsqäl in northern Tigray, close to the Eritrean border, raised a crucial question: which volume did they once belong to? The answer is but one episode in the fascinating story of what has come to be known as the Aksumite Collection.

Fig. 1a (before restoration):
Aksumite Collection, end of
History of the Alexandrian
Episcopate. MS ʿUra Mäsqäl
Church, UM–039, fol. 13v.

The leaves discovered in 2010 were found by Denis Nosnitsin while he was working on the Ethio-SPaRe project, and turned out to belong to a manuscript that was already known (Figs. 1a–b). First microfilmed and recorded by the anthropologist and art historian Jacques Mercier in 1999 in the woefully disordered state in which it was and the documentation being then committed to the present author for closer study, the 160 unbound leaves of this exceptionally old non-biblical parchment manuscript (Figs. 2a-b) were first digitised by Antonella Brita in 2006 in the church of ʿUra Mäsqäl. They were only occasionally seen by other scholars before the Ethio-SPaRe project digitised it again and sponsored the restoration of the manuscript in 2012 in co-operation with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg (CSMC), with Ira Rabin carrying out scientific analyses of evidence provided by Brita.

Fig. 1b (after restoration): the Aksumite Collection, end of
History of the Alexandrian Episcopate. MS ʿUra Mäsqäl
Church, UM–039, fol. 13v, put in the right place, and
beginning of
Epistle 70 by Cyprian of Carthage (fol. 14r).

This manuscript revealed surprise after surprise right from the start. The virtual reconstruction of the way the leaves must have been arranged originally, albeit with some of them missing, showed that the 36 texts of the multiple-text manuscript were most probably translated from Christian Greek into Ethiopic no later than the sixth century and were eventually copied for several centuries. This suggested the manuscript should be called the Aksumite Collection, from the name of the historical period of the kingdom of Aksum (second/third to the seventh century) when the collection originated. Some of the model Greek texts were found to be lost; the only surviving parallels were ancient Latin translations in manuscripts from the venerable Biblioteca Capitolare in Verona, Italy. This library was founded in the fifth century and is one of the most ancient libraries in the world, particularly known for its treasure of Latin manuscripts from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (third/fourth to ninth centuries).

The correlations between manuscripts from such distant and different places – the magnificent library in Verona and the small church collection of ʿUra Mäsqäl in the African highlands, including the manuscript presented here – were unexpected and absolutely striking. In the most ancient and venerated liturgy of the Christian world, the Apostolic Tradition, for example, the genuine antiquity of the formula of the benediction prayer for early produce, including cheese and olives (Figs. 2a–b), previously only known from one Latin manuscript (Verona, Biblioteca Capitolare, Cod. LV (53)), was surprisingly confirmed by the newly discovered Ethiopic manuscript.

Fig. 2a (before restoration): the Aksumite Collection,
articles 6–10 (= Latin 10, 9, 5, 6 and 15), benediction
prayer for cheese and olives (9 = 6), from the Ethiopic
Apostolic Tradition. MS ʿUra Mäsqäl Church, UM-039,
fols. 18v–19r.

Fig. 2b (after restoration): the Aksumite Collection, articles
6–10 (= Latin 10, 9, 5, 6 and 15).

There is actually an even more interesting example of correspondence with works kept in the library of Verona. Following a non-canonical text (apocryphon) on the apostles at the beginning, the Ethiopic manuscript has a History of the Alexandrian Episcopate from its foundation by St Mark up to the fourth century CE. This History, again, has perfect correspondences with Latin samples in a manuscript from Verona: Cod. LX (58). It incorporates some documents from the archives of the Alexandrian episcopal see in Egypt, including two letters (also known from a Latin version) and three so far unknown lists of bishops and their respective dioceses recorded for the episcopates of Bishop Maximus (264–282), Theonas (282–300) and Peter (300–311). These lists – from an Ethiopic manuscript – have provided historians focusing on the history of Christianity with the most complete documentation on bishops and dioceses of early Christian Egypt to date. The Ethiopic History is thus also the earliest historiographical text transmitted in manuscript form that is preserved in Ethiopia.

Studies of the evolution of scripts and the shape of letters (palaeography) as well as other codicological features are unable to provide any absolute dating to a precise year, but only relative indications of the periods before and after the manuscript’s creation. Comparisons with two most ancient Ethiopic New Testament manuscripts – radiocarbon dated to the fifth/sixth centuries – and fourteenth-century manuscripts precisely dated by notes on their production (colophons) establish an approximate dating of the manuscript of ʿUra Mäsqäl to the twelfth/thirteenth century.

The understanding that emanates from the episode of the discovery of two more leaves of the exceptional Ethiopic manuscript under a church cupboard is emblematic of how haphazard accidents can play a role in transmitting, selecting and even destroying the knowledge of the past committed to manuscript books. Having fallen down or been negligently detached from the main bunch of leaves when the manuscript and others were moved to the present location in the years of armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea (1998–2000), the two leaves finally landed on the floor and remained under the cupboard, unseen. The simple but effective gesture of a researcher who knelt down, looked under the cupboard and recovered two detached parchment leaves contributed some important evidence for researchers on manuscripts and Church history.

Very notable for its date, complexity and contents, the presence and significance of this Ethiopic manuscript pose many questions that still await satisfactory answers. As usual, research is already underway at CSMC.


BAUSI, Alessandro (2011): “La ‘nuova’ versione etiopica della Traditio apostolica: edizione e traduzione preliminare”. In: Paola Buzi and Alberto Camplani (eds.): Christianity in Egypt: literary production and intellectual trends. Studies in honor of Tito Orlandi (Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum, 125). Roma: Augustinianum, 19–69.

BAUSI, Alessandro (2014): “Copying, writing, translating: Ethiopia as a manuscript culture”. In: Jörg Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (eds.): Manuscript cultures: mapping the field (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, 1). Berlin–New York: de Gruyter, 37–77.

BAUSI, Alessandro (2015): “The Aksumite Collection. Ethiopic multiple text manuscripts”. In: Alessandro Bausi et al. (eds.), Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies. An Introduction. Hamburg: Tredition, 367–372.

BAUSI, Alessandro / CAMPLANI, Alberto (2013): “New Ethiopic Documents for the History of Christian Egypt”. In: Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum. Journal of Ancient Christianity, 17/2–3, 195–227.

Capitolare Verona (2015): “Bibliotheca Capitularis Veronensis”. (accessed on 31/07/2015).

NOSNITSIN, Denis (2013): Churches and Monasteries of Tǝgray. A Survey of Manuscript Collections (Supplement to Aethiopica, 1). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 3–8.

WIPSZYCKA, Ewa (2015): The Alexandrian Church. People and Institutions. The Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplement, 25. Warszawa: Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Warsaw, Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, The Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation.


Ethiopia, Tigray, ʿUra Mäsqäl Church
Shelfmark: C3–IV–73 (Ethio-SPaRe UM-039)
Material: 162 folios, parchment; no cover (original cover lost, new cover added after restoration in 2012), 2 columns, c. 29 lines
Dimensions: 31 x 23 cm
Provenance: place of production unknown; twelfth/thirteenth century

Text by Alessandro Bausi
© for fig. 1a, 2a Ethio-SPaRe 2010; fig. 1b, 2b Ethio-SPaRe 2012