Ethiopia : Early Christian Illuminated Bibles

Date of Visit: November 2014

Numerous Churches in Aksum and Lalibela

Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, and the first to illuminate the Bible.
Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity, and the first to illuminate the Bible.

Background
According to the ancient Julian calendar Christmas (Ganna) will arrive in Ethiopia on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015. The holiday will begin with a day of fasting followed by a 4 am church service the next day. No special events happen until January 19th when a 3-day celebration (Timkat) commemorates the baptism of Christ. There is no exchange of presents, instead a traditional feast, music and games are enjoyed after religious ceremonies. Clearly not part of the Christian world’s Christmas frenzy, Ethiopia enjoys its own treasures of early Christian architecture, artifacts and Bibles. In November 2014, Designtraveler photographer, Eric Allen, visited the country for a humanitarian mission but took time off to visit ancient churches and photograph the Byzantine illustration in early Bibles.

Women gather at dawn for Sunday services. Ethiopian Christians dress for church in the all-white “shamma.”
Women gather at dawn for services. Ethiopian Christians dress for church in the all-white “shamma.”
Ashes are self-applied
Ashes are self-applied.
The ubiquitous cross necklace worn everyday.
The ubiquitous cross necklace worn everyday.

Ethiopia is the only African nation never colonized by another country therefore no crusading army or missionary ever imposed its religion on the populace. Christianity came peacefully in the 1st century when a prisoner from Tyre, Frumentius, converted a ruler of the Aksumite kingdom; by the 4th century it was adopted as the official state religion, making Ethiopia the second Christian nation in the world (after Armenia).

Moslems conquered neighboring Egypt in 640, leaving Ethiopia cut off from the rest of the Christian world (except for a weak link to the surviving Coptic Church in Egypt). This separation along with the blending of the spirits and devils of the established African traditional faiths made for a unique form of Christianity.

Ethiopia possesses the oldest known illuminated Bibles including the famous, Garima Gospels, dated 494. Local lore holds that the author, monk Abba Garima, completed the work in one day, a day that God held off the sunset so Garima could complete his work uninterrupted.  The Gospels were identified by British art historian, Beatric Playne, in 1950. Because women were forbidden from entering the monastery the manuscripts were carried outside for her to view. The ban on women continues today
Ethiopia possesses the oldest known illuminated Bibles including the famous, Garima Gospels, dated 494. Local lore holds that the author, monk Abba Garima, completed the book in one day, a day that God held off the sunset so Garima could complete his work uninterrupted. The Gospels were identified by British art historian, Beatrice Playne, in 1950. Because women were forbidden from entering the monastery the manuscripts were carried outside for them to view. The ban on women continues today.
The two holy cities of Aksum and Lalibela.
The two holy cities of Aksum and Lalibela.

The Churches and Bibles of Lalibela
The mountain town of Lalibela, one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, is home to eleven churches hewn from living volcanic rock. The edifices, constructed in the 12th century, are positioned in a manner that replicates Jerusalem. The churches in the Lalibela area are entirely hand hewn from rock, beginning at the earth’s surface and continuing underground.

The church of Saint George carved in the 13th century.
The church of Saint George carved in the 13th century.
The ceiling of a rock-hewn church.
The ceiling of a rock-hewn church.
The stone walls inside of the church are covered with rugs and pantings. Only priests are allowed behind the curtains. Priests carry the Blessing Cross throughout the service.
Rugs and paintings cover the stone walls inside of the church. Only priests are allowed behind the curtains. Priests carry the Blessing Cross throughout the service.
Some churches are covered by protective shelters erected by UNESCO to preserve the structures from the elements.
Protective shelters erected by UNESCO help preserve the structures from the elements.
Inside the churches monks read the ancient texts using flames.
Inside the churches monks read the ancient texts using flames.
   The monks safeguard the ancient manuscripts but ceremoniously unveil them upon request
The monks safeguard the ancient manuscripts but ceremoniously unveil them upon request.
The religious painting of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.
Byzantine in style, the religious paintings of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.
The religious painting of Ethiopia often depict the holy family and saints in traditional Ethiopian garb. Notice the figures wearing the white shamma in the foreground of the painting above.
The Bibles are written in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian Semitic language. Ge’ez was the language of the late antiquity empire of Aksum and, until the 19th century, the main language in Ethiopia.
Illustrations positioned to avoid a hole in the skin. Another at the top of the next page.
Illustration positioned to avoid a hole in the skin. Another hole at the top of the next page.
Paintings in a small gospel book, covered with wood boards. St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.
Paintings in a small gospel book covered with wood boards. St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.

The Holy City of Aksum

About 300 BC the Aksumite empire, a civilization that, in its heyday, rivaled Rome and Persia, established a capital in Aksum. One can still visit a number of inscribed stone stelae from that period.

Greek is one of the 3 texts on this ancient stone in Aksum.
Greek is one of the three texts on this ancient stone in Aksum.

Erected in the 4th century Aksum’s holiest church, St. Mary of Zion, is reportedly the home to the Ark of the Covenant. During the 10th century the ruling power shifted to the Zagwe Dynasty, practitioners of a Judaic form of Christianity. The capital moved to Lalibela, 200 miles to the south.

Inside the modern day St. Mary of Zion. The original church was destroyed by invading Muslims in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 1960’s by then emperor Haile Selassie.
Inside the modern-day St. Mary of Zion. The original church , destroyed by invading Muslims in the 16th century, was rebuilt in the 1960’s by then emperor Haile Selassie.

Ethiopian Bible Crucifiction spread

3Saints

 

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Queen of Sheba lived in Aksum traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon and a child of that union, Memelik, later brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Today it is claimed that the Ark is secured inside The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Only one person is allowed to see the Ark, and then only one time a year
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Queen of Sheba lived in Aksum and traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. A child of that union, Memelik, later brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Today the Ark is said to be stored inside The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Only one person is ever allowed to see the highly guarded artifact.
Young girls selling baskets at the ruins of the temple of the Queen of Sheba.
Young girls selling baskets at the ruins of the temple of the Queen of Sheba.

All photographs Eric Allen

Additional Content Sources:
Cotter, Holland. Bedrock of Art and Faith, April 20, 2012, New York Times.

 

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