This lavishly illustrated 17th-century manuscript contains the first eight books of the Old Testament (the Octateuch), the four Gospels, and several canons of church councils. It is written in a small elegant script with decorative borders and devices and has many lively illustrations in bold colours. The Ethiopian church was one of five Oriental Orthodox churches which rejected the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., thus forming a separate tradition from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the time this manuscript was produced, Ethiopia was undergoing a religious and artistic revival.
The volume is a faithful copy of a 15th-century manuscript, and was probably commissioned by Emperor Iyasu (ruled 1682-1706). Historical notes in the manuscript suggest it was copied for the church of Debra Berhan Selassie, which remains one of Ethiopia’s most well-known churches. The manuscript is part of the Magdala Collection, which was given to the British Museum library [now the British Library] by the Secretary of State for India in 1868. The collection had been assembled by the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros [King Theodore] in the fortress of Magdala, which fell into British hands following a battle against Theodore in 1867. The volume retains its original binding of stamped leather-covered wood, lined with silk cloth. British Library Or. 481.
Inside Cover and Colophon
The inside cover is lined with silk cloth. The manuscript begins with a colophon or statement, which contains a letter from John, Patriarch of Alexandria, to King Iyasu I written by a later hand, dated 1743. The volume contains copies of many deeds of grants and donations made to churches and monasteries in Ethiopia by three rulers: Iyasu I (ruled 1682-1706); Iyasu II (ruled 1739-1740) and Sahla Dengel (ruled 1832-1840). The manuscript is written in classical Ethiopian, known as Ge’ez, which survives today only as a church language. Ethiopian is a Semitic language, in the same group of languages as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. The ancient Ethiopians borrowed the basic parts of their letters from Arabic. These 26 basic letters only expressed consonants so a system of short lines and circles were added to the letters to mark vowels.
The consonant forms were also modified. In modern Ethiopian, Amharic, there are seven forms of each letter, each expressing a consonant and vowel, for example he, hu, hi, ha, he, ho or ke, ku, ki, ka, ke, ko. Uniquely among Semitic languages, Ethiopian is written from left to right. Punctuation marks in the text are as follows – words are divided by :, sentences are divided by ::, and paragraphs by ::=::. The pigments used in the painting were limited and consisted mainly of red cinnabar (red mercury sulphide), yellow orpiment (arsenious trisulphide), charcoal, white chalk and indigo blue, a plant extract. All were local to Ethiopia, except the indigo, which was imported from India.
The pigments were mixed with an animal protein, forming a tempera, which was applied directly to the prepared sheet. The main text is written in black ink made of gum, water, gallnuts, and strong acid, while the titles and necessary rubrics are written in red ink. An ancient recipe for making ink is set out in an Ethiopian manuscript of the ninth century. It instructs: “Take 2/3 oz of gall-nut, pound it, and put it in a new pot. Pour on it a quart and a half of water and boil it till one third evaporates, then strain it through a coarse cloth, and put it back in a pot on the fire. Take 1/3 oz of gum Arabic and pound it till it becomes like dust. Let the water cool; then take the gum Arabic and throw it in little by little. Take an ounce of copper and pound it very fine and throw it in. Then put it (the pot) on the fire again until it boils. Then take it off, put it in a bottle, and let it stand for three days.”
The structure of an Ethiopian manuscript The thick parchment of this volume is made of either goatskin or sheepskin. A manuscript of this length would require the skins of 120 goats – one goat provides enough skin to make only two leaves. The cost of the parchment was the most expensive aspect of sponsoring such a manuscript. After the skin had been prepared, small holes were pricked along the edges of the parchment using a template to mark the position of each line and column of text. A blunt instrument, such as the back of a knife, was used to score faint lines joining the holes to guide the scribe. The pens are made of a type of tall reed. The width of the pen nib dictated the size of the script used.
Different pens were used for red and black inks. A book of this size would take a scribe about eight months to complete. When the writing and painting was completed, the individual sections (between six to sixteen) were sewn together between wooden boards. This volume is almost square in format, which was typical of 17th-century books. The sewing thread is made of animal tendons. The key feature is the use of independent pairs of link-stitch sewing to join the section together and attach them directly to the outer wooden boards. Olive wood was used for the covers. Occasionally the boards were covered in cowhide and dyed red or reddish brown before being pasted over the wood. Decorative patterns were often stamped on the leather using heated iron finishing tools. The inside covers were then lined with woven multi-coloured fabrics. The design of the fabric in this manuscript is made up of horizontal bands against a white background.
Moses and the Book of Genesis
The manuscript begins with the first eight books of the Hebrew Old Testament, known as the Octateuch. This opening contains the title page of the first book, Genesis. Christianity developed out of Judaism, and is a religion firmly based in history. It has its origin in the Old Covenant that God made with the Israelites described in the Old Testament, and develops into the New Covenant with the birth of Jesus as the Son of God as related in the four Gospels. The Old Testament Law, like the Qu’ran, was a series of revelations made to the prophets, but the heart of Christianity is not the Bible as a book, but the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Aksumite kingdom of Ethiopia converted to Christianity in around 340 A.D. The town of Aksum is in Tegray, and is called the Holy City by the Ethiopians for its church of Maryam Seyon or Aksum Seyon, in which the Tablets of Moses or the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Early chroniclers attribute the founding of the kingdom to Menilek I, the legendary son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ezana, Aksum’s fourth-century king, decreed Christianity as the state religion. He built the huge stone stelae whose inscriptions give the history of his reign.
One of these stelae was taken to Rome by the Italians as booty from their 1936 invasion. This stela was returned to Aksum last year. Traditionally, the Christianisation of Ethiopia is attributed to Frumentius (later known as Abuna Salama Kasate Berhan), who was ordained and consecrated as the first bishop of Ethiopia by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria. Frumentius served as bishop from 328 to his death in 373. The Bible was translated into Ge’ez, the classical language of the Ethiopian church, in the fifth century. The original translations of the Bible from the Greek were later revised on the basis of Arabic or Syro-Arabic texts to produce a spoken language version known as the “modern recension”. Facing the title page is an illustration of the Old Testament prophet Moses receiving the Tablet of Laws from God. Moses has a special place in the Ethiopian church. He is seen as a figure of primary importance in linking the two covenants, the Old and the New, and has special authority as the receiver of the Law.
At the top of the page is a particular type of illumination called a harag, which in Ge’ez means the tendril of a climbing plant. A harag is made of bands of coloured lines interlaced in a geometrical pattern and is used to frame a page in an Ethiopian manuscript. The characteristic feature of a harag is that each is noticeably different from any other, even within the same manuscript. These differences distinguish the characteristic features of different regions or periods. For example, one clear distinction between the harag of the 14th and 15th centuries can be made on the basis of whether black or red is used for the outline. The harag of the 14th century are richly coloured with yellows, red, greens, blues, and greys, the enclosed black outlines acting as background to enhance the chromatic effect. In the 15th century, only yellow, grey, and red are used, along with the neutral colour of the parchment as a background. Click on Reading to hear an extract from the opening of Genesis.
Aaron and the Book of Leviticus
This opening shows the title page of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Old Testament. Leviticus, also known as the Law of the Priests, is concerned with the ethical and religious commands to be carried out by the Israelites to maintain their communion with God. The facing illustration is of Moses’ brother Aaron, a prophet and Israel’s high priest. According to the Book of Numbers, the appointment of the high priest was approved by God in the following manner. God declared “And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod whom I shall choose, shall blossom”. Moses took twelve rods each inscribed with the name of a leader of one of the tribes of Israel and placed them in a tent. Aaron’s rod blossomed and brought forth almonds, confirming that he was to be the high priest. In this image Aaron is depicted carrying a budding rod as a token of God’s approval.Eusebius and his Letter to Carpinus.
Eusebius and his Letter to Carpinus
The illustration depicts Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 A.D.), a bishop in Palestine, and his pupil Carpinus. On the facing page is a copy of the famous letter Eusebius wrote to Carpinus in which he explains the similarities and the differences among the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, also known as the Synoptic Gospels. These Gospels tell the story of Christ from His birth to His resurrection in much the same general sequence.
The content of Christ’s teaching is the same in many details, but the order of presenting it varies. For example, Matthew and Luke have different accounts of Christ’s birth. In Matthew the author is keen to legitimize his birth by tracing the genealogy of his parents back to Adam and Eve, while Luke is much more focused on the miraculous nature of the birth itself in a firm historical context. Eusebius sets out the parallels and variations in these Gospels on the following pages in a series of tables, known as canon tables. Birds as ornaments are common in the illuminations of Ethiopian Gospels. The story of Adam and Eve in paradise is embellished with a variety of birds, an arrangement which copies closely the ornamental pattern of the canon tables of Eusebius. The elaborate patterns framing the canon tables of Eusebius are also meant to symbolize the Fountain of Life.