A symbolic struggle over ancient manuscripts

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THE pages crackle, specks of parchment falling to the ground like snowflakes. Wrapped in a white shawl, the book open on his knees on an embroidered velvet cloth, Father Teklehaimanot turns the sheets fastidiously lest the leather ligature tear them. Inside the text is dull and faded. By contrast, the colours of the illustrations are brilliant, rich purples and blues that brighten the gloom of the monastery. On the floor lies the cloth in which the volume is usually enfolded; beside it, the pile of boxes on which it rests. This is where one of the world’s most precious religious artefacts is kept, as it has been for as long as the monks can remember.

The Garima Gospels are not easy to see. These illuminated Christian manuscripts—at around 1,500 years old, perhaps the oldest of their kind in existence—belong to Abba Garima monastery, which is perched on a remote outcrop in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The roughly 100 monks store the two books in a circular treasure-house next to the…Continue reading

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