Unearthed, the ancient texts that tell story of Christianity

A British bookbinder has restored ancient copies of the gospels dating back to the fourth century, writes Jerome Taylor

for the handful of hardy travellers who make it to the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia's Tigrai Highlands, there is a book that local monks believe holds magic properties.

Kept under lock and key in a bright-blue circular hut at the centre of the isolated monastery, the Garima Gospels are one of the Christian world's oldest and most exquisite treasures. Until recently, scholars had always assumed that the two 10-inch-thick volumes, which are written on goat skin and brightly illustrated, dated back to the early 11th century. But recent carbon-testing has proved what the monks believed all along: the books are among the oldest gospels in existence.

New dating techniques have put the creation of the two books to somewhere between 330 and 650, making them a close contender to being the most ancient complete Christian texts. The only major collection of scripture that is known to be older is the Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of the Bible hand-written in Greek which dates back to the third century. Unlike the Garima Gospels, the Codex includes large chunks of the Old Testament, but the entire work is divided between museums and monasteries in Egypt, Britain, Russia and the USA.

The Garima Gospels, meanwhile, have been in one piece in the same place for the best part of 1,600 years, guarded by generations of monks from Muslim invaders, colonial conquerors and a fire in the 1930s which destroyed their church.

The monks have their own legend about how the gospels came into their possession. They believe they were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who arrived in what was then the kingdom of Axum in 494 and went on to found the monastery. According to the monks, Abba Garima finished his exquisite work in a single day because God stopped the sun from setting while he worked.

The Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a British charity which specialises in preserving the myriad of stunning artefacts that fill Ethiopia's monasteries, has recently finished restoring the two books to bring them back to their former glory.

Reaching the monastery, which is 7,000ft above sea level and clings to a mountainside, was no mean task. Lester Capon, a British bookbinder normally based in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, spent three weeks working with the monks to rebuild and restore the bindings that held the pages together.

"The monks won't even let the books out of the monastery, let alone the country," he told The Independent. "To them it really is a magical book, written by their founder. To begin with, they were very nervous about having someone mark and take the pages out of their book. But they soon understood what we were doing."

For Mr Capon, who has been binding books for more than 30 years in the UK, the restoration work was a serious challenge "without any of the normal facilities in a European conservation unit".

Forced to work outside, he had to be constantly on the look-out for a group of monkeys that seemed determined to cart the sacred book high up into the mountains.

An earlier conservation project in the early 1960s had resulted in some sections of the gospels being sewn together entirely. Mr Capon had to undo the stitches, take out each page, clean it and put it back in the right order. Jacques Mercier, a French expert on Ethiopian manuscripts, was on hand to ensure each page was put back correctly.

The books themselves are written in Ge'ez, an ancient Ethiopian Semitic language and consist of three manuscripts in two volumes. Both contain the four gospels and one of the volumes has added pages from a 15th century manuscript.

The Ethiopian Heritage Fund is now working to preserve a series of ancient wall paintings at nearby monasteries and hopes to build a small museum at Abuna Garima to house the newly restored gospels.

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