Garima Gospels
World's Oldest Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Evangelist Portrait from Garima 2
Carbon-dated to 390-570.
A unique work of Christian art of
the fourth century.

Garima Gospels (390-660)


Description and Characteristics
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For the chronological development of painting, sculpture and
other artforms, see: History of Art (2.5 Million BCE -present).

Canon Table from Garima 1
Carbon-dated to 530-660.

For details of art styles,
see: History of Art Timeline.


The Ethiopian Garima Gospels - both housed in Ethiopia's Abba Garima Monastery - are the oldest known illuminated manuscripts in existence, earlier even than the Rabbula Gospels (c.586, Laurentian Library, Florence) from Syria. Consisting of two separate 10-inch-thick books - Garima 2 (the older text) and Garima 1 (the younger text) - written on goat skin and decorated with colourful illustrations, these priceless masterpieces of Biblical art are written in Ethiopic, the ancient Semitic language of Abyssinia. Originally believed to date to the medieval era, about 1100, radiocarbon dating results obtained by researchers at Oxford University, under the umbrella of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, shows that they actually date from between 390 and 660 CE. Garima 2, the older of the two books, is therefore the earliest known Christian decorated text in the history of illuminated manuscripts, as well as being one of the oldest versions of the early Byzantine Text of the Gospels. According to tradition, the gospel books were written and illustrated by Saint Abba Garima, who is reputed to have arrived in Ethiopia from Syria, in 494. However, the latest research suggests that they were written and illuminated a century earlier, using an iconography drawn from Egyptian art, rather than the Hellenistic art of Syria. In any event, scholars agree that the Garima Gospels are a unique contribution to the ancient art of East Africa.


The Gospels are currently housed in the Eastern Orthodox monastery of Abba Garima, and neither manuscript is known to have ever left its confines, although given the fact that the district was occupied by Muslims from the 9th to the 14th century, it is possible that they were kept hidden in a local cave for safe keeping, then forgotten, and then rediscovered. The monastery is located some five kilometres from Adwa, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. It was established by Abba Garima - reputedly one of the Nine Saints from Syria - and built by King Gabra Masqal in 560. Its scriptorium developed a reputation for the making of illustrated manuscripts and for the creation of religious paintings and other forms of religious art, such as ivory carving and stone sculpture. Reputedly, Abba Garima lived in the monastery, healing the sick and performing miracles, for more than 20 years.

Description and Characteristics

Garima 1 consists of 348 pages, beginning with 11 illuminated pages, including canon tables set in arcades, followed by the Gospel texts written in Ge'ez, the Ethiopic language of the Kingdom of Axum, which is the language of the Ethiopian Church. (Ge'ez script is one of the oldest alphabets still in use in the world.) Also written in Ge'ez, but by a different scribe, Garima 2 has 322-pages, including 17 illuminated pages, of which four are portraits of the Evangelists. The miniature painting which decorates both gospels is reminiscent of Byzantine Art, although this too is now thought to have been created in Ethiopia. Neither manuscript has a colophon. Significantly, the texts of the two Garima manuscripts are quite different; thus Garima 1, for instance, does not derive directly from Garima 2. (Note: The term "canon tables" refers to the system of dividing and comparing the contents of the four Gospels, which was used between late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. A summary typically appears at the start of the Gospels.)

See also: Byzantine Christian Art (c.400-1200).

The respective front covers of the Gospels are also exceptionally old. The Garima 1 cover - made from gilt-copper backed with wood (though missing its original precious stones) and decorated with a large cross - is believed to have been made at the same time as the manuscript. In contrast, the Garima 2 cover - made from silver gilt - dates from the era of Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (1000-1200).

See also: Goldsmithing & Goldsmithery (c.3000 BCE on).


Examined in 1950 by the British art historian Beatrice Playne, and in the 1960s by the French scholar Jules Leroy. Leroy dated the Gospels to about 1100, while another expert - Donald M Davies - dated them to about 700-900. The Dutch theological historian Rochus Zuurmond preferred the later date of 1000-1200, albeit with some contra-indications. In the 1990s Jacques Mercier a French expert in Ethiopian art, examined both manuscripts at the Abba Garima Monastery, from where in 2000 he was allowed to take two fragments for analysis and carbon dating at the Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archeology. Tests showed that one sample (taken from an evangelist page in Garima 2) dated to 330–540; while the other (taken from a different page from Garima 2) dated to 430–650. These dates are consistent with text comparisons with other Ge'ez Gospel works. Following these carbon dating results, Mercier completed a stylistic analysis of the works, concluding that both gospels dated to about 600 - a conclusion which concurs with Marilyn Heldman's estimate in the catalogue to the 1993 Exhibition "African Zion: the Sacred Art of Ethiopia". In November 2013, at a conference entitled "Ethiopia and the Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: The Garima Gospels in Context", Mercier announced definitive radio-carbon datings, as mentioned in our opening paragraph, above. Garima 2 is dated 390-570; Garima 1 530-660.

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