A symbolic struggle over ancient manuscripts
he Garima Gospels exemplify a wider conflict over heritage and conservation
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 church. Down a slope, just beyond the cloister, is a small museum, built six years ago with the help of the French government, but it is almost empty. The gospels were placed there only briefly before the monks removed them to their customary home. Visiting researchers are occasionally admitted—as The Economist was after lengthy negotiation—but tourists are rarely welcomed.
The ongoing dispute over where and how the gospels should be kept, and who may see them, is intensely local yet symbolic. It revolves around the age-old traditions of an isolated monastery, but it exemplifies the scepticism sometimes aroused by Western heritage programmes. It encapsulates the rival claims of sacred rites and secular scholarship, raising questions about the aim of preservation and the ultimate ownership of a nation’s culture.
According to legend the gospels—written in the ancient language of Ge’ez—are the work of Abba (Father) Garima, a Byzantine prince who founded the monastery in the 5th or early 6th century. The monks have protected the relics from Muslim invaders, colonial armies and fires. The monastery has been sacked or looted at least four times, most recently by the occupying Italians in 1936, each time being rebuilt.
It is unlikely the gospels have ever left its walls. They were unknown to the outside world until Beatrice Playne, an English artist, visited in the late 1940s. Women are not allowed inside the compound, so the manuscripts were brought out to her. In recent years scholarly interest in them has surged. Vital restoration work was carried out by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a British charity, in the mid-2000s. Today a trickle of foreign academics arrive at Abba Garima’s gates seeking the gospels’ clues to the early history of eastern Christianity.
But the monks’ suspicions run deep. A long history of cultural theft has scarred Ethiopia. In April riches plundered by the British in 1867-68 go on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, despite long-standing calls for their return. During the Italian occupation many artefacts were taken from Ethiopian churches to museums in Rome, afterwards vanishing. Lately there has been an uptick in low-profile thefts, driven by a flourishing black market in Ethiopian antiquities. “People come here with permission from the government, but then we find them doing other things,” says Father Teklehaimanot warily.
The monks’ unease reflects a broader move against researchers by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Scholars say it has become almost impossible to study ancient manuscripts. Photographing them is generally forbidden. Efforts by European and American libraries to digitise hundreds of thousands of Christian codices have ended abruptly, often bitterly. For some in the church, a deficit of trust is compounded by a concern over authority: control of texts confers it, sharing them dilutes it. “There is a feeling that if these manuscripts are made too accessible the church will lose its secrets,” says Michael Gervers, a historian at the University of Toronto. Some see digitisation as akin to robbery.
The moving of sacred objects to profane settings arouses particular anxieties. “Museums necessarily re-contextualise the objects on display,” says Michael Di Giovine, author of “The Heritage-scape”, a book about heritage and tourism. In the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, he points out, veneration often involves touching, kissing, burning incense and audible prayer, “things you simply cannot do in a Western-style museum”. He points to the case of St Pio of Pietrelcina in Italy, whose body was exhumed in 2008 and displayed in a glass sarcophagus; distressed pilgrims tried to sue the church authorities for commercialising the shrine. Father Columba Stewart, an American Benedictine monk who digitised the Garima Gospels in 2013 for the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, observes a similar worry in Ethiopia—that the placing of manuscripts under glass takes them too far from their role in religious ceremony.
Dust to dust
Conversely, researchers fret about the gospels’ future in their current setting. When Jacques Mercier, a French art historian, visited in 1995, the second volume of gospels seemed to have gone missing (it turned up later). As their custodians become aware of their financial value, the temptation to profit grows. Some monks can be bribed to produce the parchments for viewing, risking damage. “Every time you open the book the edges turn to dust,” says Mr Gervers. “So bit by bit they will fall apart.”
At bottom this is a fundamental disagreement about heritage. To whom, in the end, do jewels such as the Garima Gospels belong? Since at least the 1960s Western ideas of conservation have emphasised humanity’s common inheritance and the ideal of universal access. This view replaces the principle of ownership with one of stewardship. Thus Mr Gervers suggests UNESCO should intervene to protect the gospels. Others think they should be taken into temporary custody by the church authorities. “It’s a matter not of who owns them, per se, but whether they are available to the public to study and examine,” says Getahun Girma, an Ethiopian scholar. “The monasteries don’t have the resources—the knowledge, the money, the organisational set-up—to do this.”
But this universalist approach is not common in Ethiopia, even if the church officially encourages the keeping of antiquities in museums. In any case, an Ethiopian monastery is an island, the writ of the outside world barely reaching its gates.
Abba Garima’s isolation has helped keep the manuscripts safe for centuries. The treasure-house may be cluttered and dirty, but it is bone-dry and closely guarded. “Many things were lost through history, but they kept these treasures,” Daniel Seife-Michael, a scholar and priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, says of the monks. “They would die to protect them.”
This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "Gospel truths"
SOURCE : THE ECONOMIST