{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/international-collections.php' }

The 1548 Ethiopic Gospel in Print

(The following is a post by Fentahun Tiruneh, Area Specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African & Middle Eastern Division.) 

Woodcut title: Device of Arms of Pope Paul III. Opening page of the New Testament and other books. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The Ethiopian collection at the Library of Congress has recently acquired a rare Gospel book printed in Rome in 1548. This book is the first printed edition of the New Testament in the Ge’ez language, ግዕዝ (Ethiopic), the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia. It was edited by three Ethiopian monks who traveled from the Debre Libanos monastery in Ethiopia to the Vatican, passing through Jerusalem on the way. Located northwest of Addis Ababa in the far reaches of the Oromia region, the Debre Libanos monastery was built in the 13th century by the Ethiopian saint, Tekle Haymanot. Debre Libanos suffered great destruction during the rise of Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, popularly known as Ahmad Gragn, and an Imam and general from the Muslim sultanate of Adal in the Horn of Africa, who fought against the Ethiopian empire. One of his followers set fire to the monastery on July 21st, 1531.

Debre Libanos Monastery, Ethiopia. Photography by Owen Barder.

It was during this destruction that the three Ethiopian monks, namely, Tesfa-Sion, Tensea Wold and Zeselase, who assumed the Latin names Petrus, Paulus and Bernardus respectively, fled their country carrying sacred manuscripts, one of which was the Ethiopic Gospel. They may have been sent to the Vatican by Gelawdewos, King of Ethiopia, out of fear of further devastation and the loss of sacred books. Be this as it may, the three monks found hospitality at the Monastery of St. Stefano in Rome, and in 1548-9, the Ethiopic New Testament was published in Rome under the auspices of both the Pope and the Emperor of Ethiopia.

The senior monk, Tesfa-Sion, also known as “Petrus Aethiops,” or even “Pietro Indiano” by his European counterparts, was the driving force behind this printing of the first Ethiopic Gospel. According to various sources, Tesfa-Sion appears to have been a learned man who enjoyed a considerable reputation in Europe. He assisted in creating the Ethiopic alphabet table with the Ge’ez numeral system, and edited the works of his two associates, the brothers Valerius and Ludovicus Doricus, neither of whom knew the Ethiopic language. Tesfa-Sion wrote an introductory remark in the preamble of the Ethiopic Gospel stating that the book was a product of two blind men “since those who composed it could not read Ethiopic, and we who read Ethiopic knew not how to compose.” Tesfa-Sion and his associates may – as he remarks – have been like “the blind leading the blind,” but together they effected the first printed Ethiopic Gospel. Tesfa-Sion labored day and night for three years to complete the making of the New Testament book. Most importantly, “T.S. was able to finance in full his publication of the N.T.” [A. Bausi & G. Ficcadori, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, 526.].

The school dedicated to Ethiopian pilgrims in Vatican City, Rome. At first the pilgrims were welcomed at San Stefano degli Abyssini. Later on it became a school assuming the name Collegio Etiopico. Ethiopian Collection. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The Gospel of Matthew in Ethiopic. Ethiopic Gospel, 1548. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

Folio 177 of the 1548 New Testament showing the first page of Romans on the right, and bottom left, the note where Tesfa-Sion acknowledges Pope Paul III for his support.

God the Father creating the universe. Ethiopic Gospel, 1548. Folio 133. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

The 1548 Gospel is composed of two volumes in one, Part One consisting of the New Testament (fols. 1-176); and Part Two containing the Pauline Epistles together with the baptism service and additional prayers at the end (fols. 177-266). There are 18 woodcuts in the text, seven of them half-page depictions of biblical scenes. This first Ge’ez edition gained authority in the European milieu and formed the basis of all subsequent studies of the Ethiopic Gospels.

“And for my glory a butterfly sews / A many-colored suit of clothes:” A Hebrew Tom Thumb by Chaim Nachman Bialik

In 1911, Jewish children in the Russian Empire woke up to find a Tom Thumb of their own, a Hebrew Tom Thumb of the greatest charm imaginable, and written, moreover, by that greatest of modern Hebrew poets, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). Bialik’s “Etsba’oni” first appeared in the pages of Ha-Shahar [The Dawn], one of a growing number of Hebrew periodicals created specifically for children in the early decades of the 20th century, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. The Library of Congress has an almost complete run of the periodical from its seven months of existence, covers included.

Worlds within Worlds, Books within Books: Hebrew Manuscripts as Binding for non-Hebrew Books

This blogpost highlights a single parchment leaf in Hebrew letters that has survived the centuries as binding for a Latin book printed in Frankfurt am Main in the late 16th century. The Hebrew leaf comes from a manuscript copy of “Beit Yosef” [The House of Joseph], a monumental code of Jewish law composed by Joseph Karo (1488-1575), one of the most important Jewish figures of all time.

Courting the Muse: Hebrew Wedding Poems from 18th-Century Italy

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.) The spectacular news of the Venus flyby conducted by the Parker Solar Probe made headlines around the world last autumn, dazzling us all with its close-ups of the sun and reams of new data on nearby planets. Little […]

“A Maiden Studies the Hebrew Tongue:” Treasures from the Library of Congress Reflecting Jewish Women Readers through the Ages

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.) The time is April, 1879; the place, some town or city within the vast Russian empire. Perhaps there is a chill in the air for in Russia the winters are long, and on a night like this it […]

Unicorns in the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.) In the world of rare books, unicorns are frequently sighted on the pages of older works printed in the European countries, in languages such as Latin or French or English. There, in the guise of what is known […]

Bookselling at the Crossroads: An Anecdote of Hebrew Book History from the Early Ottoman Empire

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.) The year is 1547; the place a synagogue in Constantinople, crossroads of Europe and Asia and capital of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. Constantinople in this period is a vibrant, bustling metropolis, newly revitalized by the conquests of […]

Micrography in the Jewish Tradition

(The following is a post by Sharon Horowitz, reference librarian in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.) Micrography is minute script written into abstract patterns or formed into figurative designs such as the shape of animals, flowers or human figures. This is a Jewish form of embellishment of Biblical texts, developed […]

From Amsterdam to Algeria: A Chapter in Hebrew Book History

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.) Philadelphia, look out! You may be the official “City of Brotherly Love,” but Ouargla, a town deep in the Algerian desert, is about to give you a run for the money. And all because of a book: […]