Armenian and Ethiopic Manuscripts

June 24th, 2011 § 3 comments

Two of the UCLA Library’s large manuscript collections, the Armenian manuscripts and the Ethiopian, have a strange and highly debated connection. Their scripts, although linguistically distant, have an apparent superficial resemblance – they even share several characters.

The countries and their languages grew independently of each other, separated by over two-thousand miles of land and sea. Many people propose that the script for the Ethiopian language Ge’ez, called Fidäl, came much earlier than the current Armenian script, and even more have built theories about how the relationship between the two came to be. One of the most popular theories is based in the countries’ long history of Christianity: Armenia was the very first Christian nation, made official in 301 AD, and Ethiopia quickly became the second in 316 AD.

Around 406 AD, Saint Mesrob Mashtots was tasked with creating a new alphabet for the Kingdom of Armenia. The Armenians sought to distance themselves from the countries and religions that surrounded (and attempted to conquer) them. Many suggest that Mesrob might have encountered Ethiopian Christians while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and came into possession of one of their religious texts. With a Ge’ez bible as his guide, it isn’t unthinkable that Mesrob adopted some of the characters to fit his unfinished alphabet. Both Armenia and Ethiopia were nations that had faced the same problem Mesrob was sent to address – they were the only Christian nations in their regions for years, and were eager to produce the same sort of religious literature.

Gladzor Gospels (page 34). Armenian Manuscripts Collection, Ms. 1. UCLA Library Special Collections

We are fortunate enough to have the Gladzor Gospels in our collection. The gospels are considered a masterpiece of 14th century illumination; they contain full-page miniatures, elaborately decorated calendars, intricate border art, and portraits of saints incorporated into the body of the text, as shown in the example to the left.

Many of our Ethiopic manuscripts are written and decorated with much stronger, thicker lines, and show the hand of the artists and scribes that created them. As shown in the example below, the text is traditionally done in sections of red and black ink; the embellishments are most often earth-toned. Their charm lies in a certain level of tactility and informality.

Ṣālot ba᾽eneta Ḥemāma Ayena Ṭelā wa-Ayena Wareq, Māhléta Ṣegé, Seyefa Śelāssé, Qeddāsé Māryām (page 1). Ethiopic Manuscripts Collection, No. 8. UCLA Library Special Collections

The Armenians and Ethiopians have a strong history of friendship, although much of it came very long after the creation of their respective alphabets. Two such stories stand out:

In the early 16th century, an Armenian merchant was employed in the court of the Ethiopian queen. He was sent as the Ethiopian ambassador to Portugal on Ethiopia’s first diplomatic mission. Matters became somewhat complicated when Portugal did not believe that he, an Armenian, was in the service of the Ethiopian courts, and became further complicated on his journey back to Ethiopia. More of the story can be read here.

The other takes place more recently, in the early 1920′s. After the Armenian Genocide, Crown Prince Ras Tafari of Ethiopia encountered 40 Armenian orphans in Jerusalem, collectively called Arba Lijoch.  He was so charmed by all of them that he adopted every one and brought them back to Ethiopia. He gave them the best possible musical training, and the 40 Armenian children formed the very first official Ethiopian orchestra. Together they created the Ethiopian Imperial National Anthem, which remained the same until 1974.

We’re happy to be able to present to you important works from both of these countries. No matter the relationship between these countries and their languages, both their scripts and manuscripts are beautifully written, and we encourage you to browse our collections.

By Ashi Diamon

§ 3 Responses to Armenian and Ethiopic Manuscripts"

  • Kristina says:

    This is the most amazing thing i’ve ever read..I was passing by a church and noticed armenian look-alike letters on the walls of the church and since was in a car driving by, was only able to read that it was an Ethiopian Church….So i asked everyone about this “axiom” and noone knew anything about it. and i thought to reasearch even more and i found this beautiful article. Wow! i’d like to post this to facebook for all my friends to read.

  • Gregory says:

    The Armenians and Ethiopians actually share DNA in large amounts. There are studies which prove there was a migration of Kushites into Eurasia and there were prehistoric back migrations from Asia into Africa.

    “Notably, 62% of the Ethiopians fall in the first cluster, which encompasses the majority of the Jews, Norwegians and Armenians, indicating that placement of these individuals in a ‘Black’ cluster would be an inaccurate reflection of the genetic structure. Only 24% of the Ethiopians are placed in the cluster with the Bantu and most of the Afro-Caribbeans.”

    (Passarino et al. 1998)

    Armenians have also been known for at least 1000 years as the Amalekites of the bible which were present in North Africa and Southern Arabia and were said to have migrated north and settled in present day Armenia. The Armenian DNA Project found that we do in fact carry large amounts of Haplogroups J1 and J2 along with the R1B1A

    Armenians and dark skinned north-Africans most likely birthed the entire middle east as we know it today.

    “Henry Field suggested that Arabia’s current ethnography is the result of the mixing of two distinct basal stocks: The dolichocephalic (long-headed), dark-skinned Mediteranean/Eur-African and the brachycephalic (round-headed) fair-skinned Armenoid. See his “Ancient and Modern Inhabitants of Arabia,” The Open Court 46 (1932): 854 [art.=847-869]. See also Bertram Thomas, “Racial Origin of the Arabs,” in idem, The Arabs: The life-story of a People who have left their deep impress on the world (London: Thorton Butterworth Ltd., 1937) 353-359; C.G. Seligman, “The Physical Characters of the Arabs,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 47 (1917): 214-237.”

    The Amhara seem to be more connected to Armenians than the other racial groups in Ethiopia.

    “There is a considerable mass of evidence to show that there was a very close resemblance between the proto-Egyptians and the Arabs before either became intermingled with Armenoid racial elements.” Elliot Smith p. 54 The Ancient Egyptians and the Origins of Civilization, p.61 2007, earliest publication 1923.”

    There is even more on page 119 of this book

  • [...] here is a story about the Ethiopian Alphabet and the relation between it and the Armenian Alphabet link Anyway, I won't be participating in this conversation from here on out. I have presented you with [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>