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.
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.
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