Extreme bookbinding – an Ethiopian experience

We are most grateful to our friend Lester Capon, ex-President of Designer Bookbinders and leading British bookbinding expert, for the content of this blog. Lester travels the world rather like an air ambulance pilot, restoring unique books to their former glory.

The commission

It began with a telephone call on Thursday morning in May 2006.

Do you want to work in the Ethiopian mountains on a sixth-century manuscript?

Yes.

‘When, some months later, I was being hoisted up a sheer rock face a stone’s throw from the Eritrean border, trusting my prolonged existence to an ancient leather strap and an even more ancient monk, coupled with my laughable attempts at rock climbing on the only day of rain in the whole trip, I had time as I dangled dangerously to reflect on my hasty reply.

The setting

Part of the monastery complex

The two Gospel manuscript volumes Lester was called in to restore are kept at the Monastery of Abuna Garima in the Tigray Region, in the Ethiopian highlands, in the north of the country, with many monasteries and rock-hewn churches scattered around, all in varying degrees of inaccessibility – up mountains, on lakes.

The monastery church itself was gaily painted on the outside in reds, greens and yellows. Near the church was the Treasure House, a single dark, magical room, presided over by the Keeper of the Treasures, housing not only manuscripts of various ages but ornate silver crosses, ceremonial silver spoons, jugs, trays, robes, fabrics and faded curling photographs. And hanging everywhere, above the faded and flea-infested rugs, were bright multi-coloured umbrellas, each section in a different fabric, and wonderful book bags or mahda of tough leather and vellum.

The politics

The original commission for this extreme restoration project came from the Ethiopian Heritage Fund. But once Lester and his team were in situ the question of ownership or custodianship arose. Both His Holiness the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism asserted that they alone could give permission for the restoration. So, having made the arduous journey up rocky roads and through mountain passes, some two weeks into the restoration Lester was told to stop the work and return to Adwa, under threat of imprisonment. But in the end a lengthy coffee ritual resolved matters.

The team

The complexity of the project called for teamwork. Lester’s team for the first trip included an expert on Ethiopian manuscripts, icons, healing scrolls and botany (Jacques Mercier); an Ethiopian lecturer in Theology (Daniel SeifeMikael); and owner of the Wyvery Bindery (Mark Winstanley). Initially the abbot and monks also kept a close eye on the work and even tried to give a literal helping hand, on one occasion picking up a scalpel and trying to cut some of the threads. But gradually respect was won and the team could work in relative peace.

Work begins

The two volumes of Garima Gospels were eventually brought into the courtyard of the Treasure House – they rarely see the light of day since they are believed by scholars to be the oldest surviving gospels, written in Ge’ze and illustrated in the sixth century by the Coptic monk Abba Garima. The courtyard thus served as a ‘bindery’. Unlike Lester’s own workshop, this bindery was visited by donkeys and monkeys and the benches consisted of an old table and two funeral biers, which had to be moved twice daily to avoid the sun.

AG1

The first volume, AG1, is sewn with two pairs of sewing stations with a hard 2-ply line thread. The boards are copper with holes that would originally have displayed coloured glass or jewels. The spine is three separate pieces of much more recent vellum. The several efforts over the years to sew the volume together, and the addition of sewn-in vellum guards, prevented proper opening, so that the main advantage of Coptic binding – the ability to open the book completely flat – had disappeared and the most important illuminated pages were inaccessible. In addition, there was insect damage throughout the book.

Restricted opening from previous repairs

Lester had taken with him a variety of Japanese papers – different weights, tones, textures, and a selection of differing thicknesses and tones of velum. These were carefully matched to the damaged areas of the manuscript to repair torn and vulnerable areas.

Reattaching front board on AG1

 

AG2

AG2 is also sewn with two pairs of sewing stations with linen thread. The wooden boards are covered in a chased metal of a later date than AG1 and there is evidence of later additions for repair purposes.

Several illuminated folios had to be removed and interchanged within and between the two volumes to achieve the correct original order.

Completion and continuation

Monks processing, carrying huge crosses and books,

 

When the work for this first stage of the restoration was completed, the monks were generous in their appreciation. Lester and his colleagues took them gifts – a set of 12 drinking glasses, which were seen by the monks as a symbol of the 12 Apostles, and a sheep for a feast, transported to the monastery in the local taxi. Once prayers had been offered, the books were returned to the wooden chest that had previously been made to house them. The hope is that they will now be on view for travellers and help to bring in much needed funds for the monastery.

I felt privileged to be temporarily a part of this unchanging culture of poor and dignified Coptic monks. Repairing old books, I always feel I am touching history. With this book it was ancient history.’

***

Since this first trip, Lester has returned to the monastery several times, continuing the work with valuable help from book conservator Julian Pendlebury. He is available for talks on his work there and may be contacted at lestercapon@btinternet.com

To find out more about the technical aspects of the restoration, please visit Skin Deep, The Biannual Newsletter from J. Hewit & Sons Ltd. No.26 – Autumn 2008, where Lester’s article can be read in full.

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