An Orthodox Christian priest at the Monastery Church of Neakutoleab in Lalibela, Ethiopia, shows me the 500-year old “Miracle of St. Mary” book. Both the text and illustrations were done by hand using plant-based inks on goatskin parchment. The Monastery Church of Neakutoleab was originally built inside a natural cave by King Lalibela in the 12th century. Though the original structure was destroyed by Muslims in the 16th century, the church was rebuilt in 1936 using local limestone and red rock.
While the church is newish, the implements used in services that are still performed every Sunday are ancient. Among the treasured pieces kept at the Monastery Church are an 800-year old Orthodox bronze cross and censer. Also among the treasures is the rare and irreplaceable 500-year old manuscript shown in the above photo. The book sits on a stand beneath the cave’s overhang, exposed to the elements each and every day. The priest flipped through the pages to show me some of the stunning artwork it contains. This illustration is titled “Mary with Christ Child.” As you can see by the dirty corner near his fingertips, the book is suffering significant damage, not only from being exposed to the elements, but also from the dirt and oils on his fingers.