The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

A fine late 17th century copy of the Gospels which ‘no doubt’ came from Maqdala *

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: One of at least 10 manuscripts in the university’s collection that the 19th century scholar William Wright said “no doubt came from Magdala”. He may have been referring to one of the gospels most recently listed in a 1961 catalogue of Cambridge’s Ethiopian manuscripts – possibly Ms IV (Add. 1165) or Ms VII (Or. 1802).

Where: Cambridge University Library, West Rd, Cambridge CB3 9DR

This post is less clear cut than most of the rest on this website – hence the asterisk in the title. It does not identify a specific Maqdala manuscript in the library. Instead it follows references to one in footnotes, catalogue entries and online databases.

In a footnote to the Catalogue of the Ethiopic manuscripts in the British Museum acquired since the year 1847, published less than 10 years after the Abyssinian Expedition in 1877, the author William Wright wrote:

"The University Library of Cambridge, for example, possesses several Ethiopic manuscripts, which no doubt came from Magdala, though only two of them, I think, are actually so marked. Among these is a fine copy of the Gospels, of the latter part of the xviith cent.; a manuscript of the xviiith cent., containing the rest of the New Testament, viz., St. Paul's Epistles, the Acts, the Revelation of St. John, and the seven Apostolic Epistles; and a splendid copy of the Old Testament, written for Maryam Sena, the queen of Sarzza Dengel, in the twenty-sixth year of that king's reign, A.D. 1588. It contains : the Octuteuch, Samuel and Kings, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Job, Isaiah, the twelve minor Prophets (imperfect), Jeremiah (including Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle of Jeremiah), 4th Esdras, Daniel (including Susanna, etc ), and Ezekiel. Another volume, of the xvith or xviith cent., contains Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Wisdom. Besides these there are a Kerlos and an 'Arganona Dengel, both of the xviiith cent. ; a couple of Psalters ; the Gospel of St. John (brought from Southern India by Dr. C. Buchanan), of the xviith cent.; the Amestu 'A'mada Mestir in Amharic; and one or two more of less note."

The passage does not go further than that. There are no mentions of reference numbers or classmarks to help pin down specific documents in Cambridge.

Almost 100 years later, in 1961, Cambridge University Press published a Catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library. That book, by Edward Ullendorf and Stephen Wright, lists two gospels:

Ms IV (Add. 1165) - though that is described as 16th century
Ms VII (Or. 1802) - though that is described as 18th century

[Click on the manuscript numbers to see the entry in the catalogue. You may have to sign up for a free membership on to "borrow" the scanned-in book for an hour.]

The 1961 catalogue also suggests there may be more than 10 Maqdala manuscripts in Cambridge. Of the 67 manuscripts listed in the Ethiopian collection of the Cambridge University Library, Ullendorff writes that their provenance is “in the main, from two sources; (a) MSS brought back by individual members of the British Expedition to Ethiopia in 1867-8; and (b) the gift of a number of MSS … from the Library of the late C.H. Armbruster”.

Armbruster donated 20 manuscripts to Cambridge. According to Rita Pankhurst’s pioneering 1973 paper, The library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla (Magdala), “this leaves some 47 of which, in Ullendorff’s view, a good proportion may have been brought to Britain by members of Napier’s expedition”.

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