Manuscripts, Monks, and a Swiss Movement

2018; Remote Outpost, Ethiopia

Summary: My research expedition to a remote outpost in Africa turned into a remarkable encounter with a former monarch's swiss wristwatch.

1. The Manuscripts  

After 6 hours of talks, we were finally given access. Only a couple of westerners had ever been here before. Our traveling team was composed of three Brits - two specialists in manuscript reproduction, a Professor of Religion at a UK University, and myself - an American Professor, doubling as Principal of a research laboratory and a Director of the sponsoring foundation.

I was relatively new to the project. By happenstance I had made the right connections while engaged in an academic module at Oxford the previous summer. The program culminated with a private reception on the last day - connections were made and the wheels were set in motion. Unbeknownst to me, however, much international diplomacy and extraordinary negotiation had been going on for years. The manuscripts we were here to examine had been carbon dated in 2000 revealing much older numbers than had been anticipated, and a colloquium had been convened in 2013 at Oxford to assess the matter.  

2. The Monastery

Now, here I was, seemingly at the end of the world. The location was just outside a very remote village in Western Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. We had flown out of London to Addis Ababa, taken an in-country flight to the remote outpost of Adwa, and then traveled by taxi to this even remoter location. Walking through the gates of the monastery, I observed an ancient overgrown outbuilding ahead overshadowed by chattering monkeys playing in the trees. I marveled at the otherworldly aspect of the whole environment.

This specific location was one of some 40 monasteries in Ethiopia, but unique in that it was the site of two of the most important manuscripts in the world. These had been kept secret and closely guarded in a cave by the monks for around 1400 years – several centuries longer than had previously been thought. The monks had secluded them during the Muslim periods of the 7th and 16th centuries, protected them from the British in the 1880s, and safe guarded them from the Italians in the 1930s. It wasn’t even until 1950 that their existence was finally revealed to outsiders - a British art historian whose graciousness had gained the trust of the brother monks.

3. The Meeting

For all of their zeal, however, the brothers at the monastery could not guard them indefinitely against time and nature. The remote primitive environment that had kept them safe for 1 ½ millennia was simultaneously facilitating their deterioration. We were soon to document both the encroachment of moisture as well as damage caused by invasive insects consuming these priceless treasures – and that’s why we were here. Our team was uniquely capable of securing these national treasures in a way that was sustainable and suitable to the interests of both church and state interests. We would facilitate their preservation while leaving them in the custodianship of those most committed to their survival.

Even with all of the bridge building that had been done, however, we still had to gain the trust of the monks and the Abbot before being permitted to see these priceless treasures in person. After our initial arrival, senior monastics spent hours leading us through the complex, showing us their facilities and significant though lesser manuscripts in order to gauge our trustworthiness. After a full day, we were finally led to the treasure room - another primitive outbuilding. This one was notable for the scores of manuscripts hanging in neatly arranged leather attaché type cases between antique cupboards enclosing ritual candelabra and other unfamiliar paraphernalia. At long last, our abbot disappeared through an imperceptible side chamber and then re-emerged from a hidden room cradling a large linen wrapped bundle in which Manuscript A was covered. Quietly in the background, some 6-10 monks were observing us as the treasure was reverently unfolded on a decrepit table. We stood in awed silence.

4.The Timepiece

After excitement over the manuscripts died down and we had formulated a plan of action, we put our cameras away, relaxed and began engaging our gracious hosts with unimportant conversation through the interpreter. It was at that point that a tiny aged monk sitting in the corner and whom I had scarcely noticed before quietly attracted my attention. He beckoned me, and as I heeded his summons and moved into his personal space, he held up his left arm and slowly pulled up the sleeve of his robe revealing a gold colored Roamer wristwatch. Then, in words I could scarcely make out, he tapped on the crystal and said, “Haile Selassie give me.” I was stunned and simply repeated his words back to him. He said, “Yes,” and repeated the words again.

Through the interpreter I was able to get his story. He explained that Haile Selassie had visited the monastery (in the 1960s if my memory serves me) and for some reason unclear to me, the last Emperor of Ethiopia removed the watch from his own wrist and gifted it to the then young man. Admittedly, I was stupefied and stood confusedly processing what I was hearing. For those unaware, Haile Selassie was a towering and polarizing figure in the 20th century is regarded by some as the Messiah (viz. the Rastafarians). The tiny man removed the watch from his wrist, turned it over and pointed at the Swiss cross on the case back, and said, “See the cross; see the cross.” Then, to my surprise, the monk placed the well cared for but clearly vintage watch into my hand for examination.

It was elegantly simple as many watches from the midcentury are. It appeared to be gold plated, well preserved, on a leather strap, and keeping time. It was the first Roamer I recall having ever seen in person, but gathered it was from the ‘50s. At the moment he handed it to me, I did the only thing I could think of – I removed my watch – a digital Casio, and handed it to him.  He kindly received it, but was totally disinterested in my insignificant piece of irrelevant modern technology. Instead, he was keen to watch my expression and was delighted by my clear look of astonishment. Through the interpreter, I asked several questions to make sure I was understanding the man’s meaning and intent. I noted that he showed a clear lack of reservation about trusting this stranger – an unknown westerner, with his property. Then it occurred to me. I had already been entrusted with one of the most priceless manuscripts in the world – one key to the identity of this monastery as well as a national Ethiopian treasure. If I could be trusted with this, then I had proven myself worthy to hold Hailie Selassie’s own wrist watch. I felt humbled, unworthy, and as though I had been led down a path more extraordinary than I was prepared to process.

After I returned the man’s watch, I looked around the room and regarded my travelling companions engrossed in conversation about something or another related to the manuscripts - they had somehow missed the entire exchange. The other monks seemed not to be following the conversation either. Somehow, a moment that was so impactful for me seems to have been exclusive to myself and this single monk. I reflected that I had travelled across continents, negotiated complex logistical and diplomatic hurdles to be here, yet I had been the sole recipient of a singular privilege.  I found myself surrounded by priceless national and ecclesiastical treasures, yet surprised and overwhelmed by a rather simple experience with a simple man.

Regrettably, I was so caught off-guard that I did not think to photograph the Roamer (I checked my photos later and did not find anything), so before uploading this little post, I reached out to my contacts at the monastery. My contact couldn’t remember any monk fitting my description, though he offered to make additional inquiries if important.  Not to bother him with something so simple, I found an example of the watch on Chrono24 that mostly fits my memory of the Roamer.  I have attached some pictures and included a couple of the monastery grounds.

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That's a great story. Sometimes it is the smallest connections & moments that we remember.

You should get the casio engraved with a cross on the back 😀

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Very true, and thanks for reading; re. the Casio engraving, that would be a gas!