Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2005
Issue No. 771
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The importance of the written word

St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai is famed for its unique collection of manuscripts. Jill Kamil looks into the wealth of the scriptorium and the plan to update its literary wealth

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Monastery of St Catherine

Deep in South Sinai, snuggled amidst dry gorges and naked valleys, 17 centuries of uninterrupted asceticism in an orthodox monastic centre trace back to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Never in its long history has St Catherine's Monastery been conquered, damaged, or destroyed. It is famous for its icons and manuscripts, and it is the latter that is about to receive attention.

The Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the custodians of the monastery, have announced a three-phase project, the first of which includes comprehensive documentation of all the manuscripts -- one of the richest monastic collections in the world and second in importance only to the Vatican.

The holy fathers of St Catherine's exercise much secrecy and reserve regarding their heritage, especially their sacred manuscripts. This is largely owing to their unfortunate experience with Konstantin von Tischendorf, a German scholar from the vicinity of Leipzig. He took a precious codex, the oldest translation of the Bible into any language, to old St Petersburg and gave the monks a handwritten note saying that he was taking the work on loan in order to copy it and promising to return it undamaged. The monks counted on the return of the precious codex, but they never saw it again.

The great significance of the Codex Syriacus or the Syrian codex, which is now of international fame, is that it is the only known copy of the Greek New Testament in its original uncial script. It was discovered in 1892 and the text is a palimpsest -- which is to say, a text partly erased so that the parchment on which it was written could be used again, as indeed, it was. In this case, the underlying fifth-century text is now so faded as to be virtually invisible.

Its discovery revolutionalised biblical analysis. Before then, von Tischendorf and other scholars believed the Gospel according to Matthew was earlier than Mark's, and that John and Matthew had been direct eye-witnesses to the events in the life of Jesus. Study of the codex led Tischendorf to think otherwise. Through literary detective work, he studied the order of events in the ancient texts, compared biblical stories, and provided evidence -- subsequently hotly disputed but today generally accepted -- that the Gospel of St Mark was written before those of Matthew and Luke. If this is indeed so, then it is somewhat startling to learn that some of the most treasured biblical stories do not appear in it. Were they, perhaps, later additions? Although it is not known exactly where the codex was written, it was certainly not in the monastery where it was found; it had not then been built.

Von Tischendorf presented the Syrian codex to then Czar of Russia Alexander II. After Tischendorf's death in 1917, however, the Russian revolution in the same year resulted in financial problems for Russia which caused the precious bible, consisting of 346 folia and a small fragment, to be sold to the British Museum for the then enormous sum of GBP100,000. Little wonder that the monks were subsequently reluctant to let anyone gain access to their library. They have been suspicious of scholars who wish to carry out research in their archives ever since -- even if they hold the highest credentials.

Evaluation of the nature and quality of the manuscripts remained a closed secret until between 1948 and 1950, when a special committee was formed by the Farouk I University in Alexandria and the American Foundation for the Study of Man, acting on behalf of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, with the aim of examining every volume separately and microfilming, co-jointly, the whole set for the Library of Congress and the university. This was achieved thanks to the collaboration of a team of scholars and technicians.

Their work revealed that manuscripts in the library exceeded all previous estimates put forward in existing catalogues and hand-lists, which registered a total of about 2,000 codices. The new study revealed that the Greek manuscripts alone numbered 2,250, Arabic manuscripts in the neighbourhood of 600, and Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Polish, Slavic and Syriac numbering several hundred volumes.

Some of the texts proved to be older than the monastery itself, which indicated that the monks either collected these or were given them even before its foundation. The material covers a wide range of subjects -- theological, liturgical, scientific and historical as well as rare texts in the form of rolls of varying lengths, sometimes reaching several metres. Among them are accounts of pilgrims' journeys to Sinai, charters or liberties issued by the caliphs and sultans of Islam in favour of the monks of St Catherine, and a large collection of books, more than 5,000 in number, many of which were produced in the first decades after the invention of printing.

The existence of the Arabic documents in the library provides clear demonstration of the spirit of tolerance which marked the relations between the sultans and their Christian subjects. Among the greatest treasures is Mt Sinai Arabic Codex 151, which is probably the oldest Arabic translation of the Bible from its original Aramaic -- the language in common use for 1,000 years. It is dated 867 AD, the name of its translator is Bishr Ibn Al-Sirri, and the original manuscript was completed in Damascus, Syria. Its importance was recognised by Aziz Suriyal Attiya of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who was closely associated with the microfilming of the manuscripts in 1950. He handed a copy to Harvy Staal at the University of Michigan for translation, and it proved to be so fascinating and challenging a task that he devoted his life to working on it. It was published in English and Arabic in 1985.

Bishr Ibn Al-Sirri's translation of the Arabic codex was made about 200 years after the Arab conquest of the Middle East, and in his introduction to the English text Harvy Staal observed that it was remarkable to read the comments made by a Christian Arab community of 1000 years ago, reflecting the theology of people from a similar cultural background to that of Jesus Christ. How the manuscript came to be in St Catherine's Monastery is not certain. Perhaps a monk smuggled it to what was recognised as a place of safety during the uncertain years of the Crusades, and there it reposed ever since.

On 26 May 1975 a totally unexpected discovery was made. A walled-up room in the great north-western wall of the monastery which was being cleared after a fire that broke out in St George's tower was found to contain more than 70 boxes with an additional 3,000-odd manuscripts. Apparently a part of the library had been kept there until the 18th century, and when most of the codices and manuscripts -- especially those in Greek -- were later moved to the new library, this collection of largely Syrian, Slavic and Coptic texts was left behind. It was buried when the roof caved in and subsequently forgotten.

The horde included ancient biblical texts and other documents, as well as Greek texts in uncial script which shed new light on the history of Greek writing. To their delight the monks recognised some dozen leaves of their sacred Syrian Codex; today the 53 leaves originally purloined by von Tischendorf are preserved in Leipzig, 346 leaves and a fragment are in the British Museum, and the dozen newly-discovered leaves remain at St Catherine's.

Following their chance discovery the monks contacted the Greek Ministry of Culture and Science, and in 1976 and 1977 experts from the National Library of Athens and other conservationists travelled to Sinai. The find was made public for the first time at the International Byzantine Congress in Vienna in October 1981, and Archbishop Damianos announced that it would be made available to scholars after the monastery had published its own catalogue. This is the first stage of the Ministry of Culture project that is about to be launched. The second stage will focus on compiling an encyclopaedia on the monastery from an Egyptian-Greek perspective, and the third will including filming a documentary.

The holdings of the library clearly reflect the growth of the monastery which, despite its isolation in central South Sinai nevertheless lay at the crossroads of many cultures. Innumerable inscriptions left on the monastery walls and buildings in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Russian attest to the large number of pilgrims, and together with the mass of crusaders' arms and blazons engraved on the stone masonry leave no doubt of the importance of the monastery as one of the chief centres of Christian pilgrimage.

Taken as a unit, the manuscripts extend chronologically from the 4th century to the 19th, and this vast and diverse literary heritage brings a vanished world to life. The Greek Orthodox monastery in Sinai is reminder of the time, before the dominance of Rome, when Greek was the lingua franca of the community of people throughout the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, including Palestine and Syria. It reveals the linguistic progression of the Greek language, the continuous life of the monastic community, and casts light on the growth and development of Christianity in the grand cities of the eastern Mediterranean -- Antioch, Constantinople, Endessa and Jerusalem -- where evidence has all but vanished, the victims of neglect, natural disasters, and changes in both religion and taste. In St Catherine's monastery, however, are acquisitions from various parts of the Roman Empire, varied in character and content.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640, it is said that the Prophet Mohamed granted the monks of Mt Sinai a covenant whereby their lives and property would be secure under Muslim rule. The existing tradition is that the original charter was taken from the monastery by Sultan Selim I after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the 16th century; but the sultan gave the monks a copy of it and sanctioned its terms. From the enormous collection of ancient and modern rolls preserved in the monastery's library, it is clear that the Covenant of the Prophet, whether or not authentic, was in some way or other renewed, and the privileges of protection and safe-conduct for the monks were upheld.

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