Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Troves of scholarship

For 1,500 years, Deir Al-Surian has had a working library. Active steps are now being taken to conserve this rich heritage, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
One of the most well preserved texts is this New Testament Coptic manuscript, 13th century

The Coptic monastery known as Deir Al-Surian, or the Monastery of the Syrians, contains more than 3,000 books as well as a vast number of texts in Syriac, Aramaic (the language of Christ), Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. They date upwards from the fifth century and today, as a result of the revival in Coptic monasticism in recent years, a new generation of educated monks are anxious to safeguard this heritage. Both Syrian and Coptic monks are engaged in their conservation, as well as restoration of the monastery itself.

Collaborating with them on what is known as the Deir Al-Surian Library Project is the Levantine Foundation. The aim is twofold: to salvage old manuscripts which, after surviving a century and a half in a living community, are in danger of being lost, and to conserve the remaining literary inheritance of more than 1,000 Syriac manuscripts for future generations.

The project is moving ahead and members of the conservation team, with the help of volunteers and on a shoe-string budget, are surveying, restoring, cataloguing and storing the Syriac texts in a suitable environment. A digital photographic record of each manuscript will eventually be made to facilitate access for scholars, and appropriate storage for the manuscripts and facilities for visiting scholars is also planned.

Father Bigoul Al-Suryani, the curator of the library, has good reason for being enthusiastic about the project. "Storage is particularly important because most of the manuscripts are in a perilous state and continue to deteriorate," he says. "Hopefully, with adequate support, our aims can be achieved. Monks are being trained in various conservation techniques, not only with the manuscripts but also the wall paintings."

It is interesting to note that there is no evidence of Syrian settlement in the monastery earlier than 815 when, as is attested by early Syriac and Coptic texts in the library, Syrians and Copts co-existed. Only in the 10th century did Syrian monks gain prominence, and at this time Moses of Nisibis is credited with valuable additions to the library. In 927, when he went to Baghdad as a representative of the desert monasteries in an effort to obtain tax exemption for the monastic communities of Wadi Al-Natrun from the Abbasid Caliph, he took the opportunity to travel widely and managed to secure valuable volumes which greatly enriched the library of Deir Al-Surian.

When a pious and charitable Syrian named Abram Ibn-Zarah ascended to the patriarchal throne in 974, Deir Al-Surian became closely associated with, and indeed was under the patronage and the protection of the Copts. By the 11th century it rated as the third largest monastery at Wadi Al-Natrun.

In the second half of the 15th century, however, the monastery was re- inhabited by several Syrian monks. Among them were Dawoud Ibn Boutros and Habib of Takrit, both of whom were engaged in outstanding literary activities. They wrote homilies dealing with ascetic life, historical treatises about the names of church fathers, and a scribal note in a manuscript written in the monastery in the 16th century which records that 148 monks were living in the monastery at the time, of whom 25 were Egyptian. It is no surprise, in view of the above, that a great deal of our knowledge of the monasteries of Wadi Al-Natrun comes, not from Coptic sources, but from Syrian monks who probably made the earliest collections of manuscripts. In fact, Syriac continued to be used until the 17th century when it began to fade away and Coptic became the dominant language of church literature.

The 17th-century French consul in Damietta, Father Coppin, made several visits to Deir Al-Surian and drew attention to the literary treasures of the monastery. When in 1638 news of its extensive library spread abroad, Pope Clement XI, a patron of art and literature, commissioned Gabriel Eva, the abbot of the Monastery of St Maura in Lebanon, to look into the matter.

"His report was so impressive that in 1707 Elias Assemani was sent to Egypt where he acquired 40 volumes of Syriac manuscripts for the Vatican library," Father Bigoul says. "Another librarian, his relative J S Assemani, followed and was successful in his acquisition of more books from both the Monastery of Abu Maqar (St Macarius), and the Monastery of the Syrians, where he discovered more excellent Syriac manuscripts."

When the monks realised that the books were not being returned to them after study and that they were losing their valuable literary heritage, they became less hospitable to subsequent visitors. Some were refused entry to the library, while others were given access but were monitored. They were allowed to inspect Coptic, Syriac and Arabic books on parchment and cotton paper but not to make purchases. Not until the 19th and 20th centuries did travellers and bibliophiles start journeying across the barren desert west of the Delta towards Wadi Al-Natrun and were able to buy manuscripts from the monasteries, especially those written in Syriac. Many of these volumes are now in the British Museum, the Vatican Library, the National Library in Paris and elsewhere.

Despite the fact that so much of the Syriac literary heritage is no longer in Egypt, the remaining collection at Deir Al-Suryan represents an inheritance of enormous scholarly value. Whereas early visitors were primarily interested in the manuscripts, recent research tends to focus also on the monastic communities that have lived in the monastery from antiquity to the present day. Researches and conservators are asking what we know about the creators and the custodians of this important heritage.

Confirmation of Syrian occupation of the monastery comes from an eighth- to ninth-century wall painting discovered during recent restoration. It is a representation of a saint with children on his lap which has proved to be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Paradise. One part revealed a Syriac text under several layers of plaster which mentions that restoration of the church was completed in the year 992.

The more than 1,000 Syriac manuscripts in the library of Deir Al-Surian have a prominent place in the field of Syriac studies generally and are, in the words of Anba Matta, bishop of the monastery, "a rare legacy that is now receiving due attention".

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