Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 April - 6 May 2009
Issue No. 945
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Working on Coptic archives

Nevine El-Aref reports on the completion of the first inventory to assess the current condition of manuscripts stored for almost a century in the Coptic Museum archives

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Restorers at the reading hall of the Coptic Museum archive conserving manuscripts and pages of the Old Testament

The Coptic Museum archives, considered to be the world's most important Coptic library and containing more than 5,000 manuscripts and books, are being given a facelift.

Serenity, peace and complete quiet are the overwhelming sensations in the museum library, despite the presence of two dozen experts and restorers who have spread themselves to each corner of the reading room. Since January, the library has been converted into a scientific laboratory so that a comprehensive survey to assess the current conditions of its treasured manuscripts and books can be carried out. Armed with white gowns, masks, small brushes, glass plaques, small pieces of cottonwool and special liquids, junior and professional restorers sit in front of their improvised desks examining the piece of manuscript win their hands. They are looking for parts of each manuscript that show signs of being infected, and then they will identify its causes, take notes and rescue the pieces that are in need of attention.

"I am very happy to be taking part in such a great project," Hamdi Abdel-Moneim, an expert in manuscript restoration, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his 22-year career in restoring Islamic manuscripts, it was the first time he had come face to face with Coptic pieces. "They are totally different than each other," Abdel-Moneim said, pointing out that Copts used goatskin or manuscripts while Muslims, writing at a later date, used paper, which required different maintenance and restorative treatment. "I have examined almost 30 per cent of the stored collection," Abdel-Moneim said, "and I have realised that the condition of the Coptic manuscripts is worse than Islamic ones since they have been handled more often by monks and other churchgoers. But Islamic ones are much better preserved since they have been kept in hard covers, like the Quran for example."

Abdel-Moneim noted that spots of wax and oil are easily seen on the manuscripts, while others had been attacked by insects. Ten per cent of the stored collection was badly damaged and required an immediate attention, since the goatskin interacted with itself, thus transformed into gelatin, which made it beyond repair. He said the books were in better condition but many had wax and water spots as well as holes and tears.

"The project also is trying to adjust the incorrect restoration implemented during the 'era of the Martyrs' in about 1600, when monks glued the manuscripts to sheets of paper in an attempt to support them. Regretfully, however, this treatment led to the deterioration of some parts of the manuscripts, while some others were lost in the process.

"Dealing with more than 5,000 priceless manuscripts at once really is a challenge," Nadja Tomoum, head of the project told the Weekly. She added that the project was a result of the initiative launched by the friends of the Coptic Museum, who submitted the proposal. The project is being carried out with the collaboration of the Getty Foundation, which is well-known in the field and not only aims at assessing the condition of the treasured archive collection but also identifying the problems and finding solutions for future treatments. It will also examine the environmental condition of the archive in order to provide the optimum and most suitable environment for the preservation of its collection. Tomoum pointed out that a good many improvements were required to combat the high rate of humidity and install an air conditioning system, temperature control and suitable storage cabinets. In collaboration with experts from the Mènster University in Germany, a data base for a professional cataloguing system will also be among the elements of the project. Tomoum said three studies were carried out last year to catalogue the manuscripts by classifying the contents and identifying texts. A new numbering system known as Getty Numbers will be employed for cataloguing the collection, as each item can have more than one number which is confusing. These old numbers would be left as they were, Tomoum said, because for some Coptologists these were their documentation numbers. The Getty Numbers would be a new numbering system to access the stored items, some of which were not yet published. Tomoum promised that at the end of this year another campaign would be implemented to restore and correctly preserve the collection.

"It is really a very important step, and the first one towards refurbishing the Coptic Museum archive," Tomoum commented.

Marwa Mahmoud, a junior restorer who began her career five years ago, described the project as a free training course for her generation of restorers. "I have learnt how to hold a manuscript, how to deal with it and how to protect it during the maintenance process," Mahmoud said. "It has also raised made my eyes more sensitive when it comes to identifying the damage, even if it is hidden or not clear."

Restorer Kamal Mohamed had a similar view of the project. "It's a great opportunity to examine a large amount of manuscripts of various materials: papyrus, paper, fabrics and goatskin, as well as knowing different types of infections," he said. "It has taught me how to carry out a complete and comprehensive survey of manuscripts through applying a digital 'birth certificate' that assesses its size, material and current condition as well as suggesting future treatments. It is not only a scientific experience but an encouraging project as well." Mohamed said it helped boost their confidence by providing a chance for decision-making and assessing the methods for direct intervention to rescue very damaged items.

Nagah Ragab said the project had shown them the latest technology used in restoring manuscripts and books, but for restorer Sherine Lyon it was a means to reschedule their thoughts about ways of dealing with very sensitive items like the manuscripts.

Julie Miller from Michigan University told the Weekly that the aim of the project was to provide a better home for the priceless collection, with an improved environment and better conditions. It was also a way of developing the skills and knowledge of Egyptian curators as well as training junior colleagues.

"I am delighted with the project," said Pamela Spitamuelles from Harvard University. She said it was invaluable to see different kinds of ancient covers with special decorations that she had not seen it before.

"It is a dream to come true," said Coptologist Zefreg Ritcha at Munster University. "In 1925 when I was a student I dreamt of working at the Coptic Museum archive, and now it has happened."

He said his input to the project was to delve into the context of each item, and not only its content. This meant he deciphered the text, explained it, located the site where it was found, and identified the leaves. "Most of the manuscripts I examined were private letters with missing parts so that a person couldn't follow up the story," he said. "It is really disappointing as some of these letters highlight the lifestyle of the era or the kind of commerce then," Ritcha said.

He explains that he is also implementing the new cataloguing system, since some manuscripts have two different numbers which is confusing for students and Coptologists. "We will keep these numbers and insert another number proceeded with letter G in order to identify it as the Getty Number," Ritcha said. He explained that through exploration of the archives, a collection of 20 unpublished manuscripts had been assessed. "No one knew about it," he pointed out, adding that some of the manuscripts had long texts from the Old Testament or Nubian texts.

"It is not just a restoration project but is my rebirth certification," Kamilia Makram, the library director, told the Weekly. "Since it was established in the 1990s no one has touched upon the library collection. Even during the comprehensive restoration project to renovate the museum and its collection after almost 10 years of closure, no one had touched the library, and when I asked why they said there will be a special project for it. Following three years of its re-opening my dream is fulfilled."

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