St. Catherine monastery (Egypte): preservation of ancient manuscripts


Visitors expecting monks with long beards dressed in black robes rising before dawn to recite ancient prayers, however, find that stereotypical vision completely fulfilled. The monks’ lives resemble those of their forebears closely because they consider preservation of those traditions one of their most sacred charges. They’ve just added a few iPads and PowerBooks to the mix.

Just about everything in this place is of historic interest to someone, from the unparalleled collection of religious icons to the graffiti — crusaders carved their names and coats of arms during visits around the 12th century.

“It’s a very contemplative place,” Toth says. “It’s a place where you gain a new perspective on yourself and on history.”

There is an impressive collection of printed books, but one of the monks’ most recognized successes has been in preserving what many experts consider to be a collection of ancient manuscripts second in significance only to the Vatican’s huge collection in Rome.

Most of the library’s texts are religious, but other writings are here as well, such as a 9th-century copy of Homer’s “Iliad,” complete with grammar and vocabulary notes. “I’ve been fascinated by this,” Father Justin says. “Obviously, someone came here centuries ago and brought his homework with him, and it’s still here.”

For scholars, working with the Vatican’s collection is akin to conducting research at a zoo. Those manuscripts were intentionally gathered, and in most cases they’ve been cleaned, taken apart and rebound. Much can be learned from subjects in captivity, but if the Vatican is the zoo, then working at St. Catherine’s is to venture into the wild — ancient manuscripts in their natural habitat, there in most cases because someone was using them.

“That’s something that is so important about the library,” says Father Justin, a Texan first attracted to Greek Orthodoxy by a love of Byzantine history who joined the monastery in 1996. “Because it was built up by the living community here, it’s still in its original context, and that’s an added dimension to every manuscript.”

The monastery holds at least 130 palimpsests, all from medieval times. One of the richest sources of palimpsests has been a collection known as the New Finds — “new” being a relative term in a place so old.

Across the monastery from the imaging room, there is a small wooden door that could once be reached only by ladder — and few apparently made the climb. Behind that doorway and through two more is a storage space probably untouched from the 18th century until 1975. It was then, while cleaning up damage from a nearby fire, that the monks ended centuries of procrastination and inventoried the nearly forgotten storage area.

The space was miserably dusty, but one monk soldiered on and discovered a lost trove of damaged ancient manuscripts whose significance scholars are still probing.

With the chance to study the monastery’s palimpsests, the experts hope to better understand whether there are discernible patterns in the decisions people made about what texts they scraped away. Sometimes monks brought in parchment that was already scraped; sometimes they did it themselves. Pages might have been chosen because the material on them wasn’t considered important, but selection could just as easily have meant that the monks thought they had enough copies of a particular text.

In some cases, a single manuscript leaf might include three or more layers of text, all from different centuries. And sometimes pages from one scraped manuscript were taken apart and used in multiple other manuscripts, creating puzzles to be pieced back together.

Before this project, only three palimpsests had been studied at St. Catherine’s, and not with advanced imaging. The most famous is called the Syriac Sinaiticus, which two intrepid Scottish sisters uncovered in 1892. The overtext was stories of female saints, but the undertext, some of which they glimpsed by steaming pages apart over a tea kettle, proved to be a late 4th-century copy of the four canonical gospels. It was written in the language Old Syriac and offered scholars new information about what the gospels might have looked like in their original form. 

In the 1990s, scholars worked with the only two known manuscripts written in a lost language called Caucasian Albanian, deciphering the language for the first time.

It’s difficult to conceive of a better naturally occurring place than this desert monastery to preserve ancient documents. Mold and insects are the main foes of book preservation, but neither is an issue. Humidity is so low that, despite the summer heat, a culture emerged that still favors long thick robes and head wraps without a heatstroke epidemic. There are months or even years between rainstorms. And in this dry place, there are no rats to chew through pages.

The library’s isolation further aided the documents’ preservation, though it has also severely hampered access. It doesn’t take two weeks by camel to get there anymore, but it’s still a long way to travel for research.

And even under the excellent natural conditions in a place where time seems to have proceeded more slowly, time still leaves unwelcome marks. Ink fades; pages eventually crumble. But technology offers the secret of preserving these manuscripts for centuries to come.

Soon after Father Justin’s fact-finding mission to the Walters Museum, Michael Phelps, founder and executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in Los Angeles, signed on to lead the St. Catherine’s palimpsest project, including fundraising. After months of discussing issues such as whether the monastery’s electrical system could support all the needed equipment and whether the project would be too disruptive to the 25 or so monks in residence, Phelps and two Greek colleagues managed to secure approval for a limited test run. It sampled pages from 16 manuscripts and found buried text in nine languages, a Hippocratic medical text 500 years older than anything previously known, and evidence to support new theories about connections between Europe and the Middle East that predated the Crusades.

It was a convincing showing. His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai was on board. “This is the last frontier in the Sinai library,” he says. “This is the last repository of information that hasn’t been clarified and claimed.”

As important in the agreement was the Arcadia Fund, a U.K.-based nonprofit focused on protecting cultural knowledge. In 2010, it agreed to provide $2.1 million for five years of imaging.

Late last year, the team returned to Sinai to begin its work in earnest.

It’s about 8 a.m., and the imaging team is standing in a circle in the command room. They’re not praying, though the timing of this daily ritual is dictated by the monks’ morning prayers. The standing is a management trick Toth advises to keep a group on track. Knowing that you can’t sit until everyone has aired concerns and reported on progress offers a powerful push toward brevity.

At times they cover glitches, like the fly whose unfortunate landing site immortalized its iridescent eyes and hairy legs in excruciating digital detail while obscuring a couple of manuscript images. But mostly they discuss how to keep a steady stream of images flowing, the files properly organized.

The palimpsest imaging system exploits three basic strategies. LEDs on tripods in each corner of the camera room can bathe a manuscript page in light of a specific color or wavelength range, from ultraviolet to infrared. Each color interacts with ink and paper in different ways, allowing the camera to capture a series of slightly different images.

Next there’s back and side lighting. Sometimes the undertext ink is gone, but infinitesimal grooves remain where the ink ate into the animal hide. These etchings can be illuminated because the grooved parchment is thinner, allowing more backlight to shine through. This technique had never been applied to palimsests. The side lighting works similarly, creating tiny shadows in grooves and irregularities on the pages.

Finally, there’s fluoresence — a favorite of both real and TV crime scene investigators. Whether dealing with blood at a crime scene or parchment, fluorescence works the same way. When light of some wavelengths hits certain organic materials, their molecules absorb the light, then reemit it at a different wavelength. Filters bring out the resulting glow. With manuscripts, the organic material is the animal-skin parchment. Ink blocks some of its fluorescence, making it appear visibly darker in photographs.

“Probably nothing we do is unique,” says Bill Christens-Barry, the team’s electronics guru, who works as an independent contractor based outside Baltimore. “But we’ve found ways of optimizing each of these techniques.”

Under some of these imaging conditions, undertext shows up more prominently. Computer programs essentially subtract the difference between images where both types of text are prominent and those where mainly overtext is visible. The differences are converted into color: In some processes, undertext becomes remarkably legible in an artificial red, and overtext is suppressed in a muted gray. If that technique doesn’t work, the team can perform more complicated analyses and digital manipulations to bring out the text.

So far, the technological challenges at the monastery have proved surmountable. But one hurdle besides a multi-year workload remains. Some of the manuscripts are now so fragile that they can’t be handled without specialized facilities that the monastery doesn’t yet have. But if all goes well, a $4 million renovation will soon transform one wing of the monastery to fill this and other needs. The St. Catherine Foundation, an organization Britain’s Prince Charles launched after a visit in 1995, is raising money.

There will be a library offering access to key manuscripts and storage space for others. The facilities will have advanced fire suppression systems and two sets of doors to prevent wind from blowing in granite dust, which scrapes away at pages and is the desert’s greatest conservation challenge.

There will also be spaces dedicated to document conservation and study. This will include equipment for temporarily humidifying brittle pages to prevent damage during research or imaging. Without that, some pages would crumble on contact. The space will be long enough to allow scholars to work with entire scrolls. Two more imaging stations will be added for Father Justin’s digitization work, done with an assistant from the local Bedouin tribe, with which the monastery has strong relations.

The foundation has supported interim upgrades to storage facilities now filled with bar-coded storage containers Father Justin scans with his iPad to check contents. Such work already stands as an example of what can be done — and what should be done — to protect ancient manuscripts.

Though the group hopes construction can begin this year or next, a date hasn’t been set. Major work in such a place takes extensive planning. And maintaining the historic integrity of the monastery, a United Nations-designated World Heritage Site, adds challenges. It’s best not to use a jackhammer when you’re working next to a 1,500-year-old wall, for instance. Political uncertainty is forcing caution, as well.

None of the political turmoil in Egypt has posed a direct threat to the monastery, which has survived other upheavals. “They’ve been there since the 6th century,” Toth says. “How many of these things have they gone through?”

Several tourists have been kidnapped en route to or from St. Catherine’s by Bedouins seeking attention during the government’s transition. These events, while taking a heavy toll on tourism, have remained relatively peaceful, with captors treating prisoners like guests and releasing them physically unharmed.

But preservation protects against trouble in many forms — including the accidental variety such as fires and water damage. Once digital images of documents are sufficiently distributed around the world, the information they contain becomes exponentially safer.

As Doug Emery, an independent database handler in Baltimore whom the team calls its Lord of Minutiae, puts it: “We believe the way to protect books is you hold them close, and the way you protect digital data is you give it away.”

Just what information the palimpsests hold remains to be seen. To date, the team has imaged hundreds of pages from 14 palimpsests. Ultimately, these images will go to a team of 18 scholars with expertise in an array of languages, led by Claudia Rapp, a medieval text specialist from the University of Vienna.

Eventually, the images will be available to all scholars around the world through an online database overseen by the monastery.

No one can say what the group will find — there could be key biblical or scientific texts or more forgotten languages.

“There are vibrant communities that made major intellectual, artistic and spiritual contributions, but their voices have largely been lost from history books,” Phelps says. “The hope is that we will recover these voices to fill in blank chapters in our shared history and allow these communities to speak to us again today.”