Monks in Sinai and Their Byzantine Manuscripts

Just as they have done for 17 centuries, the Greek Orthodox monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai desert and the local Jabaliya Bedouins worked together to protect the monastery when the 2011 revolution thrust Egypt into a period of uncertainty. “There was a period in the early days of the Arab Spring when we had no idea what was going to happen,” says Father Justin, a monk who has lived at St. Catherine’s since 1996. Afraid they could be attacked by Islamic extremists or bandits in the relatively lawless expanse of desert, the 25 monks put the monastery’s most valuable manuscripts in the building’s storage room. Their Bedouin friends, who live at the base of St. Catherine’s in a town of the same name, allegedly took up their weapons and guarded the perimeter.

The community’s fears of an attack were not realized, but the monks decided they needed a new way to protect their treasured library from any future threats. Last year, they accelerated a program of digitally copying biblical scripts with the help of multispectral imaging specialists from around the world, while simultaneously renovating and modernizing the library itself. The Sinai library houses 1.8 million pages of script, including essential texts that document the early church. St. Catherine’s ranks high among the world’s preeminent Christian text collections: their Greek manuscripts are second in number only to the Vatican’s, and their hallmark Arabic and Turkish scrolls document the interaction between the monastery and the surrounding world of Islam over the centuries. The monastery’s project will create a digital library for scholars around the world. “The technology, the conservation — they are our protection. Many people are concerned about the safety of what we have here, so we have to make them sure that we are protecting our materials and appreciating our responsibility,” says Father Justin, the monastery’s librarian.

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