SAINT CATHERINE —From the shrine bathed in early morning light, Father Justin lets his eyes linger on the arid peaks of South Sinai with contentment. "Can you see the sentry box at the top of the mountain?" he asks. "There is always someone guarding over there. It's important to protect this place, but first and foremost to show that it is protected."

Father Justin, a monk from the Unites States, is a very old man — long and narrow, and dressed in a dusty black gown and small toque. With his white beard covering his chest and his slender fingers crossed on his paunch, he flutters through the corridors of the priory, as he has for 21 years. He knows by heart how to move around this small shell in the desert — the village of ancient stones surrounded by a rampart, the lane of dorms for special guests, the garden with olive trees, the perched walkways that flow from one building to another and revolve around two centers: the Transfiguration Church and the Chapel of the Burning bush.

Sitting at 1,570 meters above sea level, Saint Catherine's Monastery was founded in 527 by the Emperor Justinian, enclosing a chapel built 200 years earlier at the bottom of Mount Sinai, where Moses supposedly saw the Burning Bush. At the top of the hills, which bear the prophet's name, Moses received the Tables of the Law, according to the Old Testament. The area came under Arab rule during the 7th century, and despite the rise and fall of surrounding civilizations, monks and pilgrims have continued to find peace in South Sinai, attracted by its austerity, its biblical associations and its reputation: The monastery has never once been destroyed or abandoned.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai, Egypt — Photo: The Sinai Palimpsests Project

Today, the 25 monks that remain in a community which once numbered more than 200 maintain the cycle of daily services, and many people keep making the trek to this holy place, following the footsteps of those who have been visiting for more than 1,700 years. Saint Catherine's is alive with a history that tells itself in the intangible: the souls and the tales of the men guarding this oasis of peace for centuries, but also in the visible heritage of the place — the structures, the artifacts and the writings.

Father Justin glides toward a big wooden door that he unlocks and opens onto a dark room. When he turns on the lights, a high ceiling and two floors appear. On the first, a metal railing encircles shelving units carrying old ledgers that look like spell books. "This is the room that holds all the manuscripts and the early printed books," he explains. "It used to be a simple utilitarian hall, like a warehouse. We wanted to bring it up to modern standards and we wanted it to be beautiful."

Saint Catherine's hosts the oldest continually operating library in the world, used by monks since the 4th century. In addition to printed books, scrolls and correspondence, it contains 3,300 manuscripts, piled up over the centuries and remarkably well preserved by the dry climate. In 2007, Father Justin, the monastery's librarian, packed them safely away while today's new library was created.

"We predicted it would take two years to renovate it but it took us eight, because of all of the complications," he smiles, referring to the political crises in the country since 2011.

Father Justin — Photo: The Sinai Palimpsests Project

And yet, throughout that the monastery's library (then reduced to a storage room with numbered boxes) remained functional, Father Justin says. "Even though everything was stored away, when scholars came I could retrieve whatever they needed. Everyone who came here could still read," he explains. "Only in September were we finally ready to move the manuscripts and books out of the storage room into the new quarter."

Hidden resources

It is precisely these pieces stored on the ground floor of the new library that many researchers have been looking forward to delving into. In wire-mesh cabinets, I glimpse racks containing the most fragile works: 2,000 manuscripts that require specific protection, some as old as the 5th century, carefully wrapped in bubble packs and acid-free fabric. "They're waiting to be boxed in order to preserve them in the best way possible," Father Justin explains.

Saint Catherine's library has the second biggest array of ancient Christian manuscripts after the Vatican, which makes it a vital source of information for historians and researchers. Its prized collection of 160 palimpsests in particular has been given attention these past seven years, within the scope of an ambitious scanning program: the Sinai Palimpsests Project.

In the Middle Ages, it was difficult for the monks to acquire many basic commodities, including paper. As a result, they would reuse some of the manuscripts from the library by wiping away the ink of the existing text with chemicals or pumice stones, in order to rewrite a new text on the same material. The Sinai Palimpsests Project, led by a team from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL), a U.S. non-profit funded by the UK-based Arcadia Foundation, aims at capturing the faded layers under more recent texts through a state-of-the-art technique known as spectral imaging, whereby images are captured under illumination with different wavelengths of light and then processed to reveal information invisible to the naked eye.

There are flowers in the manuscript!

"The interesting thing about imaging erased texts is that you don't know what it is you're imaging. You can see the erased layer thinly, and normally you can tell in which language it is, but you have no idea what you"re handling,” says Michael Phelps, the project's director.

“Recently, Damian was imaging an Arabic manuscript with erased layers in Greek, and he suddenly came out of the engineering room exclaiming 'there are flowers in the manuscript!,'" he adds. "I thought he was joking, but then I went to see and there it was: a full-page illustration of a medicinal plant that had been erased and covered with the Arabic text."

The text was the oldest surviving Arabic translation of the Gospel, from the late 8th century, while the plant was part of a 5th-century copy of an album of natural medicinal cures, previously unknown to scholars. The Greek caption identifies the plant as a "philiterion" and describes how to boil its leaves in oil to make a lotion to treat scorpion stings.

Damian Kasotakis, the man who discovered the illustration, is director of photography on the Sinai Palimpsests Project. "Ranging from ultraviolet to infrared, our system covers many wavelengths of light, both invisible to the human eye and on the visible spectrum," Kasotakis says. "There are variables that change according to the wavelengths illuminating the parchment and the ink. For example, with different settings, you can get the ink to fluoresce or to fade under illumination."

Phenomenal discoveries

EMEL has so far revealed at least three texts by Hippocrates, known as "the father of medicine," including the medical treatise De morbis popularibus (Epidemiae). The texts were already known, but the discovery remains significant because the versions found in Saint Catherine's are 4,000 years old, making them the oldest copies discovered so far. One uncovered palimpsest includes a glossary and instructions for surgical procedures, while a 9th-century Syriac pharmacology manual, based on a lost Greek original, was unveiled too.

Double palimpsests, remarkably common in the library of Saint Catherine's Monastery, have also been studied. One of them is a 6th-century copy of the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy from the New Testament in Syriac translation. Phelps uses the term "jewels" when he speaks about the palimpsests, some of which have revealed nine layers of successively erased and rewritten texts.

The versions found in Saint Catherine's are 4,000 years old.

Under a Syriac translation of Evagrius Ponticus' Sentences on Prayer from the 8th century, the team unveiled a 2nd-century translation of the Old Syriac Gospel, previously known from only two other manuscripts, including another Sinai palimpsest known as Sinaticus Syriacus, currently held by the British Library in London.

Spectral imagery has also shown the existence of an illustration from Apollonius of Tyre, an ancient novella in Latin translation, dated to the 5th or 6th century. This is the earliest surviving illustration in a Latin manuscript of secular content and the first evidence of a new style of illustration that later appeared in a 10th-century copy of the same text. Other mythological texts have resurfaced, with a 10th-century Arabic translation of Lives of the Monks of Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis revealing a Greek poetry collection underneath, portraying Persephone, Zeus, and Dionysus or Hades.

Drawings of plants hidden under an Arabic translation of the Gospel — Photo: The Sinai Palimpsests Project.

"Throughout the duration of the project, we have applied spectral imaging on more than 6,000 pages of the palimpsest manuscripts, and the variety of the texts is incredible," Phelps marvels. "We think of this monastery as a remote, isolated desert location, but there are 11 different languages preserved in these erased layers, and diverse texts that range from the 5th century all the way up to the 12th. Of course there is theology, prayers, liturgy and all the things you would expect to find in a monastery, but there are also all these exciting classical literary texts that have been discovered."

Another notable thing about the palimpsests, Phelps says, is that there is usually no direct relationship between overtexts and undertexts; they are in different languages (sometimes four languages exist in the same manuscript), which evokes speculation about their geographical origins. Researchers suspect most circulated from one place to another before finally landing at the Greek orthodox monastery, perhaps brought by pilgrims on their way to or from Jerusalem.

"When you have two texts sharing the same physical space, it brings up many historical questions about continuity, the movement of books and the transmission of literature," says Phelps. "One community wrote the bottom layer, another community wrote the top layer, and now we have this manuscript that has stayed among the same people for years. The relationship between the top layer and the bottom layer can tell us a great deal about the experience of certain groups at a certain time."

Inspiring connections

But this part of the analysis will not be up to Phelps's team. A group of 25 language specialists, based in the United States, Georgia, Lebanon and elsewhere, have been asked to study the texts in depth, coaxing the words to reveal their last secrets. On the behalf of Saint Catherine's Monastery the project is also currently preparing a digital library containing all of the images and their explanations, to be available on the website of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) .

For Father Justin, who has closely followed the project from the beginning, the value of EMEL's work lies not only in the recovery of the old texts, but also in revealing something of the monastery's early history. "We feel a personal contact with the people who lived here centuries ago. We see the candle spots on the pages — because they used to read and write by candlelight — and even these little traces become inspiring, we can grasp a continuity with their work and their effort," he muses.

The monks of Saint Catherine's say they do not feel threatened or scared.

"Each manuscript has its own history, its own complexity," the elderly monk adds. "It's more than just a text. It prompts you to wonder why it's here and why it might have been used, and it becomes very fascinating because you see how each manuscript plays a part in the spiritual life of the community. It is very precious."

Sitting at a long banquet table in the monastery's refectory after a long day of work, Phelps and his team receive vegetable soup and grilled chicken prepared by the monks for dinner. In this large room where big, laminated icons watch over the guests from the walls, Phelps says he has been asked by the monks to digitally photograph the monastery's Arabic and Syriac manuscripts, which are of supreme importance to scholars of Christian Arabic literature. Some 4,000 pages should be scanned for the new project, which will take three to four years, making them accessible for researchers and scholars everywhere.

Palimpsest under green light — Photo: The Sinai Palimpsests Project

"Saint Catherine's probably has the biggest collection in the world of these manuscripts," he says. "They contain philosophy, theology, practical life prayers, as well as secular and scientific literature, much of it still not completely explored. Digitalizing them will open up a new era of research and study."

In the meantime, the monastery is involved in a series of restoration and preservation programs. Its iconic 16th-century transfiguration mosaic — one of the largest in the region, with a total area of 46 square meters and 50,000 ceramic pieces — has been restored to its original condition after a four-year renovation program.

"It is a message of security and peace to the entire world," Egypt's Minister of Antiquities, Khaled al-Anany, during a visit to the monastery in mid-December, said in an attempt to use the event as a political lever. The government has been trying to strengthen Egypt's tourism industry, damaged by a series of disasters and militant attacks in North Sinai, including one in the vicinity of the monastery last April.

But while the Christian community has recently become a main target of terrorist groups in Egypt, the monks of Saint Catherine's say they do not feel threatened or scared — either for their lives or the place. All that matters, they say, is the preservation of the monastery's traditions and heritage.

Petros Koufopoulos, an architect and restoration consultant who has been working for decades in restoration research on Saint Catherine's, thinks all relevant parties need to come together to assist the fathers on that challenging task. "We are talking about a living monument. It is not only about preserving the material aspect of it, but also about preserving monasticism," he says. "We have to think of ways to support and facilitate the daily practice of these monks while preserving its product: the buildings, artifacts and so on."

Father Justin, meanwhile, already has another project in mind for the EMEL team: using the same advanced photographic method to scan the monuments in the monastery, the outlines of the chapels, buildings and icons, creating a comprehensive digital archive of Saint Catherine's structures. It would probably take years. "But who cares?" says the old monk. "We are here forever."

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