Right in Front of Your Eyes

How many times have you been looking for something only to find it right in front of your eyes? In St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, researchers are finding ancient heretofore undiscovered literary works right in front of their eyes on the page – yet hidden under later texts.

The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula has been functioning since the 6th century CE and has the world’s oldest continually operating library in the world. This small library, now headed by Father Justin Sinaites from Texas, has opened its doors and its pages to researchers from all over the world to examine its literary treasures. (Some of the literary treasures have been mentioned before in this blog.)

Among the thousands of texts in the library, the researchers found remnants of script written under the current text. Writing texts has always been a major part of monastic life. In order to perform this important function, however, you need materials on which to write. Following the rise of Islam in the 7th century, many other monasteries in the Sinai Desert began to disappear, leaving St. Catherine’s in relative isolation. Only because of a agreement with Mohammad, according to tradition, was this monastery saved.

palimpsest

Palimpset, with earlier Greek text beneath medieval Greek text

But materials became scarce, including parchment for writing. The monks found a creative solution to their dilemma. They took older, less relevant texts, soaked them in lemon juice and scraped off the old text. They then had a clean page on which to write new text.

These re-written texts are called palimpsests and around 130 of them have been investigated from the St. Catherine’s library comprising some 6,800 pages. Michael Phelps, the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and leader of the project at St. Catherine, in conjunction with scientists and linguists, has helped to elucidate these earlier writings. Tiny bumps and shadows are photographed from different angles in different lights helped to reveal bumps and depressions in the surface. Technology helps to turn those discrepancies into readable text.

The hidden writing dates from the 6th to the 12th century CE and represent a wide range of languages. Among the exciting discoveries are 108 previously unknown Greek poems and the earliest copy of a recipe from Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. Knowledge and expansion of the vocabulary of rare languages such as Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic, have greatly benefited from examining their use in these palimpsests. Caucasian Albanian was used by Christians living in today’s Azerbaijan, and had only been found on a few stone inscriptions; their churches were destroyed in the 8th/9th century CE bringing an end to their unique community and language. Christian Palestinian Aramaic was a mix of Syriac and Greek but was discontinued in the 13th century.

There is urgency today for this project as the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula has, again, made St. Catherine’s even harder to reach. We can only hope that St. Catherine’s can be protected in these days and continue to function as a sanctuary, not only for pilgrims, but also for its important library.

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