The Library at St. Catherine Holds a Wealth of Rare Religious, Historical, Medical and Philosophical Books in 13 Languages Dating Back to the Fourth Century

Situated at the foot on Mount Sinai is the St. Catherine’s Monastery—the oldest continuously operated one in the world. Home to more than 4000 rare ancient and medieval manuscripts, St. Catherine’s monastery holds the key to some of history’s best-kept secrets; in fact, its massive library’s scope ranks only second to the Vatican Library and has attracted curious scholars and travelers from around the world (so long as they’re willing to embark deep into the South Sinai desert).

A team of scholars and experts from the UCLA Library and NGO Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) have taken on the ambitious feat of preserving the thousands on manuscripts housed at the monastery in a bid to ensure continuous access to all of the library’s materials. Cognizant of the crucial insights these manuscripts hold on the world’s earliest written history, the restoration team is using high-tech digitization methods to keep up the modern shifts between multimedia formats. Since the project’s launch in 2011, the multispectral imaging employed to scan palimpsests has helped the team uncover more than 300 rare texts that have not been read since the Dark Ages. In the process, the team inadvertently encountered a number of lost languages as well.

The library at St. Catherine holds a wealth of rare religious, historical, medical and philosophical books in 13 languages dating back to the fourth century including sections of the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest written version of the New Testament. Up until the digitization works, a handful of these manuscripts were completely cloaked in mystery—which can be attributed to the scribe’s erasing and reusing of palimpsests between the fifth and 12th centuries.

Nearly a decade after the project launched, researchers are still avidly sifting through the thousands of documents and are currently working on preserving Syriac and Arabic manuscripts including documents from the Islamic Golden Age that date back to the eighth century. The project team uploads the collection online, making it accessible to anyone. The goal is to generate 400,000 images in the first phase concluding in March 2022. The digital preservation is done using cutting-edge technology and a painstaking process that includes turning each page by hand on a special imaging cradle, all supervised by the Texan monastery librarian Father Justin.

Although the arid conditions of its surrounding desert have aided in the preservation of these documents, the increase in temperature and humidity brought on by climate change is threatening the already degrading materials. That’s why these digitization efforts are critical to preserve Egypt’s intangible heritage for future generations of scholars. The cutting-edge, ultra-modern technology is pressing play on a place that has been completely frozen in time. Now, it’s thawing out the old archives and giving the world a look into the insights lingering within the monastery’s trove of documents.

7agat 7elwa Tanya Kidda

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