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Ancient Manuscripts Found In
A cache of manuscripts up to 1,500 years old has been discovered in a Coptic monastery in the Western Desert of Egypt. The find was made at Deir al-Surian, the Monastery of the Syrians, which already has one of the richest ancient libraries in Christendom. Set in the desert sands and virtually cut off from the outside world until recently, Deir al-Surian traces its roots back to the earliest period of Christian monasticism. Established in the 6th century, it was soon occupied by monks from Syria and Mesopotamia and is currently home to 200 Egyptian Copts.
Deir al-Surian is in what was once called the Holy Desert of Scetis, in Wadi al-Natrun, a valley 60 miles south of Alexandria. Approaching it across the sands, the 40-foot-high walled complex, with its buildings and tower, appears like a ship–and hence the tradition that its architecture is based on the design of Noah’s Ark. Inside, the monastery is centered on the Church of the Holy Virgin, built in the 7th century.
A single completed manuscript and hundreds of fragments were found when reconstruction work was undertaken on the ancient tower, which is probably well over a millennium old. The library had originally been established there, since it was the most protected part of the monastery, but the first floor collapsed around five centuries ago, and a new wooden floor was simply inserted above. Recently the rubble of the earlier floor was removed during renovations, and curator Father Bigoul found a complete manuscript, embedded in a section of disused water pipe. (It is unclear if it was hidden there for safekeeping or got there by accident.) The parchment text has now been identified by Professor Lucas van Rompay of Duke University as a 9th-century Book of the Holy Hierothos.
A painstaking sifting of the rubble removed from the ancient tower also led to the discovery of around 600 fragments of early manuscripts. The earliest one identified, from around 500 A.D., is a single page from a hagiographical text, and this has now been linked with a manuscript in Russia. The main part of the Deir al-Surian manuscript had been acquired in 1851 by Auguste Pacho, an agent working for the British Museum, but he sold it to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg.
The fragments found in the rubble of the tower are in very poor condition and will now require considerable conservation. For instance, the remains of a 9th-century ascetical text were found in the form of a half-inch-thick block of stuck papyri. When this was recently separated, it ended up as 83 fragments. These have not yet been “reassembled,” and the task has been likened to completing a double-sided jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of missing pieces.
Deir al-Surian’s manuscripts have never been properly catalogued or studied by Western scholars, and until a conservation project was initiated three years ago, its literary treasures had been inaccessible to outsiders. Although the library was probably established soon after the monastery’s foundation in the 6th century, it was enlarged after a visit by abbot Moses of Nisibis to Baghdad in 927, when he returned with hundreds of early Syriac manuscripts.
From the 11th century, Coptic, Christian-Arabic and Ethiopic texts were added. As early as the 17th century, Deir al-Surian attracted the attention of European bibliophiles, and from then onwards there were numerous attempts to purchase manuscripts from the monks, sometimes above board and often by subterfuge. By the early 20th century, around 1,000 manuscripts had been removed, most of which ended up in the British Library, as well as in the Vatican Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the St. Petersburg Library. The monks then closed the door to scholars, locking away the remaining texts. Until two years ago, the 40 most important ancient Syriac texts were stored in a box in the personal cell of the bishop. Despite the losses, what remains at Deir al-Surian is an astonishing collection, comprising 1,000 manuscripts and a further 2,000 or so fragments.
Deir al-Surian’s library was moved from the ancient tower to a new building in 1970. Conditions in the library fluctuate wildly, with temperatures inside the third-floor room ranging from 5 to 35 degrees Celcius and relative humidity from 30% to 80%. There is a kitchen on the ground floor, which obviously poses an additional fire risk, and smoke alarms were only fitted two years ago.
London paper conservator Elizabeth Sobczynski has visited Deir al-Surian to advise, and she is the first outsider to have examined the entire library. She is very disturbed at what she found: “Paper has become brittle and is suffering from discoloration and mechanical damage. Parchment has been damaged from mishandling and bad environmental conditions. Iron and copper based inks have degraded, and there are many instances of ink suffering from flaking and lifting. Exposure to moisture has resulted in corrosion and caused very serious perforations to parchment and paper. Silverfish, mice and other pests have caused further damage.”
Bishop Mattaos, the abbot, has now decided that urgent action must be taken to introduce modern conservation techniques and improve environmental conditions. The first manuscript to be treated was a 10th-century Syriac text of the Homilies of Jacob of Sarug, which consists of 155 loose folios on very brittle paper. Five other manuscripts, from the 6th to 8th centuries have also been selected for urgent conservation treatment.
Sobczynski, together with Professor van Rompay, has now set up the Deir al-Surian Conservation Project, with support from the U.K.’s Institute of Paper Conservation and three universities (Leiden, Louvain and Duke). She is now establishing a charitable foundation to raise funds. Plans are being made to send teams of conservators to work with Father Bigoul on a regular basis. The first priorities are to improve storage conditions and undertake conservation work on the most vulnerable manuscripts. Installing air-conditioning is also vital, but building a dedicated library is the long-term goal.
Earlier this year Father Bigoul visited the U.K. for two months, to gain experience by working at the Royal Library at Windsor, the Wellcome Institute and the British Library. While at the British Library, he had the opportunity to examine many of the manuscripts that his monastery had lost in the 19th century. Father Bigoul is reconciled to the losses, believing that the most important thing is for them to be well cared for. As he told The Art Newspaper: “When I saw the Deir al-Surian manuscripts at the British Library, I was so happy to touch books which had been written by our saintly fathers. I felt that I was meeting the people who wrote them, and it was like being reunited with my family.”
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