Ancient Manuscripts Digitized at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai

A team from Greece is currently at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt photographing thousands of fragile manuscripts, including some of the earliest copies ever made of the Christian Gospels, Reuters reports.

The Greek experts are photographing the priceless manuscripts using a complex process which includes taking images in red, green and blue light, and then merging them with computer software to create high-quality color pictures.

“The Holy Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai” — the official name of the monastery — houses the history of Christianity in the 4,500 different manuscripts in its library. Although it has survived centuries of warfare, in recent years it has been targeted by Islamist fanatics and is in danger.

In the last several years, Islamist militants have destroyed numerous cultural and religious artifacts and documents in Syria and Iraq.

In 2017, Islamist militants attacked a nearby Egyptian police checkpoint and killed one officer. The situation in the area is still volatile, and the monastery authorities deem it important to finish the digitization of the manuscripts to preserve them in case of attack, Reuters reports.

The aim of the project is to create the first digital archive of all 4,500 manuscripts in the library, beginning with approximately 1,100 in the Syriac and Arabic languages, which are particularly rare. It will take more than a decade to complete the monumental task.

The project is being undertaken by the non-profit organization Early Manuscripts Electronic Library as well as the library of the University of California, Los Angeles, in collaboration with the monastery. The UCLA library said it will begin publishing the manuscripts online, in full color, beginning in the Fall of 2019.

A World Heritage site with paramount importance for Christianity

St. Catherine’s Monastery lies at the foot of Mount Sinai, the site where Judeo-Christian tradition says Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments from God.

The location is considered sacred for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. UNESCO inscribed the area in their World Heritage List in 2002.

St. Catherine’s Monastery was founded in the year 527 AD. built by order of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it is the oldest Christian monastery in the world which is still in use for its original function.

The main church of the monastery is the Church of St. Catherine, which was built by the Byzantine architect Stephen of Aila at the same time as the defensive walls.

Of all  the 4,500 manuscripts in its library, the most famous is the fourth-century “Codex Sinaiticus” — a Greek manuscript of the Bible which contains the oldest surviving complete New Testament.

Another priceless manuscript is the Codex Syriacus, an ancient copy of the Gospels in the Syriac language. Other manuscripts cover the fields of science, medicine and the Greek classics.

Even though it attracts pilgrims from all over the world, the Christian inhabitants of Sinai have always belonged to the Greek-speaking world, and this remains true to this day.

The massive granite wall which surrounds the monastery — 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) wide and 11 meters (36 feet) high — has successfully kept enemies away and it has never been invaded or destroyed for almost 1500 years.

Tradition says that the monastery took its name form Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. However, the wheel did not kill her, and she was beheaded. Angels then transported her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800 AD, monks from the Sinai Monastery actually found the remains of St. Catherine.

Mount Sinai and the Muslims

Mount Sinai is a sacred place for Muslims as well. It is revered as Jebel Musa (“Mount Moses”), the place where God handed down his Law. In 623 AD, a document signed by the Prophet Muhammad himself, the Actiname (Holy Testament), exempted the Christian monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery from the usual taxes and military service and commanded that Muslims provide the community with every assistance they could as for.

The monks returned the help they had been given by permitting the conversion of a small Crusader chapel within the monastery into a mosque between 1101 and 1106 during the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171).

The tiny mosque was in regular use until the time of the rule of Mameluke in the later 13th century, when began to undergo a long period of neglect. It was finally restored in the early twentieth century. Today, local Muslims use the mosque on special occasions.