For centuries they have gathered dust on the shelves of a library marooned in a rocky patch of Egyptian desert, their secrets lost in time. But now a collection of enigmatic manuscripts, carefully stored behind the walls of a 1,500-year-old monastery on the Sinai Peninsula, are giving up their treasures.
The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These illegible marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.
But now these erased passages are reemerging from the past. In an unlikely collaboration between an Orthodox wing of the Christian faith and cutting-edge science, a small group of international researchers are using specialized imaging techniques that photograph the parchments with different colors of light from multiple angles. This technology allows the researchers to read the original texts for the first time since they were wiped away, revealing lost ancient poems and early religious texts and doubling the known vocabulary of languages that have not been used for more than 1,000 years.
Isolated at the mouth of a precipitous gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai—a mountain sacred to the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths—Saint Catherine’s Monastery has persisted relatively unscathed since the sixth century. Its library was famous as a center of learning even its very earliest days, and the tinder-dry climate has helped to preserve the delicate parchments.
At times in the past, however, the monks found themselves stranded without fresh supplies. The rise of Islam in the seventh century saw almost all of the other Christian sites in Sinai disappear, leaving the fortified monastery at Saint Catherine’s far harder to reach. Tensions between the Muslim world and Christians during the Crusades also made pilgrimages to the monastery more sporadic. Scribes were often forced to reuse older parchments, each composed of hundreds of pages. They would carefully wash them with lemon juice and scrape them clean of text. The scribes chose older texts—some dating as far back as 600 AD—whose language had been forgotten or whose information was no longer relevant.
Today, these parchments are delicate gold mines of historical importance. Scholars studying the early scriptures of the Christian faith, historians looking for clues about life in Medieval Egypt, and linguists searching for scraps of ancient languages have all pored over the parchments. In the margins, some parts of the older under-texts have remained visible, giving some clues to the content beneath.
This article continues at [The Atlantic] The Invisible Poems Hidden in One of the World’s Oldest Libraries