Arts, Culture & Media

Deciphering Ancient Manuscripts at Saint Catherine's Monastery

The Geo Quiz takes us to a monastery this time. Monks have lived for at least 17 centuries at Saint Catherine's Monastery – where monks have lived for at least 17 centuries.

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It sits on a mountaintop — in the southern part of a triangular peninsula that sits between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Through the centuries this peninsula has served as a land bridge between the continents of Asia and Africa.

The answer is Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

It's home to to the aforementioned Saint Catherine's Monastery where a remarkable partnership is now underway between monks and scientists.

They're all trying to recover some hidden writings that date back more than a millennium. Noel King reports:

Evidence of the monastery's age is everywhere. Grooves are worn into Saint Catherine's stone staircases — the legacy of a thousand years of footfalls.

Knights from the crusades carved graffiti into the stone walls. A shrub in the courtyard is believed to be the burning bush of Biblical lore.

"In ancient times, Sinai was the most remote of all the Christian pilgrim sites," says Father Justin, the monastery's librarian.

"And the monks who came here were coming, like, to the edge of the inhabitable world. It was such a harsh desert, people came here for the silence and because this had been the place sanctified by the revelations of God."

Father Justin oversees a treasure trove of ancient texts. Because the monastery is so remote, and because the dry, mountain air is so conducive to preservation, the library at St. Catherine's holds manuscripts that date as far back as the 5th century.

For many years, monks and scholars have known that some of the manuscripts are special. They are old, yes, but there is even older writing hidden underneath their pages. These manuscripts are called palimpsests. Mike Phelps is director of the Sinai Palimpsests Project

"Writing material was extremely expensive in the ancient and medieval worlds, so a medieval scribe would scrape or wash a pre-existent manuscript to make them reusable for a new manuscript. They were never able, or almost never able, to perfectly erase the underlying layer. It appears as sort of a coffee-brown stain on the manuscript. You can see that the writing is there, but it is not necessarily legible."

Phelps and a team of scientists and engineers — specialists in physics, optics and lens design — are attempting to read the ancient texts using high-tech imaging tools.

In a darkened command center beside the monastery's library, each page of a manuscript is photographed 31 times in a range of light wavelengths.

Once the page has been digitized electronically, computer programs combine all of the spectral data and, almost like invisible ink, the writing underneath emerges.

Reporter: Thirty one pictures, all of the same page. And nobody has seen the writing underneath this page for about a thousand years, is that right?
Camera Operator: Yes.
Reporter: You two are both Greek. Can you read this?
Camera Operator: I can read Pateron. P-A-T-E-R-O-N.

This turns out to be a letter of advice from an elder monk, a pateron, to a novice. Who was this monk? Why did he have access to valuable parchment? Was he someone important?

Once scholars can see more of the hidden writing, they'll try to answer those questions. And while they aren't sure what they'll find, other manuscripts at Saint Catherine's have yielded treasures in the past — including two literary texts in a lost language called Caucasian Albanian, used by an ancient Christian kingdom in western Azerbaijan, destroyed in the 7th or 8th century.

The simple, deliberate lifestyle at the monastery seems contrary to the high-tech science taking place here. The monks wear traditional black robes, and gather to pray several times a day. They converse mostly in Greek.

I asked the monastery's abbot, 76-year-old Archbishop Damianos if it bothers him that the scientists mostly want to see their cutting-edge equipment work wonders — while the monks want to see what the hidden texts might reveal about God's wonders. He says he's thought a lot about that — and in the end, he believes scientific and theological objectives don't have to conflict.

"Theology is not something you can come in direct contact with," he says. "It is not material. In science, you can take a microscope and analyze things. Science is trying to find something material. Theology is trying to find the way that the soul can come closer to God. But both of them are about searching for something."

The project is being paid for by a British charity called Arcadia Fund for the next four years — so the scientists and monks will have a good amount of time to debate how science and theology can get co-exist.

  • monk300.jpg

    Monk at St. Catherine's Monastary (Photo: Noel King)

  • St-catherine300.jpg

    Credit: Berthold Werner

    Saint Catherine's Monastery (Photo: Berthold Werner/Wiki Commons)

  • scientists300.jpg

    Scientists analyze the ancient palimpsests (Photo: Noel King)

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