The secrets of the manuscripts of St. Catherine

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FEATURE - The Sinai Monastery is home to the world's oldest library. The first results of a vast research campaign on palimpsests reveal some nice surprises.

Special Envoy in Sinai (Egypt)

It is still early. The freshness of the night catches the cheekbones, but a soft sun already licks the barren mounds of the mineral desert of South Sinai. From the corridor that leads to the second floor of the priory, we can see the monastery of St. Catherine in its entirety: a small village of ancient stones surrounded by a wall, a shell thrown into the mountain housing a series of dormitories where can lodge a privileged few, a garden of olive trees, steep streets and footbridges connecting one building to the other which are articulated around two hearths: the Church of the Transfiguration and the chapel of the Burning Bush.

In front of this panorama, facing the rising day, an old man floats in the alleys, preceded by the clinking of a heavy bunch of keys.

"The essential function of a library is to promote the discovery of books that the reader did not suspect existed and which are of paramount importance to him"

Umberto Eco

"I can not say how many I have," he smiles as he unlocks the secret room. Opening the cherry wood door, Father Justin, twenty-one years of monastery, reveals a confidential place "accessible only to special guests and researchers," he confides before announcing: "Here is the room where we keep all our manuscripts and old books. "

It is a room all in length, high ceiling, composed of two levels and freshly renovated. On the lower level, screened cabinets reveal glimpses of the most fragile pieces: 2000 manuscripts running over 1700 years of history, carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and deacidified fabric, waiting for metal boxes in which they will be stored to better protect them, "says the religious.

"The essential function of a library is to promote the discovery of books that the reader did not suspect existed and which are of paramount importance to him", said Umberto Eco. And Father Justin went on: "Each manuscript has its own story, its own complexity. Through them, you discover how these pieces were used, and it's fascinating to understand how each plays a role in the spiritual life of the community. These stories have been read before us by previous generations, we can see the corners of horny pages, the drops of wax candles. All this has become very precious for the history of this place and shows the devotion that reigns in these walls. "

For five years, some of these riches have been the subject of a large scanning program as much to protect them as to make them more accessible to researchers.

On the floor below, in monastic silence, four men move in a windowless room. Only the noise of the pages that we turn, the "click-click" of computer mouse and the "zzzzzz" of a strange machine resonate.

"Saint Catherine has the oldest library in the world still in operation and one of her most treasured treasures is her collection of palimpsests"

Michael Phelps, director of Emel

50 unknown texts

Since 2011, the team of theEarly Manuscripts Electronic Library (Emel), an American non-profit organization, is working to capture page by page, the 160 palimpsests of the monastery. "St. Catherine has the world's oldest library still in operation and one of her most treasured treasures is her collection of palimpsests," said Michael Phelps, director of Emel, who says 50 new texts, unknown until then, were revealed during this mission. In the Middle Ages, the monks reused some books by erasing the texts written to rewrite new ones. "The covered layers contain languages ​​and texts that are invaluable for reconstructing the history of the Middle East, the end of the ancient period and the Middle Ages," said the researcher.

That morning, the team is busy manipulating a work blackened with Arabic calligraphies under which we can see inscriptions in Greek. "What's exciting is that you do not know, at the moment of capture, what you have in your hands. You just guess that there is a layer that has been erased, "says Michael Phelps. "Not long ago, Damian was making captures, he came out of the study room saying" flowers are coming out of the manuscript! ", I thought he was joking but, indeed, the ultraviolet light revealed a full page of medicinal plant illustrations that had been faded and covered with Arabic calligraphy. "

Damian Kasotakis is the director of photography for this project. This young Greek is in charge of the smooth process of the capture which uses the technique of the spectrum imaging: a type of photography which allows to take several photos of the same object by illuminating it with different lengths of wave.

"We do not know exactly why some manuscripts were recycled and not others but we imagine that it was for the sake of saving paper"

Damian Kasotaki, director of photography of the project

He explains: "Our system goes from the ultraviolet to the infrared with waves not perceptible by the human eye. By varying these lights, we can make a fluorescent ink or on the contrary blur it. We then use analysis software comparable to what is done in satellite imagery. What is new is to apply this technology to cultural heritage. "

And the result is eloquent. In the works, Emel revealed a medical library that had been overshadowed of which at least three texts belong to Hippocrates, considered the founder of medicine. "These texts are known but we have discovered the oldest known copies to date, they are estimated at about 400 years," said Michael Phelps.

But what fly stung the canons to erase such precious texts and cover them with psalms and liturgical songs? "We do not know exactly why some manuscripts were recycled and not others but we imagine that it was for the sake of saving paper and some texts, already centuries old, had become less important because the languages used were no longer understood, "says Damian Kasotakis. "There was certainly no value judgment," says his colleague, "the texts were surely damaged and we noted that the erased layers are rarely related to the news. Some books have no less than four languages. This raises a question for us: was there a market for second-hand scrolls, sellers who offered paper of the highest quality but also of lower quality, reusable and therefore less expensive? "

The multiplicity of languages ​​evoking different geographical origins, researchers also suspect the circulation of some of these pieces, perhaps brought by pilgrims passing through the Greek Orthodox monastery. It will be up to another group of scientists to decrypt this data. Once captured, the files are sent to a team of 25 linguists and specialists in the United States, Georgia and Lebanon. By the end of this study scheduled for early 2018, the University of California at Los Angeles should open an Internet portal with this collection of data.

This first campaign coming to an end, the monks asked again Emel to capture classical manuscripts, especially those written in Syriac and Arabic. "St. Catherine also has the world's largest collection of Christian literature in Arabic and Syriac," says Michael Phelps, "philosophical, theological texts, prayers, and secular and scientific literature. This digitization will open a new era for research in this area, "he says. Four thousand new pages will have to be processed, a project that should take three to four years.


 

 

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