But the ancient scribes did their job frustratingly well. In most cases, the texts underneath were hidden and, until now, thought lost. In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian protected that chapel with hefty granite walls. Fifteen hundred years later, they stand intact. As you approach it, the sand-colored monastery, nestled low on the mountain, looks humble and timeless, like something made of the desert.
Inside is a warren of stone steps, arches and alleyways; a square bell tower draws the eye upward toward the jagged mountain peaks above. Despite the rise and fall of surrounding civilizations, life here has changed remarkably little. Central to St. Justin Sinaites, who wears a long, gray beard and the black robes traditional to his faith.
In , Father Justin moved to St. When I reached Father Justin in Egypt by telephone this fall, he was thoughtful and articulate, and gave the impression, like the monastery itself, of existing on a plane outside of worldly limitations. Asked to describe the physical size of the library, he at first seemed baffled. During our conversation, he routinely answered my questions with stories rooted hundreds of years in the past.
Because the librarian alone was allowed to access the library vaults, the manuscripts were always brought to him one by one, their darkened edges and drops of candle wax testament to centuries of wear and use. Finally he could explore the full collection, including the palimpsests. But in , researchers in the United States announced the completion of a ten-year project to use multispectral imaging to read lost works by the Greek mathematician Archimedes hidden beneath the liturgy of a 13th-century Byzantine prayer book.
Father Justin, who already knew members of the group, asked if they would come to St. The resulting collaboration, known as the Sinai Palimpsests Project , is directed by Michael Phelps of the California-based Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, a nonprofit research group that works with universities such as UCLA and other institutions to digitize historical source materials and make them accessible for study.
Beginning in , Phelps and other members of the project made 15 visits to the monastery over five years, each time driving for hours through the Sinai Desert, the site of ongoing conflict between Egyptian security forces and Islamic militants. They are tinder dry, falling to pieces and often nibbled by rats.
Photographing each page took about seven minutes, the shutter clicking repeatedly while the page was illuminated by infrared, visible and ultraviolet lights that ran across the color spectrum. Perhaps someone was listening. Late last month, the monastery and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library announced at a conference in Athens that over the five-year period they had imaged 6, pages from 74 palimpsests, which will be made accessible online by UCLA sometime in early So far, their work has revealed more than erased texts in ten languages, including classical, Christian and Jewish texts dating from the fifth century until the 12th century.
The collection is being compared to the greatest manuscript discoveries of the 20th century, including the Nag Hammadi codices of Egypt and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Already, as a part of the Sinai Palimpsests Project, some two dozen scholars from across Europe, the United States and the Middle East are poring over these texts. One of the most exciting finds is a palimpsest made up of scraps from at least ten older books. The manuscript is a significant text in its own right: the earliest known version of the Christian Gospels in Arabic, dating from the eighth or ninth century.
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Copies of his drawings made as late as years after his death survive, but until now we only knew his writings through quotations by the first-century physician Dioscorides. From the same palimpsest Agamemnon Tselikas, director of the Center for History and Palaeography in Athens, recovered the earliest known versions of classic texts by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, which are four centuries older than any copies previously known. Other fragments include bits as unexpected as a version of an ancient Greek adventure story called Apollonius of Tyre , which is now the oldest known Latin translation and the earliest with illustrations by years.
Giulia Rossetto, who discovered her own celebrity manuscript aboard a train ride home to Italy, is still piecing together the implications of her find. They tell of a myth in which Dionysus, the young son of Zeus and Persephone, sits on a throne as a group of murderous Titans tries to win his confidence. The Rhapsodies were widely studied until at least the sixth century, but are today known only through fragmentary quotations by later philosophers. Now Rossetto has found what may be lines from the Rhapsodies themselves.
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The secrets of each individual manuscript will keep scholars busy for years to come. In none of them is there an apparent relationship between the overtext and undertext, she says. Indeed, scattered pages from multiple older manuscripts, in different languages, were often brought together to make a new book. Rather than individual scribes selecting manuscripts to scrape clean for personal use, this suggests an organized production, perhaps even commercial circulation, of recycled parchment sheets.
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Patterson , Lee Berkeley , The pollen diagram of Rotes Moor appears on p. Postan , Cynthia 1st English trans. The pollen diagram appears on p. In so doing, they locate their studies not in nature or in culture and thus deterritorialize both as categories. Groenman-van and van Wijngaarden-Bakker , L. Besteman , J.