4,500 ancient manuscripts being digitized at St. Catherine’s Monastery

Sinai Peninsula, April 18, 2019

Photo: reuters.com Photo: reuters.com     

Although it is the world’s oldest continually operating library, dating back to the 6th century, the collection of manuscripts at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai is no stranger to the latest technology.

In 2012, they began spectral imaging on many of the manuscripts to discover the texts beneath the texts. Many of the manuscripts are palimpsests, meaning a previous text had been erased so the scribe could reuse the valuable parchments. Traces of the original texts remained, however.

Now the monastery has begun a high-tech process of digitizing its 4,500 manuscripts—a process that could easily take up to a decade. The work on the ancient parchments, including the earliest surviving copy of the Gospels, the Codox Sinaiticus, dating to the 4th century, is being undertaken by a team from Greece that takes images in red, green, and blue light and merges them together with computer software to make one high-quality color picture, reports Reuters.

Photo: reuters.com Photo: reuters.com     

The project is sponsored by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in collaboration with the monastery and the library of UCLA.

The project is being undertaken now because the monastery unfortunately lies in an area where militant Islamists have been wont to destroy cultural artifacts and documents in recent years.

“The upheaval of our times requires a rapid completion of this project,” His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, Faran and Raitho, and Abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery told Reuters.

The monumental task of digitizing the monastery’s entire collection began last year with around 1,100 particularly rare Syriac and Arabic-language texts. This first stage is expected to take around three years and will cost a projected $2.75 million. The monastery will start publishing the newly-digitized texts online in the fall of this year.

“This library is an archive of the history of Christianity and its neighbors in the Mediterranean world, and therefore is of interest to communities all over the world who find their history here,” said Michael Phelps, Director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library.

The monastery library recently underwent restoration as well, which was completed in December 2017. A previously-unknown 6th-century manuscript of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was found during the restoration work.

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