Monks in Egypt’s Lawless Sinai Hope to Preserve an Ancient Library

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St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt

Just as they have done for 17 centuries, the Greek Orthodox monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai desert and the local Jabaliya Bedouins worked together to protect the monastery when the 2011 revolution thrust Egypt into a period of uncertainty. “There was a period in the early days of the Arab Spring when we had no idea what was going to happen,” says Father Justin, a monk who has lived at St. Catherine’s since 1996. Afraid they could be attacked by Islamic extremists or bandits in the relatively lawless expanse of desert, the 25 monks put the monastery’s most valuable manuscripts in the building’s storage room. Their Bedouin friends, who live at the base of St. Catherine’s in a town of the same name, allegedly took up their weapons and guarded the perimeter.

The community’s fears of an attack were not realized, but the monks decided they needed a new way to protect their treasured library from any future threats. Last year, they accelerated a program of digitally copying biblical scripts with the help of multispectral imaging specialists from around the world, while simultaneously renovating and modernizing the library itself. The Sinai library houses 1.8 million pages of script, including essential texts that document the early church. St. Catherine’s ranks high among the world’s preeminent Christian text collections: their Greek manuscripts are second in number only to the Vatican’s, and their hallmark Arabic and Turkish scrolls document the interaction between the monastery and the surrounding world of Islam over the centuries. The monastery’s project will create a digital library for scholars around the world. “The technology, the conservation — they are our protection. Many people are concerned about the safety of what we have here, so we have to make them sure that we are protecting our materials and appreciating our responsibility,” says Father Justin, the monastery’s librarian.

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Security concerns are once again at the forefront after the July 3 military ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi and the violence that came in the wake of the change in the country’s leadership. Two days after Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian army declared a state of emergency in Sinai after Islamist gunmen opened fire on the region’s el-Arish airport and several military checkpoints, killing several police officers and a soldier. St. Catherine’s is geographically vulnerable at the best of times, positioned as it is on a peninsula plagued by a security vacuum. Crimes like human trafficking and kidnappings along the Egypt-Israel border make Sinai one of Egypt’s most dangerous regions.

Father Justin acknowledges that the conservation efforts have been inspired by neighborhood insecurity. “Libraries are precious places where you can store the past in the present, and we are treating what happened to Cairo” — the riots, looting and violence that surrounded the revolution — “as a reminder that libraries are vulnerable, and right now they are more vulnerable than ever,” he says, sitting in his no-frills office in front of a MacBook Pro. He politely steps out to a dark room every few minutes to turn the page of an ancient manuscript so that an imaging crew from Greece can scan the palimpsest.

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The two-plus years since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak have been unsettling for Egypt’s Christians, the majority of whom belong to the Coptic Church and account for a significant minority (up to 10%) of the country’s population. There have been violent clashes between Christians and Muslims, with deaths on both sides. St. Catherine’s has nevertheless maintained its track record of friendly relationships with its Muslim neighbors. The Greek Orthodox monks and the Jabaliya Bedouin tribe, who are the area’s majority residents, have shared land, food and friendly relations since the monastery was built centuries ago. The Jabaliya are believed to be descendants of the Byzantine soldiers who built the monastery in the 6th century, and many of them continue to guard the monastery as their own. “The monastery is a very special place for me and all Bedouins. It is a holy place for all religions. Our ancestors built St. Catherine’s,” explains Ramadan, 26, who has been a tour guide at the monastery since he was 15.

Another Bedouin resident, Faraj, just out of Friday morning prayers at a nearby mosque, adds: “[The Jabaliya and the monks] have been here for so long that we have grown together. We’ve been through times when we had to share our food and gardens. We share everything, we always have. There is even a mosque on the monastery. We don’t use it often anymore because our population is too big now, but it is a still a symbol of our friendly relationship.”

Eager to maintain similarly peaceful relations with all Egyptians, the monks hope their ongoing project will act as a reminder of the monastery’s historical bond with Egypt. “We have to present ourselves in a way to convince the Arabic-speaking world that we are a part of Egypt’s ancient history,” Father Justin says. In preserving their manuscripts, the monks of St. Catherine’s may also be preserving their way of life.

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35 comments
cdigennaro
cdigennaro

@SmithsonianTSA @TIME fascinating- we could all take a lesson from the monks & their neighbors on how to live peacefully with each other

coryroams
coryroams

@kenneyjason all the locals of that region gain from the huge tourism draw that is st. caherine's. site of "the burning bush" & mt. sinai

CLeontidis
CLeontidis

@Nervana_1 @TIMEWorld i tweeted this yesterday. There's a mistake in the text. There's no such a thing as "turkish scrolls". Otherwise fine

GinaRaye
GinaRaye

i take exception to the statement "St. Catherine’s is geographically vulnerable at the best of times". look at a topographical map! there is only one road in, a narrow 2 lane highway, and the approaches through the mountains are watched, except in the worst of winter weather, by the jebeleya bedouin.

MannyCh1458
MannyCh1458

@MannyCh1458 Fr Justin: "We have to... convince the Arabic-speaking world that we are a part of Egypt’s ancient history”

GwendolenevanDyk
GwendolenevanDyk

Saint? Catherine's Monastery opposes the covenant that God handed to Moses. Just like the serpent telling Eve to eat of the 'Tree' so does this monastery oppose the word of God. "You will have NO other gods but me", their gods are Jesus and Mary and other saints. "Do not bow down to idols and worship them" they bow down and worship the cross, Mary and saints. "Remember, (God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th day) the 7th day is the Sabbath day" They obey Roman Emperor Constantine who changed the 7th day to the 1st day. God then says that "Let NO animal or human touch my HOLY mountain" Camel, donkeys trash, human and animal excretion fills God's HOLY mountain. Maybe a good idea for the monks in the monastery to study the WORD OF GOD, because they have no idea of it at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

llewelyn_morgan
llewelyn_morgan

@holland_tom Any basis to idea that local Bedouin are descended from Byzantine soldiers? Fascinating myth of symbiosis if not.

MichaelO'Connell
MichaelO'Connell

@GwendolenevanDyk Its called petitioning the saints on your behalf to speak to god, its not worship. You need to bury your head in the sand again lady, your ignorance is showing.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@GwendolenevanDyk 

"Maybe a good idea for the monks in the monastery to study the WORD OF GOD, because they have no idea of it at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

i'm going to go out on a limb and assume that the monks (you know, the guys who spend their entire lives studying the bible) have a much better understanding of the word of God than some crazy religious nutjob who spends her time preaching on internet message boards


arablit
arablit

@oivej Yes, seems like for the last 2 1/2 years. I've always wanted to go up to St. Catherine's.

GinaRaye
GinaRaye

@llewelyn_morgan @holland_tom

from an article i wrote some years ago. i lived in st katherine fulltime for 3 years and was there regularly for another 7.

In 527, when Emperor Justinian decided to fortify the monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, part of the necessary labor force was supplied by sending 100 families from Eastern Europe "to be slaves of the Monastery, obedient to the monks, they and their descendents, until God regain possession of the world and all that is upon it". Theodosius, the Governor of Egypt at the time, sent another group of 100 Greek families from Alexandria as servants. These two groups eventually intermarried with local Bedouin Arab tribes and over the course of 1,000 years became a relatively homogenous society preoccupied with service to the Monastery and Mt. Sinai. The enrichment of the Monastery due to the cult of St. Katherine and Ivan the Terrible’s imperial generosity to the church of Sinai in the mid-1500’s prompted the Ottoman Sultan Selim I to station soldiers from the eastern Nile Delta at Mt. Sinai. Through the long centuries these four distinctly different groups of people, the Christian Romanian slaves and Greek-Alexandrian servants, the Moslem Bedouin Arabs and Osmanli Soldiers, intermarried and produced a society exhibiting its progenitors best and worst traits, a society unique among the Bedouin tribes, the Jebeleya Tribe of Mt. Sinai.

Modern lineage, modern history, begins with the robahat, the quarters. Most sources report that the four sons of one man, Bakheet, a Christian, whom scholars supposed lived at least eight generations ago, c. 1650, divided up the lands and right to work. Three sons were surely Hamid, Wahab and Selim. The fourth, al-Jindi, “the Soldier”, is sometimes surmised to be the brother or companion of Bakheet, but given that he remains nameless, while Bakheet’s name and the names of his sons are known, it can be conjectured that this unknown soldier was the Osmanli regimental captain, or his successor, sent by Selim I earlier. The awlad Jindi have no ancestral lands in Wadi Jebal.  This fact alone supports a later arrival. 

oivej
oivej

@arablit why, polish your Arabic, Syriac, Slavonic, Georgian, Hebrew, Latin, and Ethiopian, and book now is.gd/Cp08Qu

llewelyn_morgan
llewelyn_morgan

@TheWildHogg Oh, didn't know they'd tested the Liqian ppl. Very DNA-happy in Afghan/Pak, too. Can't link, but look for Kalash on Wikipedia.

llewelyn_morgan
llewelyn_morgan

@holland_tom DNA, maybe, but presumably typical unit of Byz soldiers not ethnically distinct. More interesting as a charter myth, anyhow.

arablit
arablit

@oivej Oh, no problem, that'll take me... You think I could pretend Slavonic if I know Russian?

TheWildHogg
TheWildHogg

@llewelyn_morgan Wow. I've always wanted to do a DNA linage on myself, but I fear knowing my family, there will be a lot of inbreeding

holland_tom
holland_tom

@llewelyn_morgan St Catherine's myths understandably revolve around keeping the locals at bay. Hence also the forged letter from Muhammad.