ISMANT EL-KHARAB, Egypt — It is an eye-straining job for religion professor Iain Gardner.
He pieces together 1,700-year-old wood and papyrus fragments from books and scrolls--recovering the teachings of an ancient religion founded by Mani, a Persian once revered from North Africa to China.
"It is like a jigsaw puzzle," Gardner said.
First he reads the Old Coptic text, then uses clues like handwriting or a fragment's shape to identify which word fits which line. Ultimately the lines become pages.
Gardner is part of a scientific team working on the Dakhleh Oasis Project, which has traced the anthropological record of the oasis in Egypt's vast Western Desert back hundreds of thousands of years.
About 5,000 writing fragments have been found so far at the site of a town founded 2,000 years ago and known in ancient times as Kellis and today as Ismant el-Kharab.
The pieces--the smallest is the size of a thumbnail--are rare testaments of Manichaeism, a creed that disappeared by the 14th century. Among its followers was the theologian St. Augustine, an adherent for nine years before he turned to Christianity--and against Manichaeism.
Mani believed he was the successor of Jesus. He put together elements from Christianity, Buddhism and Iran's fire-glorifying Zoroastrianism.
His writings in Syriac, an ancient language of the Middle East, were all lost. But the majority of those that had been translated into Old Coptic or Greek survived destruction by Christians, who considered Mani and his followers heretics.
Manichaeism, a faith of dualism, called for freeing the good--or light--trapped in human bodies regarded as inherently evil, or dark. Mani was considered an emissary of light who encouraged his followers to release the good in themselves.
"May also the right hand of light guard: and save you from every evil assault and from the snares of the world," says an excerpt from Mani's Fundamental Epistle.
Mani traveled wide to spread the faith. He died in prison about age 60 after returning to Iran in A.D. 276. Zoroastrian priests, seeing Mani as a threat to their status, wanted to get rid of him. His remains were flayed and hung on a prison wall.
In Kellis, the Manichaeans left behind pots, tools and their religious writings. Most of the fragments found come from a single building that archeologists call simply House Three.
The writings, scrawled in black ink, were "not splendid or ornate," said Gardner, who heads the School of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney in Australia and teaches early Christianity.
But they are "quite unique . . . and very important to scholars," he said. Personal and business letters also were found.
A few other Manichaean texts are kept at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Others have been found in Central Asia and China.
"But the ones found in Kellis have more variety and are within their context," Gardner said, noting that the others were moved far from where they were discovered.
Kellis now is a desolate site of ruined mud-brick walls and stubs of round columns. Thousands of pottery shards, some colored in pale blue and white, crunch underfoot.
During the town's thriving past, a temple celebrated one of Egypt's old gods, Tutu. A church, believed to be one of the oldest in Egypt, was built in the 4th century.
Although Manichaeism was banned during the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Gardner said it may have lasted in the Western Desert until the 7th century.
Judging by what they're finding, the archeologists believe the Manichaeans were able to live an ordinary life side by side with Christians, perhaps because Kellis was far from potential persecutors--the authorities based in the Nile Valley.
Some writings found in the ruins were simply shopping lists calling for buying wheat, lentils and chicken.
"Many of the letters are from family members, with lots of greetings to aunts," Gardner said. "Often the men were away on trade in the Nile Valley, and they wrote letters to their wives and sisters in Dakhleh."
Kellis still promises many surprises.
Gardner, who took four years to complete the first volume of Manichaean texts in 1996, expects to spend five years on a second volume and plans two further ones.
And beyond House Three, up to 100 other houses still need to be properly excavated.
"A great majority is still largely untouched," Gardner said. "One could carry on forever."