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Saving a treasured trove, ever so slowly

Ancient manuscripts from Mt. Sinai move into the digital age with the help of a Bedouin camel driver's son.

February 05, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

SINAI, EGYPT — On a refreshingly cool morning, before the sun drenches every exposed grain of sand in this vast desert, Hemeid Sobhy sets out on foot from the Bedouin village where he lives with his parents and sisters. Neatly dressed in jeans, sport shirt and sturdy sandals, he walks 40 minutes to the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine.

He passes through a narrow door in the monastery's thick walls and makes his way past an ancient church and a warren of buildings, clustered along winding pathways. A stairway takes him to the third floor of a relatively modern structure along the monastery's south wall, where he enters the library, greets a monk in a long black robe and gets to work.

His office is an 8-foot-square, 8-foot-tall tent of clear plastic sheeting stretched over a metal frame. A filtering system keeps the air free from dust. Erected in a small room at the end of the cavernous library, the tent is equipped with a computer, a large-format digital camera, two flash units on tripods and a metal cradle designed to hold fragile manuscripts safely in place while they are photographed.

The setup could hardly seem more out of place at the oldest continuously operating monastery in Christendom. But St. Catherine's is entering the Age of Technology -- with the help of Father Justin Sinaites, a 57-year-old American monk from El Paso, and Hemeid, the 23-year-old son of a Bedouin camel driver. They are implementing a digital photography project that will make high-resolution images of the library's closely guarded manuscripts available to scholars all over the world.

Consisting of 3,300 manuscripts in 11 languages -- many of them richly illuminated in gold leaf and bright, jewel-like colors -- the library's collection is second in number and importance only to the trove at the Vatican. With manuscripts made as early as the 6th century, the Sinai cache consists mainly of scriptures, sermons and texts for religious services, but it includes classical Greek literature and a few medical texts with herbal remedies for various afflictions.

Today the object awaiting its close-up is a rare Arabic manuscript of Christian gospels, written on parchment in 897. A vacuum hose attached to the cradle gently pulls back the open page. A narrow piece of bone placed on the front of the page, near the binding, helps to flatten the rumpled parchment.

Hemeid scrutinizes a video preview of the page on the computer screen, centers the image, adjusts the focus and clicks the mouse. The flash units, covered with diffusers to remove harmful ultraviolet light, pop four times as the camera takes four pictures, each in a slightly different position. Hemeid clicks a command that enables the computer to merge the four exposures into a single high-resolution digital photograph.

One more page down; hundreds of thousands to go.

"If you do the math, it's discouraging," says Father Justin, who oversees the library. "There are 1.8 million pages, not to mention the manuscript fragments discovered in 1975, known as the New Finds; the scrolls and the collection of early printed books -- all in overwhelming numbers. But each manuscript is the work of a patient scribe working with difficult materials, recording a text of importance. Each manuscript is unique, and each is yet another facet of the library of Sinai, contributing to our understanding of the spiritual heritage that has been preserved here."

Protection in isolation

Lodged in a fortress-like complex at the foot of precipitous mountains on a forbidding desert, St. Catherine's has survived partly because of its isolated location. The difficulty of getting here, even now that paved roads bring busloads of tourists, has protected the monastery and its spectacular collections of manuscripts and Byzantine icons, examples of which are on view through March 4 in a landmark exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

But remotely situated as it is, the monastery is a Greek Orthodox oasis in Muslim territory. St. Catherine's resides in a community that is also adjusting to modernity.

When Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the monastery, in the 6th century, he moved about 200 families of Bedouin slaves from Alexandria and the northern shore of Anatolia to guard and care for it. Today their descendants, the Jebeliya tribe of Sinai Bedouins, who are Muslims, offer camel rides to visitors making the trek up Mt. Sinai and provide the monastery with an essential workforce. As the resident population of monks at St. Catherine's has dwindled to 25, Bedouins have continued to serve as guards, cooks, gardeners, restaurant managers, storeroom supervisors and shopkeepers. Their wages are low but so are living expenses in Sinai, Father Justin says.

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