- SAVING SAINT-CATHERINE -
Built in the IVth century, the monastery of Saint-Catherine of the Sinai -a UNESCO world heritage site since 2002- houses the second largest library of ancient manuscripts in the world after the Vatican, an impressive collection of more than 3500 secular palimpsests and manuscripts. With unique written treasures including the Codex Sinaiticus - the oldest written version of the Bible, dating from the IVth century - the library also holds within its walls an unexampled testimony of the Christian History.
In 2018, the monastery’s monks, the UCLA and the organisation Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) initiated a vast digitalization project of more than 1’100 of these Syriac and Arabic manuscripts, in order to preserve them and make them accessible to everyone online, by January 2020.
At the feet of the Mount-Sinaï, where it is said that the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses, time seems suspended. It’s here that, during the emperor Justinian’s reign, the Saint-Catherine Monastery sees the light to never stop being functional until today, making it the oldest monastery of the world in continual use.
Today, the monastery is rich of an impressive collection of manuscripts recounting a whole pan of our civilisations through its writings. It’s in this library, of which the learned man Father Justin opens the door only to rare insiders, that cohabit thousands of writings in more than 18 langages including Latin, Aramaic, or even Ethiosemitic.
And if the monastery opens partially its doors to the public a few mornings of the week, only a handful of people came to disturb the silent reclusion of the monks these last years. The Sinai region has indeed become a breeding ground for instability and conflict since 2011,rattled by violent confrontations between the Egyptian Army and islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
If this war now unfolds behind closed doors in the North of the region, the monastery was however directly targeted by a terrorist attack last year, attesting of the Damocles sword hanging above the head of its heritage.
After a complete renovation of the library, digitalizing to preserve, transmit and protect is now the goal of the UCLA and EMEL’s project, thanks to a $980’000 grant given by the British foundation Arcadia. Hand in hand, the scientific team and Father Justin launched the digitalisation of 1100 ancient manuscripts, and are erecting a bridge between these ancestral relics and our civilisation.
The project will lead to more than 400’00 images, all accessible to the public, thanks to the deployment of advanced technologies and a complex logistic.
The story therefore sheds a light on this vast project, where the universes of high-end technology and the ascetic life of the monks are cohabiting, two worlds confronted, isolated, at 1570m of altitude; a story that highlights a daunting work operating behind closed doors to save our humanity’s heritage.