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Fragments of world’s oldest Christian manuscript found in Egyptian monastery

Written in 411 AD, the text was hidden for over 1,000 years in a vault used to store olive oil

(The Art Newspaper/London - 18.2.2008). Fragments of the earliest dated Christian literary manuscript have been found at Deir al-Surian, an ancient monastery in the Egyptian desert. Dating from 411 AD, these were discovered under a collapsed floor of a ninth-century tower. The fragments are from the final page of a codex written in Syriac (an Eastern Aramaic language) which was acquired by the British Museum library in the 19th century.

Few manuscripts have had such an astonishing history. In 1847, British Museum librarian William Cureton said that “among all the curiosities of literature, I know of none more remarkable than the fate of this matchless volume”. We can now add a final chapter to the story.

The manuscript on Christian martyrs was written in Edessa (now Sanliurfa, Turkey), and at some point in the next five centuries it was taken eastwards. In 931, the abbot of Deir al-Surian travelled to Baghdad and brought it back to Egypt.

In 1086, a monk added a marginal note in the middle of the manuscript, expressing concern that the last page with its colophon (the scribe’s ending notes) might be lost. Since the book was by then already “ancient”, he wanted to record that it had been written in 411. The monk’s precaution was wise, since centuries later the last page did indeed become detached.

Discovery

The European who found the main manuscript was Lord Curzon, who visited Deir al-Surian in 1837 in search of ancient texts for the British Museum. There were then only a dozen monks, led by a blind and elderly abbot. Lord Curzon bought three Coptic manuscripts, but he had heard rumours that earlier texts in Syriac were hidden in the cellar of the ancient tower, in a vault used to store olive oil.

He recounts producing a bottle of rosoglio (an Italian cordial), since with eastern monks “there is no better opener of the heart than a sufficiency of strong drink”. After plying the abbot with alcohol, he coaxed him into instructing a monk to lead him down into the cellar.

Adjacent to the main oil store, Lord Curzon found “a small closet vaulted with stone which was filled to a depth of two feet or more with the loose leaves of Syriac manuscripts”. He extracted four relatively complete codices, and talked the inebriated abbot into selling them for “a certain number of piastres”.

The abbot would only allow Lord Curzon to fill one of his camel’s saddlebags with manuscripts, since he did not want the other monks to notice what was happening. There was insufficient space for all his purchases, so Lord Curzon reluctantly left one behind.

Recovery

Lord Curzon’s acquisitions whetted the appetite of the British Museum, and two years later it sent scholar Dr Henry Tattam to Deir al-Surian. Among the several hundred manuscripts he purchased was the one that Lord Curzon had been forced to leave behind. Back in London, the note made by the monk in 1086 was spotted.

The note on folio 239 read: “Behold my brethren, if it should happen that the end of this ancient book should be torn off and lost...it was written at the end of it thus.” The monk had then copied out the colophon, which stated that the manuscript had been written at Orrhoa (Edessa, now Sanliurfa), by Jacob, in the year 723 (in the Greek calendar, or 411 AD).

The original colophon was missing when the codex was acquired in 1839, but the monk’s note made it possible to date it. Four years later Cureton discovered two further pages of the manuscript among fragments which had been brought back by Tattam.

There was one further British Museum expedition to Deir al-Surian, undertaken by the Alexandrian entrepreneur Auguste Pacho in 1845. He successfully acquired nearly 200 volumes, plus fragments. Cureton went through the material, finding two further damaged leaves of the 411 manuscript. Attached to the second one was a strip of the adjacent leaf; it had text on one side, but the other was blank, suggesting it was the final page.

Cureton continued his search, looking through 20 bundles of small fragments. He eventually found three pieces from the penultimate leaf, and then a fourth one from the final leaf. By good fortune, this tiny fragment had the original colophon, recording the 411 date.

Jigsaw puzzle

There the matter rested for a century and a half. In 1998, the ninth-century tower of Deir al-Surian was renovated, and several hundred fragments of ancient manuscripts were discovered by the monastery’s librarian Father Bigoul under a wooden floor which had probably collapsed as long ago as the 14th century.

It is unfortunate that such drastic restoration of an ancient building was done so casually (surprisingly, it was authorised by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities). No trained archaeologists sifted through the rubble, although Father Bigoul did his best to save what he could. Modern building materials were used in the reconstruction.

Nevertheless, the work did result in the discovery of the manuscript fragments. Analysing the find has taken time, but in 2005 two Syriac scholars, Sebastian Brock (Oxford University) and Lucas van Rompay (Duke University, North Carolina), recognised four small fragments which appeared to be in the same neat handwriting as the 411 manuscript.

In London they consulted the codex, and found that the four fragments were indeed from the final page. These wrinkled pieces have now been conserved at the monastery by London paper specialist Elizabeth Sobczynski.

After showing us the fragments, Father Bigoul took us down into the cellar, where he had discovered them. In an adjacent vault, there is still a pile of ancient amphorae once used to store olive oil.

Back in London, we looked at the British Library’s codex and noticed a stain in a corner of most of the parchment pages. Conservators confirm that it is olive oil.

Conservation

For most of the 20th century, Deir al-Surian’s manuscripts were hidden away—and relatively neglected. The monks were understandably reluctant to show them to outsiders, since their collection had been denuded in the 18th and 19th centuries by European bibliophiles.

But despite these losses, Deir al-Surian still retains 1,000 manuscripts, of which 49 are in Syriac. It also has 150 ancient Coptic manuscripts and 15 Ethiopic texts. Recent cataloguing has uncovered the world’s oldest dated Biblical manuscript in any language, a Syriac version of Isaiah, from 459 AD.

Around a century ago, the collection was moved from the tower, where it had probably been kept for over 1,000 years. It was then stored in large wooden crates in the monks’ cells. Unfortunately, as recently as the mid-20th century, serious damage was caused by mice and insects. In 1970 the library was given its own premises at the top of a modern building.

Since 1997 preservation work has been spearheaded by Ms Sobczynski, working with international and Egyptian conservators. So far they have conserved a dozen manuscripts, and over 300 fragments.

The Syriac manuscripts were hidden away from outsiders until after 2000, and the extent of the holdings remained unknown. They are now being catalogued by Brock and Van Rompay.

Not surprisingly, monks and conservators have different perspectives. Most monks would have preferred the ancient manuscripts to be rebound in modern materials, whereas conservators want to preserve what can be saved of earlier bindings.

The library remains in unsuitable premises. Temperature and humidity fluctuate considerably, and a kitchen on a floor below is a serious fire hazard (smoke alarms were only fitted in 2000).

A purpose-built library and conservation studio is therefore being built within the monastery walls. Construction of the new “green” library building will begin this month, with completion scheduled for early next year. It will cost £400,000, and Ms Sobczynski has set up the Levantine Foundation charity to raise funds
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