Library Of The Monastery

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The Library Of The Monastery

Introduction About The Library 

Library Of The Monastery located in the Southern section of the monastery, Much of the fame the Monastery of Saint Catherine gained was actually due to its large library which hosts some rare Christian scripts and original books.

It has some of the official letters sent by the rulers of Egypt to the administration of the monastery including a letter from the prophet Mohamed to the monks of the monastery granting their safety and freedom.

The library mainly consists of three large chambers hosting more than 6000 rare significant manuscripts discussing philosophy, religious matters, geography, and many other topics and more than 2000 official documents sent to the monastery since its establishment.

The Manuscripts

The Sinai manuscripts comprise the oldest and most important Christian monastic library collection. Of its 3,300 manuscripts, two-thirds are in Greek. The rest are principally in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, and Slavonic, though there are other manuscripts in Polish, Hebrew, Ethiopian, Armenian, Latin, and Persian. The New Finds correspond to these languages and are stored adjacent to the library. The library also contains an important archive, containing letters, account books, charters, and other documents.

Most of the manuscripts are Christian texts for use in the services, or to inspire and guide the monks in their dedication. But others are of an educational nature, such as classical Greek texts, lexicons, medical texts, and travel accounts.

The most famous manuscript is the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, of which the monastery retains twelve pages and some twenty-four fragments. Next in importance is the Codex Syriacus, a palimpsest, the upper writing dating to AD 778, with the underwriting dating to perhaps the fifth century. This is one of only two manuscripts in the world that preserve the text of the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels.

The monastery has some manuscripts written on papyrus, and a large collection of Greek, Arabic, and Turkish scrolls. The ancient library of Sinai still exists in its original context, as the library of a living community. This association gives an added dimension to each of the manuscripts and early printed books, as they witness to the life of prayer and services that has been maintained here for over seventeen centuries.

Early Printed Books

The Sinai library contains some 8,000 early printed books, of which 7,000 are in Greek. There are many early and important editions of the Holy Scriptures, of patristic and classical texts, and of Orthodox service books. These include the first editions of Homer (1488) and Plato (1513), and the Comedies of Aristophanes (1498), the Great Etymological Lexicon of the Greek Language (1499), and Suidae’s Lexicon (1499). The works of Aldus Manutius, the first to print Greek, are well represented.

Many of the volumes have notations showing that they were used by the Sinai monks in their studies. Others whose names are listed in these volumes became important ecclesiastical dignitaries during the days of the Ottoman Empire. All of these volumes attest to the erudition of the monks of Sinai.

The Archive

The Sinai archive contains documents, letters, account books, and other compositions, pertaining to the Holy Monastery of Sinai itself, and to its many dependencies. The oldest Greek documents date from the middle of the fifteenth century, but there are older documents in Latin and in Venetian.

Many of the documents concern the safe travel of members of the community and of pilgrims to Sinai. They also deal with the prerogatives of the monastery and its many dependencies. Other documents witness to the communication between the monastery and its dependencies. The archive contains agreements between the monastery and the local Bedouin. It also contains theological writings of past hierarchs and members of the community.

All of these documents are important in that they provide insights into the history of the monastery and the difficult circumstances under which it nevertheless managed to exist.

The New Finds

On May 25, 1975, Archimandrite Sophronius, then the Skevophylax of the monastery, discovered a cache of manuscript leaves and fragments in the tower on the north wall of the monastery. The room where they were discovered had been used to store manuscripts in earlier centuries, and when the manuscripts were transferred to a new location in the early eighteenth century, these damaged leaves and fragments had been left behind. These were subsequently hidden when the floor above the room gave way during an earthquake. They were recovered during the renovation of the tower. When the mass of leaves and fragments had been gathered and sorted, they were found to reflect the diverse languages found in the library: the majority of the manuscripts were in Greek, with the majority of the others in Arabic, Syriac, Slavonic, and Georgian. There were also texts in Hebrew, Latin, and Ethiopian.

The content of these leaves also corresponds to that of the library. There are copies of the scriptures, service books, patristic texts, and more specifically monastic texts.

The most important documents were twelve pages and twenty-four fragments of the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, and leaves from a Psalter written in 862/3, the rest of which had been taken by Porphiry Uspenski in the nineteenth century. Also discovered were eighth-century leaves of the Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus. These leaves are the oldest that survive, written within one hundred years of the composition of that book. Also of interest were leaves of Homer’s Iliad, written in the ninth century. The most significant Georgian manuscript was a palimpsest, and the underwriting was identified as Caucasian Albanian, the ancestor of the language spoken by the Udi people, most of which live in Azerbaijan.

No other example of Caucasian Albanian has survived, except for a few inscriptions carved on stone, and a copy of the alphabet preserved in an Armenian grammar book. Thus the recovery of this text required the entire reconstruction of the language, based on these few extant examples. The palimpsest text is a copy of the Lectionary and may date from the late fourth or early fifth century. Before the discovery of this manuscript, it was not known that the Gospels had been translated into Caucasian Albanian.

All of these manuscripts are of the greatest interest to students of palaeography. They contain examples of Greek script from the seventh to the ninth centuries, which are critical to a reconstruction of the development of Greek handwriting.

Preliminary catalogues of the New Finds have been published, and scholars are only now beginning to consider these texts in more detail.

The Manuscript Illuminations

The manuscripts that are found at the Holy Monastery of Sinai are either the offerings of notable rulers or of simple pilgrims, or they are the work of the monks living at Sinai, written to supply some needed text.

The earliest manuscripts were written at Sinai date to the time of the Arab predominance of the area, a time in which contact with the Orthodox centres of book production was difficult. Codices written before the eleventh century are sometimes rich in decoration, while manuscripts written after that date are adorned with miniatures.

Some of these have a Constantinopolitan provenance and reached the monastery either directly, or through one of its many far-flung dependencies. In other manuscripts, the capital letters have been designed and executed with high artistic ability.

Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex Sinaiticus is dated to the second quarter of the 4th century. It is a splendid manuscript of the Holy Scriptures, which originally contained the entire Old and New Testaments, plus the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas. It is written four columns to the page, in a clear and regular script. The Codex Sinaiticus contains the oldest surviving complete New Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus are the oldest copies of the scriptures written on parchment. Scholars feel that they preserve a very early level of the text, and their study is absolutely essential for anyone wishing to study the history of the text of the scriptures.

The Codex Sinaiticus was described by visitors to Sinai in the eighteenth century, and it was studied extensively by Archimandrite Prophiry Ouspensky. However, the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf was the first to fully appreciate the antiquity and the significance of this manuscript. On his first visit to the monastery, in 1844, he managed to take forty-three folios of the codex with him. These are preserved to this day at the University of Leipzig.

On his third visit to the monastery, in 1859, he asked that the codex is sent to Cairo so that he could make a transcription of it for publication. It was in doing so that he realized the complexity of the text, and so he asked that he be allowed to take the manuscript to Russia, where he would have it on hand when he made a printed edition of the text. He promised to return the manuscript to the monastery at its first request.

Instead, the manuscript was kept by the Russian government, and then sold to England in 1933 for the price of £100,000, a huge sum of money for its time. It is now one of the great treasures of the British Library. The Russians retained eight fragments, which remain in the State Library at St. Petersburg.

Tischendorf justified his taking the manuscript, writing that the precious codex was on the verge of being burned by the monks. The monastery has always protested against this slander and laments the loss of this manuscript.

The Patent of Prophet Mohammed Granted to The Holy Monastery of Sinai

In the second year of the Hegira, corresponding to AD 623, a delegation from Sinai requested a letter of protection from Mohammed. This was granted, and authorized by him when he placed his hand upon the document. The Letter of Protection is known as the Ahtiname, from the Arabic words ahd, which means “obligation,” and name, which means “document, testament.” The document has been instrumental in the protection of the monastery, and as a means of ensuring peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Moslems. The continuous existence of the monastery during fourteen centuries of Islamic rule is a sign of the respect given to this Letter of Protection, and the principles of peace and cooperation that it enshrines.

In AD 1517, Sultan Selim I confirmed the monastery’s prerogatives but took the original letter of protection for safekeeping to the royal treasury in Constantinople. At the same time, he gave the monastery certified copies of this document, each depicting the handprint of Mohammed in token of his having touched the original.