In the heart of the Western Desert in Egypt, in Wadi al-Natrun off the modern-day Cairo Alexandria desert highway, a huge uneven mud-brick wall rises out of the sea of desert sands
to greet the traveller. A church spire, two domes, palm trees, and a cluster of buildings that date anywhere from the 6th century to the present day loom close behind. It is the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of the Syrians, commonly known as Deir al-Surian.
Entering through the narrow wooden gate, one has to bow the head down to go through, one cannot shake off the feeling of having stepped into another world. The gate was intentionally made narrow, a strong reminder of the words of Jesus Christ to enter through the “narrow gate” to find the way to Life.
Monks have inhabited Deir al-Surian—many of them were Syrians, which explains the name given to the monastery—since the 6th century. The monastery boasts the fact that it has given the Coptic Church countless saints and several popes, the last of whom was Pope Shenouda III who was pope for some 43 years and who passed away in March 2012.
It also houses the relics of 12 saints—including a lock of hair of St Mary Magdalene, the famous 10th-century wooden ‘Door of Symbols’ which reportedly includes within its intricately engraved cross symbols a forecast of the Church’s history since its foundation till the end-of-the-world. It is also the site of the cave in which Anba Bishoi—believed in the Coptic tradition to have washed the feet of Christ—lived as an anchorite for some 35 years, and the tamarind tree which is said to have grown out of St Mar-Ephraim’s staff.
Hidden in the ancient tower
Today, however, Deir al-Surian can proudly boast a modern-day achievement that preserves an exceptional trove for generations to come. A cache of some 1,500 priceless manuscripts hidden for centuries within the monastery walls is being restored, catalogued, and placed in a state-of-the-art library which not only preserves them but acts as a centre for the restoration and conservation of other old documents and manuscripts, and which trains conservators.
The magnificent library was born on 19 May, and marked the end of more than 15 years of labour pains, during which the abbot Anba Matta’ous and the curator Father Bigoul, joined by top-ranking world-class experts, worked untiringly to bring it to light.
Anba Matta’ous told Watani that the cache of manuscripts had originally been hidden in the ancient tower—the most protected part of the monastery. However, the wildly fluctuating conditions—temperatures ranging from 5 to 43 degrees Celcius and relative humidity from 30 to 80 per cent—were not kind to the books and manuscripts. Since the middle of the last century, the library came into the focus of Coptic scholars, who began a process of cataloguing and indexing. Among those who took care of the library was the monk Father Antonious al-Suriani, who later became Pope Shenouda III, and who moved its contents to a wider, better-aired place in a new building in 1970. Several other monks—many of whom are today bishops—later worked on the library. Anba Matta’ous divided it into two sections, one for the books and one for the manuscripts, and Father Bigoul is currently in charge.
Fr Bigoul, himself a chemist who took orders in 1988, was particularly worried about the manuscripts. When a team of Dutch restorers arrived at the monastery to work on its murals, he asked for their advice on restoring the manuscripts, and was given the name of London paper conservator Elizabeth Sobczynski. Ms Sobczynski visited the monastery in 1997 and was appalled at what she saw. Paper had become brittle and suffered discoloration and mechanical damage. Parchment was damaged from mishandling and bad environmental conditions. Iron and copper-based inks had degraded, with many instances of ink suffering from flaking and lifting. Exposure to moisture had resulted in corrosion and caused very serious perforations to parchment and paper. Silverfish, mice and other pests had caused further damage.
Ms Sobczynski, together with Professor Lucas van Rompay of Duke University, set up the Deir al-Surian Conservation Project, with support from the UK’s Institute of Paper Conservation and the universities of Leiden, Louvain and Duke. They worked closely with Father Bigoul who visited the UK for two months, to gain experience by working at the Royal Library at Windsor, the Wellcome Institute and the British Library.
Ms Sobczynski also set up the Levantine Foundation (TLF) with the purpose of raising funds for the conservation process. The Foundation is strongly committed to the preservation and recording of these important manuscripts, and helped in the conservation, cataloguing and preservation of the collection in situ.
Painstakingly, the work began.
According to Fr Bigoul, The library includes some 2000 Coptic, Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Ethiopian manuscripts which date back from the fifth to the 17th century. The biggest of the collection is the Syriac. The oldest manuscript is part of a book which dates back to 411 and chronicles the lives of martyrs. The Coptic collection constitutes more than 300 manuscripts which date back from the end of the 11th century to the 19th century. Most important among them is the oldest complete Gospel of St John in Coptic. It is composed of 134 pages of parchment, each 18.5cm long and 13.5cm wide, and includes 12 lines.
Another significant manuscript is a 12th-century one of 114 parchment pages about the consecration of new churches. The biggest manuscript is a 369-page tome written in both Coptic and Arabic. It is the oldest version of the New Testament and was revised against Greek, Syriac, Ethiopian and Latin translations. A note declares: “This copy was bought by the abbot Anba Kiriakos (1500-1517) from a monk in return for three other books and 10 gold Ashrafeya (the currency of the time)”.
The Ethiopian collection of 28 manuscripts dates back to the 18th century. The oldest contains psalms, hymns for St Mary and litanies of the Ethiopian Church.
The Greek manuscripts are all incomplete. Fortunately, many of them were translated into Syriac by the monks. The Arabic manuscripts are the largest in number and date back from the 13th century to the first half of the 20th century.
On that recent May morning, Watani was there to witness the birth of the library. It was a very moving moment.
Pope Tawadros II was invited to attend, but had to decline at the last minute on account of urgent obligations, and delegated his secretary Fr Ammonius Adel to represent him. Anba Kyrillos Ava Mina, abbot of Mar-Mina’s south of Alexandria; and Anba Pavnotius, abbot of the nearby Anba Maqqar monastery, both participated in the celebration. The walls of both these monasteries house invaluable manuscript collections which could benefit from the experience of Deir al-Surian.
The British Ambassador to Cairo Sir James Watt and his wife attended, as well as the former ambassador and President of TLF Sir Derek Plumbly and his Egyptian wife Nadia Gohar Plumbly, TLF CEO Elizabeth Sobczynski; Dr Khalil Nougaim, Executive Director of TLF in Egypt; as well as the members of the Board of Trustees of TLF who were all there. Attending were also prominent Coptic figures: the former Egyptian tourism minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour; the politician Mona Makram Ebeid; and business tycoon Mounir Ghabbour.
Anba Matta’ous greeted his guests, and reminded that Deir al-Surian Library is the leading library among all monastery libraries in Egypt, in terms of the number of manuscripts it holds, their scientific value and the diversity of languages and cultures in which they were written. Monks and researchers from all over the world go back to them to check on liturgical, theological and historical issues. “The Deir al-Surian Library, as the beacon of knowledge that it is, is worthy of all the arduous efforts made for its conservation,” Anba Matta’ous said.
“The manuscript cache,” he said, “which had been moved around to several locations in the monastery over the ages, has today finally found a resting place worthy of it.”
It is today over a decade since the work to build the new library and conserve the manuscripts began but, Sir Derek proudly said, this dwarfs before the 1,500 years of history of Deir al-Surian. “We hope the library will serve scholars for centuries to come,” he said.
Sir Derek reminisced about the time back in 2006 when he was UK ambassador to Cairo. He said that, together with his Egyptian wife, Nadia, they were keen on the idea of an Anglo Egyptian project, and the idea of salvaging the old manuscripts at Deir al-Surian appeared to be the perfect project. They got actively involved with TLF and the manuscript library and, when he was offered to head TLF, he felt especially honoured.
True, Sir Derek said, Egypt and her neighbours are now witnessing hard times but this monastery which lies in the heart of the desert and which was home to Syrian monks hundreds of years ago and to the invaluable manuscripts is a reminder of the resilience of the Christian communities in the Arab world. The treasures this library holds are a heritage to all Christians, all Egyptians, and all humanity,” he said.
It was then Ms Sobczynski’s turn to speak. She gave a moving account of her first visit to Deir al-Surian, the manuscript library as she first found it, the huge work needed to conserve it, and the painstaking efforts to raise funds for the project, which culminated with the establishment of the TLF and its gaining NGO status in Egypt. She recounted the conservation work already done, and the plans for future work.
Ms Sobczynski summed it all up: “This is the most exciting moment since the inception of the TLF in 2002. For the past ten years it has been my dream to safely house this unique collection, to ensure its survival for future generations, and with modern technology, make it accessible to the world of scholarship. Now that my dream has been fulfilled, I look forward to working with the collection and training Egyptian conservators on how to best preserve their cultural heritage for future generations.”
Simplicity and elegance
The new library building is the epitome of simplicity and elegance, and is in harmony with the entire monastery compound.
The purpose-built library provides world class storage for the manuscript collection and facilities for all aspects of book conservation, including education and training which will enable unrivalled state-of-the-art care for the library’s precious collection.
The building is equipped with an advanced temperature and humidity control system for long term preservation, a conservation laboratory, and public access areas such as reading rooms for visiting scholars. Biannual conservation field campaigns organised by TLF will give British, European, and Egyptian conservators unique professional development opportunities to acquire broader capability and ‘extended professionalism’ characterised by independent judgment, involvement in a community of practice, and the demonstration of practical or intellectual leadership.
It rises two storeys above the ground. The library and archives are housed in the basement which houses the digital centre and includes the server that allows for the reading of the manuscripts from any place in the world.
“We not only provide digital photos,” Fr Bigoul told Watani, but also digital voice recordings, for the benefit of the visually impaired and those who have difficulty reading the language of manuscripts.
The digital library not only makes the manuscripts accessible to scholars, but also avoids damage caused by continual handling.
Future plans, according to Fr Bigoul, include digitising the full manuscript collection and making it available online, and also in Braille.
7 June 2013