One of the most important archaeological finds of the second half of the 20th century was a copy of the Psalms of David dating back to the fifth or sixth century, discovered in 1984 in an ancient necropolis near Beni Sueif, some 100 kms south of Cairo. At the time archaeologists described the find as equally important to that of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
“It is written in the Coptic language, and is the oldest manuscript of the 151 psalms,” says Philip Halim Faltass, general director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. “It is one of the most treasured items in the museum, and none like it has been found anywhere in the world.”
The manuscript is of parchment bound in 64 sections of eight pages each; each page is numbered and so are the sections, and the number of lines on each page is marked.
Under the girl’s head
The copy of the Psalms of David was found by an expedition of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, which was then headed by Ibrahim Gad. It was discovered in the grave of a little girl who was buried in the necropolis at the village of al-Maddal in Beni-Suef. While excavating, the archaeologists chanced upon the edge of something buried beneath the sand under the girl’s head. They stopped work and, very cautiously, resumed digging by hand until the entire manuscript was uncovered. It was sent to the archaeological laboratory for restoration.
It took a team of experts three years of painstaking work before they managed to restore the document, which was subsequently translated by Nasr Iskandar and Ezzat Habib.
The enzymes issuing from the little girl’s body had glued the pages together, forming a hardened layer. The manuscript had to be placed in an incubator and treated, first to stop any potential retardation in its condition, and then so the pages could be separated.
It took six months for most of the pages to be unglued and opened. One group of pages took three years to unglue, while the first page alone, which carried the title of the book and which had been sticking to the book cover, was only unglued after a whole year of work.
Every psalm is marked with a distinctive sign shaped like a bird, plant, or ornamental motif. Linen threads were used in the binding, and the book cover is made of wood lined with leather ornamented with plant and geometric motifs.
Dr Gawdat Gabra, former manager of the Coptic Museum and well-known Coptologist, carefully studied and revised the translation, which totally matched the Psalms of David.
The manuscript is showcased in a special hall—number 17—at the Coptic Museum where today it has a state-of-the-art system to keep a constant monitor on its temperature and humidity.