The Ahmanson Foundation Funds Project to Make Ancient Manuscripts Accessible

The Ahmanson Foundation has awarded a major grant to the UCLA Library to fund key aspects of the Sinai Library Digitization Project.  This major project – initiated by the fathers of St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai, Egypt, and made possible through the participation of the UCLA Library and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) – will create digital copies of some 1,100 rare and unique Syriac and Arabic manuscripts dating from the fourth to the seventeenth centuries.

A UNESCO World Heritage site located in a region of the Sinai Peninsula sacred to three world religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - St. Catherine’s Monastery houses a collection of ancient and medieval manuscripts second only to that of the Vatican Library. Access to these remarkable materials has often been difficult, and now all the more so due to security concerns in the Sinai Peninsula.

Photo of St. Catherine's monastery, showing ancient walls and surrounding hills.

“The manuscripts at St. Catherine’s are critical to our understanding of the history of the Middle East, and every effort must be made to digitally preserve them in this time of volatility. The Ahmanson Foundation’s visionary support honors the careful stewardship of St. Catherine’s Monastery over the centuries and ensures that these invaluable documents are not only accessible, but preserved in digital copies,” said UCLA University Librarian Ginny Steel.

“We are deeply grateful to The Ahmanson Foundation for its generous investment in this important project, and for its longstanding partnership with the UCLA Library,” Steel concluded.

“St. Catherine’s Monastery proposed a program to digitize its unparalleled manuscript collection, and an international team was assembled to help digitally preserve the ancient pages,” said Michael Phelps, EMEL director.  “EMEL is collaborating with the monastery to install world-class digitization systems, and the UCLA Library will host the images online on behalf of the monastery. The three-year project will digitize the monastery’s extensive collection of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.” 

Built in the sixth century, St. Catherine’s Monastery holds the oldest continually operating library in the world. The library’s manuscripts cover subjects ranging from history and philosophy to medicine and spirituality, making them of interest to scholars and learners across a wide range of disciplines. Among the monastery’s most important Syriac and Arabic manuscripts are a fifth century copy of the Gospels in Syriac; a Syriac copy of the Lives of Women Saints dated 779 CE; the Syriac version of the Apology of Aristides, of which the Greek original has been lost; and numerous Arabic manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, when Middle Eastern Christians first began to use Arabic as a literary language.

Just as the nineteenth-century discovery at St. Catherine’s of the Codex Sinaiticus – the oldest complete Bible (345 CE) – spurred new theological scholarship, this project will enable scholars to gain new insights and pose new lines of inquiry.

As one of the world’s leading research libraries, the UCLA Library maintains a research collection of record, making its materials accessible to a broad audience of students, scholars, researchers, and the public. Last year, more than twenty million people accessed the UCLA Library’s digital and online resources. By preserving global cultural heritage, the UCLA Library fuels the transfer of knowledge across generations and across the world.

The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) uses digital technologies to preserve and provide access to ancient and medieval manuscripts.  It specializes in the design of systems to support fragile manuscripts during digitization and in the recovery of text from damaged, deteriorated or erased manuscripts.