Ahmanson Grant Broadens Access to Ancient Manuscripts

Digital copierWith generous funding from the Ahmanson Foundation, the UCLA Library has begun a project that will open a remote monastery’s treasured ancient manuscripts to the world.
The Sinai Library Digitization Project—initiated by the fathers of St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai, Egypt, in partnership with 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 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.
“The manuscripts at St. Catherine’s Monastery are critical to understanding the history of the Middle East, and the Ahmanson Foundation’s visionary support honors the monks’ careful stewardship over the centuries,” said UCLA University Librarian Ginny Steel. “We are deeply grateful to the foundation for ensuring that these invaluable documents are not only accessible, but preserved in digital copies and for its longstanding partnership with the UCLA Library.”
Built in the sixth century, St. Catherine’s Monastery is home to 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.
“The library of St. Catherine’s Monastery holds unbelievable treasures of knowledge,” said Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and faculty director of the Center for Digital Humanities. “Especially in the current climate, in which political and religious instability threatens not only people’s lives but irreplaceable cultural heritage, the digitization of these ancient manuscripts is a matter of extreme urgency. Digitizing and housing these invaluable resources long-term in the Digital Library also provides access to the manuscripts for researchers and students who couldn’t otherwise study this material.”
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.
An international team has been assembled for the three-year project. EMEL is working with the monastery to install world-class digitization systems, and the UCLA Library will host the images online on behalf of the monastery.
Just as the nineteenth-century discovery at St. Catherine’s of perhaps the world’s oldest Bible (345 CE), the Codex Sinaiticus, spurred new theological scholarship, this project will enable scholars to gain new insights and pose new lines of inquiry.