Ensuring the Survival of Endangered Heritage

FOR CENTURIES ST. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has carefully stewarded its extraordinary collection of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts, held in the oldest continually operating library in the world. Now a generous gift from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, is helping the UCLA Library preserve these rare and unique documents and make them accessible to scholars and the public.
A partnership of the monastery with the UCLA Library and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, the Sinai Library Digitization Project will make these invaluable manuscripts available for the first time in a searchable online database, while digitally preserving the fragile and at-risk original items. Arcadia’s support of the project is critical to protecting these endangered treasures and providing access to them to students and scholars at UCLA and around the world.
“We are pleased to support this work to digitize the Syriac and Arabic codices of St. Catherine’s Monastery library and make them freely available to people around the world. This project will open up new avenues of research and improve our understanding of the region’s history,” said Professor Peter Baldwin, co-founder of Arcadia.
Scholars from a range of disciplines believe that the manuscripts, which date from the fifth to 17th centuries, could enable them to gain new insights and pursue new lines of inquiry. Though the monastery’s remote location and the region’s volatile political climate have limited access to them in person, the desert location has preserved these remarkable items by limiting environmental variability that can damage fragile materials.
Manuscripts being digitized include a fifth-century copy of the Gospels in Syriac; a Syriac copy of the Lives of Women Saints dated 779 CE; and the Syriac version of the Apology of Aristides, of which the Greek original has been lost. Almost all of the Christian Arabic manuscripts that survive from the eighth to the 10th centuries have been preserved at St. Catherine’s.
“Scholars have told us that the texts at St. Catherine’s are essential to research in areas ranging from history to philosophy to our understanding of the modern Middle East,” said Ginny Steel, Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian, “and we know we must act quickly to preserve them.
“Arcadia’s unique mission combines a relentless dedication to preserving cultural heritage with an equally emphatic focus on making knowledge openly available to people anywhere. We are so grateful for Arcadia’s support.”
Arcadia has long been a supporter of the UCLA Library’s cultural heritage and open access efforts. A major gift has funded the Library’s International Digital Ephemera Project, which has enlisted partners around the world to collect documentation of current events reflected in Facebook postings, tweets, smartphone photos, and other informal ephemeral media; organize it; and make it available to the public. Institutions and organizations in Armenia, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, and South Africa participated in the project’s first phase.
Other Arcadia-funded Library initiatives include Collecting Los Angeles, which gathers, preserves, interprets, and makes accessible collections documenting the region’s remarkable multiplicity of cultures and at-risk hidden histories; and the Center for Primary Research and Training, which trains students in archival methods, hires them to work with special collections in their areas of interest in order to make materials accessible to users, and enables them to discover possible subjects for their theses and dissertations.