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Palimpsest

Codex syriacus

In the Sacred Sacristy of the Monastery of St Catherine lies a dog eared volume, dating back to the year AD 697. Its well thumbed pages attest to its popularity amongst the monks of the Monastery who found edification and instruction in its lives of the female saints, including not only pious stories of the Blessed Eugenia, Irene and Barbara, but also more racy tales of the licentious behaviour, conversions and martyrdoms of Pelagia, Harlot of Antioch.

The text is written in Syriac, the common language of Christians in the Middle East until it was replaced by Arabic. Jesus, himself, would have spoken a dialect of Syriac known as Aramaic. With the Islamic invasions of the early 7th Century, the monastery was severed from the Greek speaking centre of Constantinople and became dependent on the Christian communities of the Middle East. Icons in the monastery dating from this period  show the influence of workshops in Palestine and Syria, while the library is richly endowed with Syriac texts.

But a deeper history lies hidden within the ancient volume. Under the strokes and flourishes of the Syriac letters can be discerned the faded outlines of another text, also written in Syriac. Such a layered text reveals a palimpsest in which the valuable vellum of a parchment has been reused for a later text by rubbing out an earlier one. With time, however, the former text reappears, a ghostly reminder of an earlier age. In this case, the underlying text proved to be a 5th Century translation of the Gospels into Syriac. The interest of the translation is that it appears to have been made from a set of gospels dated by scholars back to the early 2nd Century, one of the earliest testimonies to a time only a few generations after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Its discovery is attributed to two doughty ladies from Scotland, the twins Agnes and Margaret Smith, born in Irvine, a quiet port town on the Ayrshire coast. On the death of their father, they had come into a large inheritance which allowed them to pursue their adventurous natures. They were already fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish, and their horizons and ambitions were extending beyond the confines of Kilbarchan, a small village close to Glasgow to which there father had recently brought them. Without a male chaperone, the plucky ladies journeyed to Egypt and sailed down the Nile, gaining experience in how to deal with crafty dragomen. After studying ancient and modern Greek, they explored Greece and Cyprus and familiarised themselves with Orthodox monasteries. They left marriage to middle age and both found themselves widowed within three years of their marriage vows. But Agnes had married into the Cambridge intellectual elite, and both were now settled in the town. They learnt Hebrew and Syriac and became familiar with the scholarly debate that was throwing doubt on the authenticity of their beloved bible. They resolved to travel once more to Egypt, this time to visit the Monastery of St Catherine where they would surely find ancient manuscripts to confound the sceptics and atheists

They had been brought up as staunch Presbyterians and had little time for the elaborate mystification of the Orthodox liturgy, the cult of relics or the veneration of saints. For them the bible sufficed for both inspiration and instruction. It wasn’t the bones of St Catherine that brought them to the monastery, nor the blazing mosaic of the Transfiguration, but the library with its incomparable collection of early manuscripts, the finest outside the Vatican. It had been only a few years before that von Tischendorf had discovered a Greek bible from the 4th Century, the earliest yet found. And it was here that their good friend, Rendel Harris, had discovered the only extant copy of “The Apology of Aristides”, a defence of Christianity made in the time of the Emperor Hadrian and therefore one of the earliest apologias for the Christian faith.

It took them nine days to travel across the Sinai desert, with one day for  rest on the Sabbath. They had seven camels carrying tents along with provisions for 40 days, including cages of chickens, turkeys and doves. When they arrived at the monastery they quickly gained the confidence of the monks, thanks as much to their fluent Greek as their letters of introduction from Cambridge friends. They soon uncovered a stash of Syriac manuscripts and were quick to identify the palimpsest. They had been persuaded to bring along a camera and assiduously photographed every page, easing apart the stuck pages with the steam from their kettle. But when they got back to Cambridge they discovered that their photos were not good enough to elucidate the hidden text. They returned a few months later with academics from Cambridge and spent a month painstakingly tracing every letter. Rivalry soon soured relationships with the other academics, but it was Agnes who eventually published the definitive edition of what became known as the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus, and it was she who eventually furnished an English translation.

With interest in ancient manuscripts growing, supply met demand and an increasing number of codices and parchments were turning up in Cairo and Jerusalem, peddled by unscrupulous dealers who were quite happy to tear apart an ancient book to sell off the pages one by one. It was an urgent matter that as much of this trade as possible be captured for serious academic research, and it was for this purpose that the twins travelled once again to Cairo. Here they retrieved an ancient Syriac translation of the Book of Maccabees that they knew to have been purloined from the Monastery of St Catherine. But it was amongst the scraps and shreds of manuscripts that they garnered on a second trip that was to lead to their next significant discovery. They invited a rabbinical scholar, Solomon Schechter, to check the Hebrew finds and he identified a scrap from the Book of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a work whose very existence had been in doubt. Only days later, more pages turned up, collected from Cairo by a Professor of Assyriology at the University. It was too much of a coincidence and it put Schechter onto a trail that led to the discovery of the greatest horde of Medieval Jewish manuscripts ever discovered, holed up in the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in Fustat, now known as Old Cairo. 

At a time when ladies were not allowed to study for degrees at the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, these two ladies with their strong Glasgow brogues and Presbyterian convictions captured the respect of eminent scholars across the rest of Europe. It was Germany that first honoured them, with honorary degrees from Heidelberg and Halle-Wittenberg. Ireland was to follow with a degree from Trinity College, Dublin. But when the question was raised at a meeting of the university Senate in 1896 of whether Cambridge should offer degrees to women, the motion was defeated by 1,713 votes to 662. In defiance of the sexist environment, the two ladies went ahead and founded a new Presbyterian college in Cambridge, Westminster College, now a centre for learning within the United Reformed Church.

The story of the sisters has been recently published in a lively account in “Sisters of Sinai” by Janet Soskice, Reader in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge.