Saving ancient Christian manuscripts in Egypt

A manuscript found at Deir al-Surian monastery in Egypt (Vatican News/Angelica Tarnowska)

For 20 years, an Anglo-Egyptian foundation has been working to preserve and restore one of the most prestigious collections of ancient manuscripts, including Christian texts of exceptional historical value that were secretly preserved for centuries. Source: Vatican News.

Deir al-Surian is one of the oldest monasteries known to the modern world, likely founded in the 6th century AD, although this is only a hypothesis common to several researchers.

Over the years, Deir al-Surian, located in the Nitrie desert, near Alexandria, in Lower Egypt, has been occupied by several monastic communities coming from the Levant and Ethiopia, but especially from Syria.

Three Syrian monks were responsible for establishing the first library of Christian manuscripts in the 9th century. Since then, the Deir al-Surian monastery has contained the oldest Christian writings in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopian. The library also houses the works of early Church Fathers, such as St John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa.

In the 18th and 19th centuries some works were taken away by travellers and are now divided between the Vatican Library and the British Library.

To stop the haemorrhaging, the monks of Deir al-Surian closed and sealed their library. It was ignored by the world for more than a century, until restoration work in the 1990s.

The monastery’s librarian, Abouna Bigoul, went to the “keep”, the square and fortified tower of the monastery, and discovered fragments of manuscripts under a floor that was collapsing during the renovation work.

He wrote to a London curator, Elizabeth Sobczynski, and invited her to inspect the desert monastery. Ms Sobczynski  created The Levantine Foundation to conserve the collection. To date, 130 manuscripts and 300 fragments have been carefully preserved.


Deir al-Surian: Saving ancient Christian manuscripts in Egypt (By Jean Charles Putzolu, Vatican News)

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