Deir al-Surian: Saving ancient Christian manuscripts in Egypt

For twenty years now, an Anglo-Egyptian foundation has been working to preserve and restore one of the most prestigious collections of ancient manuscripts, which contain Christian texts of exceptional historical value that were secretly preserved for centuries.

By Jean Charles Putzolu

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

In fact, St. Mary Deipara is one of the four monasteries that survived from among the six hundred or so that existed at the time, built between the third and sixth centuries.

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.

View of the Deir al-Surian monastery (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)
View of the Deir al-Surian monastery (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)

Three Syrian monks, Matthew, Abraham and Theodore, were responsible for establishing the first library of Christian manuscripts in the 9th century. In the 10th century, it was enriched with two hundred and fifty manuscripts that the then-abbot, Moses of Nisibis, had brought back from a five-year journey to Baghdad.

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.

Exceptional unique manuscripts, long kept secret, even though in the 18th and 19th centuries some works were taken away by travelers and are now divided between the Vatican Library—offered to Pope Clement XI—and the British Library.

To stop the hemorrhaging, 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.

Manuscripts preserved in the Vatican Library

Manuscript fragments under the floor

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. Some of these fragments are in a sorry state after having spent centuries under the monks’ feet.

Abouna Bigoul is a librarian, so he knows the value of the volumes in the monastery's collection. Yet, he is not an expert and cannot restore these ancient pages and the precious texts they contain, which must absolutely be preserved from extinction.

So, the Orthodox priest wrote to Elisabeth Sobczynski, a curator in London: “Madam, we have discovered fragments of very ancient manuscripts in the rubble of a secret room whose floor has collapsed. The researchers working on the frescoes in our church gave me your name. Would you like to come and help us? I am only the librarian. I lack the expertise to know what to do.

Elizabeth read and re-read this message, surprised that the recipient's choice was her. She flew to Egypt and met the librarian in his desert monastery.

Conservation operation on a manuscript (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)
Conservation operation on a manuscript (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)

However, the monastic council was at first suspicious. Elisabeth waited patiently for several days without seeing a single book, until the librarian presented her with a huge set of keys on the fifth day.

Together, they walked to the library door. Abouna Bigoul broke the seal, the door opened, not without moving a cloud of dust, and Elisabeth discovered a long-hidden treasure: “It was a unique moment in my life," she will say later: "an emotion without equal."

One thousand two hundred volumes were displayed before her unbelieving eyes. One fragment certainly attracted her attention in 2005; carrying a date: "November 411".

It fit perfectly on the last page of a volume that had been taken to the British Library, a precious manuscript that contains Syriac texts from Greek antiquity. This last page reports a list of names of Christians persecuted and killed by a Persian king. This list was written on the indication of the Syriac Bishop Marutha, to honor the memory of the martyrs.

At the bottom of the page, on the fragment found at Deir al-Surian, he wrote his name and the date. This inscription makes this page the oldest accurately dated Christian text.

There are dozens of similar anecdotes to tell. The discovery of the manuscripts is in itself quite a story. What they contain tells our story. Everything must be done to save them.

The Levantine Foundation

Elisabeth Sobczynski has been spell-bound by the ancient collection. Yet, her means are limited. On her own, she can only feed her passion and curiosity. However, she would like this priceless literary and Christian heritage to be transmitted to future generations.

She finds it unthinkable to let one of the two oldest complete texts of the Gospel of John translated into the Coptic language still existing today to wither away.

In order to carry out a conservation campaign and train others in preservation techniques, it would be essential to raise funds. Elisabeth created The Levantine Foundation, and won the support of Britain’s Prince Charles. With donors expressing interest, the campaign got off to a running start.

The new library of Deir al-Surian (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)
The new library of Deir al-Surian (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)

To date, 130 manuscripts and 300 fragments have been carefully preserved, thanks in particular to the generosity of the British Council and the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has supported The Levantine Foundation over the past two years and enabled the conservation of 22 Codexes.

Even if not all the works require heavy preservation, hundreds of others will have to pass through the expert hands of the team of curators involved in the adventure.

Due of the pandemic, fundraising campaigns were suspended last year. They should resume in 2022. Elisabeth will have to reactivate donors to fund the next campaigns, and she says the pandemic will not stop her.

Elisabeth Sobczynski and the monastery librarian (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)
Elisabeth Sobczynski and the monastery librarian (photo: Angelica Tarnowska)

For future generations

One of the commitments made this year concerns the younger generations, and seeks to help them understand how history has reached us.

The Levantine Foundation has launched an educational program entitled "The Wonders of Writing", which explores the history of the making of ancient books or “Codex”.

The Foundation has produced a video, which can be viewed in full in English and Arabic, made for children ages 9 to 11. It is meant to serve as a resource for elementary school teachers in Egypt and elsewhere, and for those who run educational programs in museums and libraries.

The foundation aims to raise awareness of the historical importance of writing and to show the making of a simple notebook, using Coptic bookbinding techniques which served as the basis for bookmaking as early as the 1st century AD.

The wonders of writing

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01 May 2021, 08:51