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Monks in Egypt’s Lawless Sinai Hope t o Preserve an Ancient Library

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://world.time.com/2013/07/21/monks-in-egypts-lawless-sinai-hope-to-preserve-an-ancient-library/ Monks in EgyptÆs Lawless Sinai Hope to Preserve an Ancient
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 23, 2013

      Monks in Egypt’s Lawless Sinai Hope to Preserve an Ancient Library
      By Ladan Cher / Sinai Desert, Egypt July 21, 2013

      Just as they have done for 17 centuries, the Greek Orthodox monks of St.
      Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai desert and the local Jabaliya
      Bedouins worked together to protect the monastery when the 2011
      revolution thrust Egypt into a period of uncertainty. “There was a
      period in the early days of the Arab Spring when we had no idea what was
      going to happen,” says Father Justin, a monk who has lived at St.
      Catherine’s since 1996. Afraid they could be attacked by Islamic
      extremists or bandits in the relatively lawless expanse of desert, the
      25 monks put the monastery’s most valuable manuscripts in the building’s
      storage room. Their Bedouin friends, who live at the base of St.
      Catherine’s in a town of the same name, allegedly took up their weapons
      and guarded the perimeter.

      The community’s fears of an attack were not realized, but the monks
      decided they needed a new way to protect their treasured library from
      any future threats. Last year, they accelerated a program of digitally
      copying biblical scripts with the help of multispectral imaging
      specialists from around the world, while simultaneously renovating and
      modernizing the library itself. The Sinai library houses 1.8 million
      pages of script, including essential texts that document the early
      church. St. Catherine’s ranks high among the world’s preeminent
      Christian text collections: their Greek manuscripts are second in number
      only to the Vatican’s, and their hallmark Arabic and Turkish scrolls
      document the interaction between the monastery and the surrounding world
      of Islam over the centuries. The monastery’s project will create a
      digital library for scholars around the world. “The technology, the
      conservation — they are our protection. Many people are concerned about
      the safety of what we have here, so we have to make them sure that we
      are protecting our materials and appreciating our responsibility,” says
      Father Justin, the monastery’s librarian.

      (PHOTOS: Continuing Chaos in Tahrir Square)

      Security concerns are once again at the forefront after the July 3
      military ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi and the violence that
      came in the wake of the change in the country’s leadership. Two days
      after Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian army declared a state of emergency in
      Sinai after Islamist gunmen opened fire on the region’s el-Arish airport
      and several military checkpoints, killing several police officers and a
      soldier. St. Catherine’s is geographically vulnerable at the best of
      times, positioned as it is on a peninsula plagued by a security vacuum.
      Crimes like human trafficking and kidnappings along the Egypt-Israel
      border make Sinai one of Egypt’s most dangerous regions.

      Father Justin acknowledges that the conservation efforts have been
      inspired by neighborhood insecurity. “Libraries are precious places
      where you can store the past in the present, and we are treating what
      happened to Cairo” — the riots, looting and violence that surrounded the
      revolution — “as a reminder that libraries are vulnerable, and right now
      they are more vulnerable than ever,” he says, sitting in his no-frills
      office in front of a MacBook Pro. He politely steps out to a dark room
      every few minutes to turn the page of an ancient manuscript so that an
      imaging crew from Greece can scan the palimpsest.

      The two-plus years since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak
      have been unsettling for Egypt’s Christians, the majority of whom belong
      to the Coptic Church and account for a significant minority (up to 10%)
      of the country’s population. There have been violent clashes between
      Christians and Muslims, with deaths on both sides. St. Catherine’s has
      nevertheless maintained its track record of friendly relationships with
      its Muslim neighbors. The Greek Orthodox monks and the Jabaliya Bedouin
      tribe, who are the area’s majority residents, have shared land, food and
      friendly relations since the monastery was built centuries ago. The
      Jabaliya are believed to be descendants of the Byzantine soldiers who
      built the monastery in the 6th century, and many of them continue to
      guard the monastery as their own. “The monastery is a very special place
      for me and all Bedouins. It is a holy place for all religions. Our
      ancestors built St. Catherine’s,” explains Ramadan, 26, who has been a
      tour guide at the monastery since he was 15.

      Another Bedouin resident, Faraj, just out of Friday morning prayers at a
      nearby mosque, adds: “[The Jabaliya and the monks] have been here for so
      long that we have grown together. We’ve been through times when we had
      to share our food and gardens. We share everything, we always have.
      There is even a mosque on the monastery. We don’t use it often anymore
      because our population is too big now, but it is a still a symbol of our
      friendly relationship.”

      Eager to maintain similarly peaceful relations with all Egyptians, the
      monks hope their ongoing project will act as a reminder of the
      monastery’s historical bond with Egypt. “We have to present ourselves in
      a way to convince the Arabic-speaking world that we are a part of
      Egypt’s ancient history,” Father Justin says. In preserving their
      manuscripts, the monks of St. Catherine’s may also be preserving their
      way of life.

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