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At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2004.03.04 NYT: March 4, 2004 At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life By SARAH GAUCH MOUNT SINAI, Egypt INSIDE the sixth-century Monastery of St.
    Message 1 of 3 , Mar 3, 2004
      2004.03.04 NYT:


      March 4, 2004
      At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life

      By SARAH GAUCH
       

      MOUNT SINAI, Egypt

      INSIDE the sixth-century Monastery of St. Catherine, with its small stone church, its rickety buildings covered in centuries' worth of white paint, where bearded monks wear black robes, the modern world seems terabytes away.

       But here at St. Catherine's, in the world's oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastic community, a Greek Orthodox monk from Texas is working with some of the world's highest-resolution digital technology to help preserve the monastery's 3,300 priceless and impressively intact ancient manuscripts.

       The monk, the Rev. Justin Sinaites, is well aware of this juxtaposition of old and new. "It's amazing to live in such an ancient institution and at the same time to be doing something so modern," said Father Justin, as he calls himself. In a remote setting with unreliable electricity and substandard communications, Father Justin, 54, works with an impressive assemblage of equipment including a digital camera that can create 75-megapixel images. (Typical consumer digitals capture around four megapixels.)

       "When you consider the conditions under which the St. Catherine's team is working, 75 megapixels is pretty amazing and would not have been possible only a few years ago,'' said Matt Gainer, the digital imaging director at the University of Southern California, home of the West Semitic Research project, which also uses the latest technology to photograph ancient texts.

       From March 23 to July 4, three manuscripts and 37 icons from St. Catherine's will be among the works featured in "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. A gallery for items from St. Catherine's will resemble the interior of the monastery's sixth-century basilica.

       The texts were selected from St. Catherine's collection of manuscripts, including some of the world's oldest Bibles, dating from the fifth century, and books in 11 languages, including Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian and Slavonic.

       As interest in access to the texts has grown, so has the impetus to take new measures to document and preserve them. Making digital copies for public use will help prevent regular handling of the originals while also providing insurance in case the originals are damaged or lost.

      That is where Father Justin comes in. Working in an eight-by-eight-foot plastic tent, he shoots images that practically replicate the originals, including the three manuscripts that will be on display at the Met, enabling scholars to see even the minutest details. (He will give a public presentation at the Met about his project on March 23.)

      The camera, made by the Swiss company Sinar, faces a specially designed cradle, a complicated contraption of aluminum bars and screws that supports the manuscripts' bindings without allowing the book to open more than 100 degrees. Two flashes with glass domes to remove harmful ultraviolet light stand on separate tripods on either side of the camera, and a computer screen and hard disk are nearby.

       Because of Sinai's insidious granite dust, air in the tent is constantly filtered. This dust "would reduce some of the equipment to a state of quite literally screeching inoperability in less than a year," David Cooper, a British expert in digitizing ancient manuscripts and an adviser on the St. Catherine's project, said by phone from his home in Henley-on-Thames, England.

       On a winter morning Father Justin was photographing a page of an 11th-century Book of Gospels with a painting of St. Luke, which will be displayed in the Met exhibition. The book is a 548-page volume with delicate Greek characters and a discolored leather binding.

       Father Justin centers the manuscript page that has appeared on the computer screen, then clicks the mouse. The two flashes pop four times with a quick blast of light. There is a soft "eeh" sound as the camera moves automatically to additional positions. Father Justin then clicks on the Stitch command, and the computer joins the four quadrants of four exposures each into a 20-megapixel image - roughly comparable, some experts say, to high-resolution 35-millimeter color film, and perhaps better.

      The multiple exposures, along with the incremental movement of the camera, are what create such high-resolution images. For the most detailed image, the Sinar can take as many as 16 shots per quadrant for a total of 64 exposures and a resolution of 75 megapixels. The resulting image is a digital file of 450 megabytes - nearly the hard-disk space required, for example, for installation of the entire
      Microsoft Office suite.

       In a 64-exposure image of a 10th-century manuscript of the Gospels, written in gold leaf, the luster on the Greek letters seems as realistic as if one were viewing the actual book, and in a close-up the uneven texture of the gold leaf is crystal clear.

       Working alone, day and night, Father Justin's job requires meticulous attention to detail, but it may also seem mind-numbing. "This is a job for a monk," he said, smiling, "because it's this incredible combination of monotony and attentiveness. It's like driving: very boring, but at the same time you have to be very alert."

       Born in 1949 in El Paso, Father Justin grew up in a Baptist family that worked in religious-book publishing. He joined them during summer vacations, gradually learning about computers. While at the University of Texas, he developed a passion for Byzantine history, and at 22 joined the Greek Orthodox Church. He entered a monastery in Brookline, Mass., in 1974 and was put in charge of publishing the monastery's books and periodicals, honing his computer skills.

       In 1996 Father Justin left the Brookline monastery and showed up unannounced at St. Catherine's with all his belongings to live an isolated, spiritual existence, immersed in Byzantine history. He also happened to arrive just as St. Catherine's was starting its digitization program. "You can see it as an amazing coincidence or you can see it at a deeper level," said Father Justin, one of only two non-Greeks among the 25 monks here.

       Because St. Catherine's is so remote, the monastery's abbot, Archbishop Damianos Sinaites (Sinaites, Greek for "of Sinai," is the name taken by all monks at the monastery) has encouraged the digitization project as a way to share the manuscripts with scholars while also preserving them. At a cost of around $50,000, donated by European and American institutions and individuals, digitizing the manuscripts is part of a comprehensive conservation program that involves conservators' approving all manuscripts before they are photographed. Eventually some of the work may also be put online.

       After a few years with less sophisticated equipment and a faulty cradle, the Sinar camera and plastic tent arrived in September 2002. At the time the new Sinar 23 was state-of-the-art, and few institutions were using it. Since then Sinar, together with
      Eastman Kodak, has developed the Sinar 54, whose 64-exposure image is 275 megapixels.

       The ultimate goal of St. Catherine's digitization project is to photograph all 1.8 million pages in the monastery's manuscript collection. But with Father Justin working alone, that will not be accomplished in his lifetime. "The product is good, but the rate of progress is glacial," Mr. Cooper said. "The equipment could become outdated before it's done very much."

       There are plans to finish digitizing St. Catherine's manuscripts in 10 years, but those efforts will require money and high-tech experts willing to live at an isolated monastery, two things in short supply.
       
      Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
    • Bill Samsonoff
      The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/04/technology/circuits/04monk.html At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life By SARAH GAUCH
      Message 2 of 3 , Mar 4, 2004
        The New York Times
        http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/04/technology/circuits/04monk.html

        At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life
        By SARAH GAUCH

        Published: March 4, 2004

        OUNT SINAI, Egypt

        INSIDE the sixth-century Monastery of St. Catherine, with its small stone church, its rickety buildings covered in centuries' worth of white paint, where bearded monks wear black robes, the modern world seems terabytes away.

        But here at St. Catherine's, in the world's oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastic community, a Greek Orthodox monk from Texas is working with some of the world's highest-resolution digital technology to help preserve the monastery's 3,300 priceless and impressively intact ancient manuscripts.

        The monk, the Rev. Justin Sinaites, is well aware of this juxtaposition of old and new. "It's amazing to live in such an ancient institution and at the same time to be doing something so modern," said Father Justin, as he calls himself. In a remote setting with unreliable electricity and substandard communications, Father Justin, 54, works with an impressive assemblage of equipment including a digital camera that can create 75-megapixel images. (Typical consumer digitals capture around four megapixels.)

        "When you consider the conditions under which the St. Catherine's team is working, 75 megapixels is pretty amazing and would not have been possible only a few years ago,'' said Matt Gainer, the digital imaging director at the University of Southern California, home of the West Semitic Research project, which also uses the latest technology to photograph ancient texts.

        From March 23 to July 4, three manuscripts and 37 icons from St. Catherine's will be among the works featured in "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. A gallery for items from St. Catherine's will resemble the interior of the monastery's sixth-century basilica.

        The texts were selected from St. Catherine's collection of manuscripts, including some of the world's oldest Bibles, dating from the fifth century, and books in 11 languages, including Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian and Slavonic.

        As interest in access to the texts has grown, so has the impetus to take new measures to document and preserve them. Making digital copies for public use will help prevent regular handling of the originals while also providing insurance in case the originals are damaged or lost.

        That is where Father Justin comes in. Working in an eight-by-eight-foot plastic tent, he shoots images that practically replicate the originals, including the three manuscripts that will be on display at the Met, enabling scholars to see even the minutest details. (He will give a public presentation at the Met about his project on March 23.)

        The camera, made by the Swiss company Sinar, faces a specially designed cradle, a complicated contraption of aluminum bars and screws that supports the manuscripts' bindings without allowing the book to open more than 100 degrees. Two flashes with glass domes to remove harmful ultraviolet light stand on separate tripods on either side of the camera, and a computer screen and hard disk are nearby.

        Because of Sinai's insidious granite dust, air in the tent is constantly filtered. This dust "would reduce some of the equipment to a state of quite literally screeching inoperability in less than a year," David Cooper, a British expert in digitizing ancient manuscripts and an adviser on the St. Catherine's project, said by phone from his home in Henley-on-Thames, England.

        On a winter morning Father Justin was photographing a page of an 11th-century Book of Gospels with a painting of St. Luke, which will be displayed in the Met exhibition. The book is a 548-page volume with delicate Greek characters and a discolored leather binding.

        Father Justin centers the manuscript page that has appeared on the computer screen, then clicks the mouse. The two flashes pop four times with a quick blast of light. There is a soft "eeh" sound as the camera moves automatically to additional positions. Father Justin then clicks on the Stitch command, and the computer joins the four quadrants of four exposures each into a 20-megapixel image - roughly comparable, some experts say, to high-resolution 35-millimeter color film, and perhaps better.

        The multiple exposures, along with the incremental movement of the camera, are what create such high-resolution images. For the most detailed image, the Sinar can take as many as 16 shots per quadrant for a total of 64 exposures and a resolution of 75 megapixels. The resulting image is a digital file of 450 megabytes - nearly the hard-disk space required, for example, for installation of the entire Microsoft Office suite.

        In a 64-exposure image of a 10th-century manuscript of the Gospels, written in gold leaf, the luster on the Greek letters seems as realistic as if one were viewing the actual book, and in a close-up the uneven texture of the gold leaf is crystal clear.

        Working alone, day and night, Father Justin's job requires meticulous attention to detail, but it may also seem mind-numbing. "This is a job for a monk," he said, smiling, "because it's this incredible combination of monotony and attentiveness. It's like driving: very boring, but at the same time you have to be very alert."

        Born in 1949 in El Paso, Father Justin grew up in a Baptist family that worked in religious-book publishing. He joined them during summer vacations, gradually learning about computers. While at the University of Texas, he developed a passion for Byzantine history, and at 22 joined the Greek Orthodox Church. He entered a monastery in Brookline, Mass., in 1974 and was put in charge of publishing the monastery's books and periodicals, honing his computer skills.

        In 1996 Father Justin left the Brookline monastery and showed up unannounced at St. Catherine's with all his belongings to live an isolated, spiritual existence, immersed in Byzantine history. He also happened to arrive just as St. Catherine's was starting its digitization program. "You can see it as an amazing coincidence or you can see it at a deeper level," said Father Justin, one of only two non-Greeks among the 25 monks here.

        Because St. Catherine's is so remote, the monastery's abbot, Archbishop Damianos Sinaites (Sinaites, Greek for "of Sinai," is the name taken by all monks at the monastery) has encouraged the digitization project as a way to share the manuscripts with scholars while also preserving them. At a cost of around $50,000, donated by European and American institutions and individuals, digitizing the manuscripts is part of a comprehensive conservation program that involves conservators' approving all manuscripts before they are photographed. Eventually some of the work may also be put online.

        After a few years with less sophisticated equipment and a faulty cradle, the Sinar camera and plastic tent arrived in September 2002. At the time the new Sinar 23 was state-of-the-art, and few institutions were using it. Since then Sinar, together with Eastman Kodak, has developed the Sinar 54, whose 64-exposure image is 275 megapixels.

        The ultimate goal of St. Catherine's digitization project is to photograph all 1.8 million pages in the monastery's manuscript collection. But with Father Justin working alone, that will not be accomplished in his lifetime. "The product is good, but the rate of progress is glacial," Mr. Cooper said. "The equipment could become outdated before it's done very much."

        There are plans to finish digitizing St. Catherine's manuscripts in 10 years, but those efforts will require money and high-tech experts willing to live at an isolated monastery, two things in short supply.
      • Bill Samsonoff
        NYTimes.com Article: This article from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by samsonw2000@yahoo.com. At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life March 4,
        Message 3 of 3 , Mar 7, 2004
           NYTimes.com Article:

          This article from NYTimes.com
          has been sent to you by samsonw2000@....


          At a Mountain Monastery, Old Texts Gain Digital Life

          March 4, 2004
           By SARAH GAUCH

          MOUNT SINAI, Egypt

          INSIDE the sixth-century Monastery of St. Catherine, with
          its small stone church, its rickety buildings covered in
          centuries' worth of white paint, where bearded monks wear
          black robes, the modern world seems terabytes away.

          But here at St. Catherine's, in the world's oldest
          continuously inhabited Christian monastic community, a
          Greek Orthodox monk from Texas is working with some of the
          world's highest-resolution digital technology to help
          preserve the monastery's 3,300 priceless and impressively
          intact ancient manuscripts.

          The monk, the Rev. Justin Sinaites, is well aware of this
          juxtaposition of old and new. "It's amazing to live in such
          an ancient institution and at the same time to be doing
          something so modern," said Father Justin, as he calls
          himself. In a remote setting with unreliable electricity
          and substandard communications, Father Justin, 54, works
          with an impressive assemblage of equipment including a
          digital camera that can create 75-megapixel images.
          (Typical consumer digitals capture around four megapixels.)


          "When you consider the conditions under which the St.
          Catherine's team is working, 75 megapixels is pretty
          amazing and would not have been possible only a few years
          ago,'' said Matt Gainer, the digital imaging director at
          the University of Southern California, home of the West
          Semitic Research project, which also uses the latest
          technology to photograph ancient texts.

          From March 23 to July 4, three manuscripts and 37 icons
          from St. Catherine's will be among the works featured in
          "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," an exhibition at
          the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. A gallery for
          items from St. Catherine's will resemble the interior of
          the monastery's sixth-century basilica.

          The texts were selected from St. Catherine's collection of
          manuscripts, including some of the world's oldest Bibles,
          dating from the fifth century, and books in 11 languages,
          including Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian and Slavonic.

          As interest in access to the texts has grown, so has the
          impetus to take new measures to document and preserve them.
          Making digital copies for public use will help prevent
          regular handling of the originals while also providing
          insurance in case the originals are damaged or lost.

          That is where Father Justin comes in. Working in an
          eight-by-eight-foot plastic tent, he shoots images that
          practically replicate the originals, including the three
          manuscripts that will be on display at the Met, enabling
          scholars to see even the minutest details. (He will give a
          public presentation at the Met about his project on March
          23.)

          The camera, made by the Swiss company Sinar, faces a
          specially designed cradle, a complicated contraption of
          aluminum bars and screws that supports the manuscripts'
          bindings without allowing the book to open more than 100
          degrees. Two flashes with glass domes to remove harmful
          ultraviolet light stand on separate tripods on either side
          of the camera, and a computer screen and hard disk are
          nearby.

          Because of Sinai's insidious granite dust, air in the tent
          is constantly filtered. This dust "would reduce some of the
          equipment to a state of quite literally screeching
          inoperability in less than a year," David Cooper, a British
          expert in digitizing ancient manuscripts and an adviser on
          the St. Catherine's project, said by phone from his home in
          Henley-on-Thames, England.

          On a winter morning Father Justin was photographing a page
          of an 11th-century Book of Gospels with a painting of St.
          Luke, which will be displayed in the Met exhibition. The
          book is a 548-page volume with delicate Greek characters
          and a discolored leather binding.

          Father Justin centers the manuscript page that has appeared
          on the computer screen, then clicks the mouse. The two
          flashes pop four times with a quick blast of light. There
          is a soft "eeh" sound as the camera moves automatically to
          additional positions. Father Justin then clicks on the
          Stitch command, and the computer joins the four quadrants
          of four exposures each into a 20-megapixel image - roughly
          comparable, some experts say, to high-resolution
          35-millimeter color film, and perhaps better.

          The multiple exposures, along with the incremental movement
          of the camera, are what create such high-resolution images.
          For the most detailed image, the Sinar can take as many as
          16 shots per quadrant for a total of 64 exposures and a
          resolution of 75 megapixels. The resulting image is a
          digital file of 450 megabytes - nearly the hard-disk space
          required, for example, for installation of the entire
          Microsoft Office suite.

          In a 64-exposure image of a 10th-century manuscript of the
          Gospels, written in gold leaf, the luster on the Greek
          letters seems as realistic as if one were viewing the
          actual book, and in a close-up the uneven texture of the
          gold leaf is crystal clear.

          Working alone, day and night, Father Justin's job requires
          meticulous attention to detail, but it may also seem
          mind-numbing. "This is a job for a monk," he said, smiling,
          "because it's this incredible combination of monotony and
          attentiveness. It's like driving: very boring, but at the
          same time you have to be very alert."

          Born in 1949 in El Paso, Father Justin grew up in a Baptist
          family that worked in religious-book publishing. He joined
          them during summer vacations, gradually learning about
          computers. While at the University of Texas, he developed a
          passion for Byzantine history, and at 22 joined the Greek
          Orthodox Church. He entered a monastery in Brookline,
          Mass., in 1974 and was put in charge of publishing the
          monastery's books and periodicals, honing his computer
          skills.

          In 1996 Father Justin left the Brookline monastery and
          showed up unannounced at St. Catherine's with all his
          belongings to live an isolated, spiritual existence,
          immersed in Byzantine history. He also happened to arrive
          just as St. Catherine's was starting its digitization
          program. "You can see it as an amazing coincidence or you
          can see it at a deeper level," said Father Justin, one of
          only two non-Greeks among the 25 monks here.

          Because St. Catherine's is so remote, the monastery's
          abbot, Archbishop Damianos Sinaites (Sinaites, Greek for
          "of Sinai," is the name taken by all monks at the
          monastery) has encouraged the digitization project as a way
          to share the manuscripts with scholars while also
          preserving them. At a cost of around $50,000, donated by
          European and American institutions and individuals,
          digitizing the manuscripts is part of a comprehensive
          conservation program that involves conservators' approving
          all manuscripts before they are photographed. Eventually
          some of the work may also be put online.

          After a few years with less sophisticated equipment and a
          faulty cradle, the Sinar camera and plastic tent arrived in
          September 2002. At the time the new Sinar 23 was
          state-of-the-art, and few institutions were using it. Since
          then Sinar, together with Eastman Kodak, has developed the
          Sinar 54, whose 64-exposure image is 275 megapixels.

          The ultimate goal of St. Catherine's digitization project
          is to photograph all 1.8 million pages in the monastery's
          manuscript collection. But with Father Justin working
          alone, that will not be accomplished in his lifetime. "The
          product is good, but the rate of progress is glacial," Mr.
          Cooper said. "The equipment could become outdated before
          it's done very much."

          There are plans to finish digitizing St. Catherine's
          manuscripts in 10 years, but those efforts will require
          money and high-tech experts willing to live at an isolated
          monastery, two things in short supply.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/04/technology/circuits/04monk.html?ex=1079435500&ei=1&en=93a7968e7ffb658d
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