February 5, 2007
Saving a treasured trove, ever so slowly
Ancient manuscripts from Mt. Sinai move into the
digital age with the help of a Bedouin camel driver's son.
By Suzanne Muchnic, Times Staff Writer
SINAI, Egypt On a refreshingly cool morning,
before the sun drenches every exposed grain of
sand in this vast desert, Hemeid Sobhy sets out
on foot from the Bedouin village where he lives
with his parents and sisters. Neatly dressed in
jeans, sport shirt and sturdy sandals, he walks
40 minutes to the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine.
He passes through a narrow door in the
monastery's thick walls and makes his way past an
ancient church and a warren of buildings,
clustered along winding pathways. A stairway
takes him to the third floor of a relatively
modern structure along the monastery's south
wall, where he enters the library, greets a monk
in a long black robe and gets to work.
His office is an 8-foot-square, 8-foot-tall tent
of clear plastic sheeting stretched over a metal
frame. A filtering system keeps the air free from
dust. Erected in a small room at the end of the
cavernous library, the tent is equipped with a
computer, a large-format digital camera, two
flash units on tripods and a metal cradle
designed to hold fragile manuscripts safely in
place while they are photographed.
The setup could hardly seem more out of place at
the oldest continuously operating monastery in
Christendom. But St. Catherine's is entering the
Age of Technology with the help of Father
Justin Sinaites, a 57-year-old American monk from
El Paso, and Hemeid, the 23-year-old son of a
Bedouin camel driver. They are implementing a
digital photography project that will make
high-resolution images of the library's closely
guarded manuscripts available to scholars all over the world.
Consisting of 3,300 manuscripts in 11 languages
many of them richly illuminated in gold leaf and
bright, jewel-like colors the library's
collection is second in number and importance
only to the trove at the Vatican. With
manuscripts made as early as the 6th century, the
Sinai cache consists mainly of scriptures,
sermons and texts for religious services, but it
includes classical Greek literature and a few
medical texts with herbal remedies for various afflictions.
Today the object awaiting its close-up is a rare
Arabic manuscript of Christian gospels, written
on parchment in 897. A vacuum hose attached to
the cradle gently pulls back the open page. A
narrow piece of bone placed on the front of the
page, near the binding, helps to flatten the rumpled parchment.
Hemeid scrutinizes a video preview of the page on
the computer screen, centers the image, adjusts
the focus and clicks the mouse. The flash units,
covered with diffusers to remove harmful
ultraviolet light, pop four times as the camera
takes four pictures, each in a slightly different
position. Hemeid clicks a command that enables
the computer to merge the four exposures into a
single high-resolution digital photograph.
One more page down; hundreds of thousands to go.
"If you do the math, it's discouraging," says
Father Justin, who oversees the library. "There
are 1.8 million pages, not to mention the
manuscript fragments discovered in 1975, known as
the New Finds; the scrolls and the collection of
early printed books all in overwhelming
numbers. But each manuscript is the work of a
patient scribe working with difficult materials,
recording a text of importance. Each manuscript
is unique, and each is yet another facet of the
library of Sinai, contributing to our
understanding of the spiritual heritage that has been preserved here."
Protection in isolation
Lodged in a fortress-like complex at the foot of
precipitous mountains on a forbidding desert, St.
Catherine's has survived partly because of its
isolated location. The difficulty of getting
here, even now that paved roads bring busloads of
tourists, has protected the monastery and its
spectacular collections of manuscripts and
Byzantine icons, examples of which are on view
through March 4 in a landmark exhibition at the
J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
But remotely situated as it is, the monastery is
a Greek Orthodox oasis in Muslim territory. St.
Catherine's resides in a community that is also adjusting to modernity.
When Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the
monastery, in the 6th century, he moved about 200
families of Bedouin slaves from Alexandria and
the northern shore of Anatolia to guard and care
for it. Today their descendants, the Jebeliya
tribe of Sinai Bedouins, who are Muslims, offer
camel rides to visitors making the trek up Mt.
Sinai and provide the monastery with an essential
workforce. As the resident population of monks at
St. Catherine's has dwindled to 25, Bedouins have
continued to serve as guards, cooks, gardeners,
restaurant managers, storeroom supervisors and
shopkeepers. Their wages are low but so are
living expenses in Sinai, Father Justin says.
Hemeid's father, Sobhy Hemeid, worked at the
monastery's pharmacy until 1986, when he became a
camel driver. The young man's grandfather was
employed at St. Catherine's for 50 years, and
many of his relatives still tend the bookshop,
but he headed off to college in Cairo.
Overwhelmed by the city's noise, confusion and
pollution, he transferred to a university in much
quieter Ismailiya, where he studied accounting,
economics, management and computer science, and graduated in June 2005.
"When I was studying at the university, the
archbishop said I could work at the monastery,"
Hemeid says in carefully considered English. He
had thought he might work in a bank, but when he
didn't find a situation that suited him, he went
home and presented himself to Archbishop
Damianos. As abbot of St. Catherine's community
of monks, the archbishop is responsible for
day-to-day operations and outreach as well spiritual traditions.
Hemeid's timing was impeccable. Father Justin,
who arrived at the monastery in 1996, needed
help. Born into a Baptist family that published
religious books, he became fascinated with
Byzantine history as a student at the University
of Texas and joined the Greek Orthodox church. He
entered a monastery in Brookline, Mass., and took
charge of its publishing projects.
At St. Catherine's, he started making digital
images of the manuscripts when he was second in
command at the library. Saint Catherine
Foundation, a London-based charitable
organization devoted to supporting the library,
had allotted $10,000 to the project. Larger
grants from other sources had paid for necessary
equipment. The Flora Family Foundation in Menlo
Park, Calif., gave $150,000; Italian publishing
heir Leonardo Mondadori donated $35,000.
But after photographing some of the most
important manuscripts, Father Justin was
promoted. New responsibilities left little time
to continue the project. He had to facilitate
plans to renovate the library and conserve its
collections. On the rare occasions when
manuscripts from the collection are allowed to
travel, he accompanies them. And he is in demand
as a speaker. He will present a seminar on one of
the manuscripts in the Los Angeles exhibition
Tuesday at the Getty Center.
"When I asked for a helper, the monks' first
instinct was to bring people from Greece because
they know them, they trust them, they share the
same culture," says Father Justin, adding that he
and a British colleague are the only monks at the
monastery who are not Greek. "But then you have
the expense of transportation, wages, room and
board. And how long can you expect the person to
be here? So I told them, 'Get me a Bedouin who is
instinctively careful and I can teach him the
computer part.' They live here, we have known all
their relatives for generations, and there is no
thought about how long they can stay here."
When Hemeid applied for work at the monastery, he
knew nothing about the library.
"I did not decide to work there," he says. "The
Archbishop chose that place for me."
A quiet trailblazer who spends his spare time
listening to Arabic music while working on his
home computer, Hemeid has the dreams of many
young men. He wants to get married and have a
child. He hopes to have a car. But he is the
first person in his community to graduate from a
university and the first Bedouin to secure such a
rarefied position at the monastery.
By all accounts, he caught on quickly because of his experience with computers.
"He is a tremendous help," Father Justin says.
"He is very careful. When he sees something that
is not quite right, he asks me, instead of just
charging ahead. That's exactly what I want. Each
manuscript is unique and presents its own
demands. But there is a certain repetition once
things are set up. I compare it to driving. You
have to be alert, but there's a routine to it. I
think it takes a certain temperament. I think Hemeid has it."
Six months into his job, Hemeid seems to have
found a niche. He has no plans to leave the monastery or his village.
"I am so happy to have this job," he says. "I
feel that I have important work. I love it so much that I never get bored."
He isn't likely to run out of work, even if the
project is narrowed down considerably.
"Photographing the whole library is not a
realistic goal," Father Justin says. "But, as
with all collections, 90% of the users are
interested in 10% of the collection. The 10% that
is of the greatest interest is quite a reasonable goal."