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Saving a treasured trove, ever so slowly

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.calendarlive.com/printedition/calendar/cl-et-sinai5feb05,0,2560768.story?coll=cl-calendar February 5, 2007 Saving a treasured trove, ever so slowly
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2007

      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."

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