The Sisters of Sinai

How a pair of wealthy identical twins made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history.

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Margaret and Agnes Smith were identical twin sisters born in Scotland in the mid-19th century. They suffered tragedy early on when their mother died two weeks after giving birth; their father died when they were just twenty-three, leaving them wealthy but alone in the world.

How Margaret and Agnes made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history is the subject of The Sisters of Sinai, the latest book by author Janet Soskice, a fellow of Jesus College at Cambridge University. She recounts how the intrepid women found and deciphered one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels – written in ancient Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic, which was the native language of Jesus.

You needn’t follow a particular religion to become engrossed in this enthralling narrative. “The Sisters of Sinai” is a tale of grand adventure and far-flung travels, and it proves appealing even on that level. Soskice is so adept at making a rarefied subject accessible and vivid that the narrative seems almost cinematic. If the heroines hadn’t been identical twins, in a film adaptation Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith would be brilliantly cast in the lead roles.

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Margaret and Agnes were well educated, thanks to their austere father’s belief that they should have the same rigorous education as boys did. They mastered French, Spanish, Italian and German early on, and as a reward they were treated to a visit to each foreign country whose language they’d learned.

The sisters were delightfully eccentric; while living in Cambridge, England, “they had astonished their neighbours by taking exercise on parallel bars in their back garden—in their bloomers,” Soskice writes. They also bought one of the first motor-cars in Cambridge, which made them the source of much gossip. They refused to succumb to the typical habits of women of their class, “flitting about, gaily ornamented, from luncheons to teas, from dinner parties to balls with no fixity of purpose.” Instead, they devoted themselves to exercise, teaching Sunday School, volunteering in their church soup kitchen, and their avid intellectual pursuits.

Although they found happy marriages in midlife, both husbands died just a few years after they’d been married – a “cruel fate,” as Soskice writes, leaving the sisters with only each other yet again. As always, in periods of deep mourning, travel was their primary means of consolation. (Soon after their father died in 1866, the twins set off for Egypt.)

Their trip in 1892 to the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai was transformative. It was also dangerous: a nine-day caravan across the Sinai peninsula by camel, sleeping in tents, with the threat of fierce sandstorms, being kidnapped, and contracting a potentially fatal disease. Yet the only complaint Agnes recorded in her diary of the journey was that their attempts “to read the Psalms in Hebrew while riding were frustrated by the rolling gait of the camels.”

The women were keenly interested in ancient biblical manuscripts (and Agnes’ husband had been a scholar of Jewish and early Christian archaeology). With the help of a generous Quaker scholar who was intrigued by these audacious Scottish sisters – and who remained a steadfast supporter – Margaret and Agnes learned how to use camera equipment so they could photograph any important discoveries for later study. He also told them of a “dark cupboard” beneath the archbishops’ rooms at the library that contained chests of Syriac manuscripts – possibly some of the earliest texts of Christianity. Agnes had recently steeped herself in studying Syriac, in preparation for what she might find, and Margaret learned the language later on.

It was in that neglected cupboard that the women found a palimpsest: beneath a manuscript on the lives of women saints was the “yellowish-red underwriting” of the four Gospels, which they had to steam apart with a tea-kettle. The texts were small – just 8-5/8 by 6-1/4” – and nearly impossible to decipher. Agnes noted that some delicate pages “could only be discerned by letting the noon-day sunlight shine through,” to fully reveal their marks.

Despite this revelatory find, the painstaking work of transcription and translation had just begun, and Margaret and Agnes lacked sufficient knowledge to take on the entire project alone. Along with some Cambridge scholars, they toiled away at their task, eventually learning that this text dated to the late second century, which put it “very near the fountainhead of early Christianity,” Soskice writes. (The twins ended up making four trips to Sinai in five years.)

Soskice chronicles the sometimes fraught relationship between the Sinai monks and the group of ambitious, visiting Brits, who “wanted to see the books – but not to venerate them.” She also follows the ensuing high drama: academic suspicion, resentment, and envy, as well as wrangling for control of the manuscript; and controversy surrounding the fact that two obscure middle-aged women had found such a monumental treasure – one that had eluded previous scholars (and men, no less).

Though initially attacked for their “heretical” translation, the twins were ultimately celebrated for their accomplishments. In Cambridge, they hosted wonderful dinner parties, socializing with Charles Darwin’s sister and African explorers. They embarked on new careers, taking on speaking engagements and further travels to the Middle East, passionately collecting and studying other ancient manuscripts.

Agnes died in 1926 at age 83, outliving her sister by six years. Thanks to Soskice’s compelling, well-researched book, these extraordinary women have been given the tribute they deserve.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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