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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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.