In ancient monastery, a stunning library

Nestled at the foot of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine's Monastery has for centuries been almost inaccessible to the outside world. Only the most devout visited, undergoing a 10-day camel trek to reach it. So rare were deliveries of essential goods that the Greek monks there struggled daily to survive.

Built in 527 on the assumed site of the biblical burning bush, the fortress-like complex is the world's oldest continuously inhabited monastery: A Christian presence there can be traced back to the third century. Yet despite its isolated setting and the asceticism of its Orthodox monks, today the monastery is regarded as having one of the world's finest collections of manuscripts and icons.

The ancient library – containing 5,000 early printed books, 3,500 manuscripts, and 2,000 scrolls – is of an age and diversity that only the Vatican can equal. The monastery also owns some 2,000 icons, religious artifacts, and other curios, including a silver and enamel chalice from King Charles VI of France. This item was given to the monastery in 1411 and is so unusual that the Louvre Museum in Paris recently asked to borrow it for an exhibit.

The quality of the collection owes much to the arid mountain climate. The monastery's first printed editions of Plato and Homer, for example, look as if they have just come off the press; biblical fragments from the 4th century on seem untouched by passing centuries.

Today, this unique collection of religious and cultural works is being slowly opened to the public. Under the watchful eye of the monastery's Archbishop Damianos, St. Catherine's is participating in three projects that will make the collection more accessible.

The first stage has been to open a small, culturally rich museum inside the monastery walls. Known as the Sacred Sacristy, its nine rooms display some of the finest items of the collection: from Byzantine icons, including a 6th-century depiction of Christ that is linked to the monastery, and 9th-century parchments written in Syriac (a precursor to Arabic) to rare Slavonic prayer books and an illuminated copy of the Gospels from 995.

Having pride of place though, are fragments of one of the oldest surviving Bibles: the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th century. Placed in a special glass case, with fiber-optic lighting designed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the fragments serve as a reminder that St. Catherine's once possessed the entire manuscript. In the 19th century, however, a German academic persuaded the monks to lend him the Codex for research. It was never seen by the monks again. After passing through several eminent hands, it ended up at the British Museum. The pages currently on display were discovered in the north wall of the monastery in 1975.

Because the sacristy is small and accessible only to those who make the long trip to St. Catherine's, Archbishop Damianos is also raising funds for a research center on the Greek mainland. To be built on a site an hour's drive north of Athens, the center will house digital reproductions of the entire collection.

"Our goal is to digitally reproduce the entire library so everything will be available in duplicate in the study center," says Father Justin, the monastery's only American-born monk. "We also hope that the center will eventually send out CDs to scholars who need to access the texts for research purposes."

Work is also under way to produce the first computer catalog of the manuscripts and a catalog of the early printed books, dating from the earliest editions to 1600.

For an isolated religious community, the demands of the outside world have been great in recent years. Not only are scholars keen to access the collection, but a growing number of tourists are also dropping in. Each weekday morning, tour buses take the three-hour drive from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to Mt. Sinai. As many as 1,000 people visit in a single day.

For the 25 resident monks, however, communion with God remains paramount. "All of the manuscripts and icons and other ecclesiastical treasures here were created for use in the services, or to inspire the monks in their spiritual dedication," Father Justin says. "They remain in that context, which gives everything an added significance. It is still a living community, with the daily cycle of services, time for reading, and prayer."

Balancing devotion and self-denial with the demands of the modern world is the challenge for the monastery. But so far, there has been no upsetting St. Catherine's way of life, one that has stretched across the ages.

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