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Collection Manuscripts in St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

The Microfilming Projects at Mount Sinai and Jerusalem

Under the shadow of Gebel Musa in Sinai, which rises to the height of 7,500 feet above sea level, is the ancient Monastery of St. Catherine. This Greek Orthodox retreat nestles in the sandy wadi in grand isolation from the world, within the security of high, strong walls erected for its protection against Moslem attacks in former centuries. Since the triumphant days of the Holy Roman Empire, the Christian recluse has found his way hither in great numbers.

Today the monks of St. Catherine point out to the occasional visitor the still green Burning Bush and Rod of Aaron within their compound. In the Big Church, one of eighteen chapels within the walls, the most ancient portion is the Chapel of the Burning Bush where even today one must "put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." Here in this church, entered through sixth-century portals, the sacred liturgy is still performed daily in medieval setting as it has been for a millenium and a half.

From a ninth-century lectionary of the Gospels.

The Monastery became the abode of many influential leaders among the Fathers of the Christian church. In the sixth century the famous John of the Ladder wrote his well-known work in a nearby cave, and copies of this are still to be found amongst the manuscripts of the Monastery. Here are found also the works of Cyril of Alexandria, whose theology opposed that ofNestorius. Many of the monks in medieval times were industrious scribes, and not the least of these was Archbishop Arsenios who about A. D. 1290 signed a number of the Sinai manuscripts. Many of the codices were brought to Sinai by individual monks and later bequeathed to the Monastery.

Today there are 3,300 manuscripts at St. Catherine's in 12 languages, composing one of the largest manuscript libraries in the world. They date from the fifth century on down and in this field constitute one of the most significant collections of original research documents known to exist. Yet the monks themselves do not study or use them, and few scholars have ever seen them. They are not inaccessible, but it is extremely difficult to get to them. Through many centuries they have remained untouched except for occasional exploration.

It was in 1947 that a small expedition visited St. Catherine's Monastery and initiated a plan for a large-scale and thorough examination of this important library. The plan became in 1949 the first year's project of the new American Foundation for the Study of Man. Many other agencies collaborated in the undertaking which took on an international character. From the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem came three Americans to join the Field Director from the United States. From Belgium and Egypt came other specialists. From a score of institutions and scholars in a dozen countries came requests and counsel for the projected operation. Back of all this stood the Library of Congress, whose photographer and cameras would play a most important part, for a new feature in the 1949 Sinai expedition was the plan to record on microfilm a significant portion of this ancient library.

To accomplish such a task required a substantial organization and equipment such as had never before been assembled or even attempted. About twenty persons, each with his own special assignment, had to be brought to the expedition headquarters in Cairo, and this staff had to be repeatedly transported over the sandy tracks to the Monastery and maintained for a period of about six months. The large volume of equipment, most of which came from the United States, included four cars especially equipped for desert travel, two generators, a refrigerator, an expedition radio, many drums of fuel, medical and office supplies, and large quantities of food, besides cameras and film. Domestic establishments had to be set up in Cairo, at a camp-site at Abu Rudais on the Sinai coast, and at the Monastery.

From the Book of Job, eleventh-century Greek manuscript.

After many months of plans and preparations, the expedition was launched from Cairo on January 5, 1950. By motor convoy, the family of scholars was transported to their isolated labors at the Monastery. It was a difficult journey of two days broken by a night's rest at Abu Rudais. The second day of travel was the more precarious, plunging inland through the roadless wadis and twisting among the mountains, meanwhile climbing five thousand feet. This journey was to be made not once but repeatedly throughout the months. It was usual to stop for lunch at the lovely Oasis of Feran, and about four o'clock in the afternoon the sight of the Monastery would break upon us.

Tradition traces the origin of the Monastery to St. Catherine who became a Christian martyr in the fourth century. It is related that her remains were carried by angels to Gebel Katerina and there deposited on the highest peak in all of Sinai. Today her relics in the sanctuary of the Monastery church are greatly revered and only rarely displayed. The story of her life and the history of the Monastery are recorded in some of the manuscripts in the library.

The famous library itself, we found, was only recently established in modern fireproof quarters. It was clean and orderly and only the dry climate has been adverse to the preservation of so many parchment books whose leaves crackled loudly in handling. We were accorded full permission to work throughout the entire library and received friendly cooperation from Father Joachim, the Abbot, and his aides. Before the project ended the shelves had been combed thoroughly.

Even at the beginning of the work it was evident that time would limit the amount of microfilming to about half the contents of the library. This imposed upon us the task of selection. However, it was not deemed wise to select manuscripts solely on the basis of individual worth, and it was decided therefore that selection should follow categories delimiting blocks of material. The same criteria were applied to all the language groups. In such a monastic collection, it was natural that the topmost priority should be given to the Biblical manuscripts, of which every one was filmed regardless of date. These were especially required for the International New Testament Manuscripts Project, looking toward the publication of a critical apparatus for the Greek New Testament text. The second category included Biblical commentaries; and the third, writings of the Church Fathers, especially those of value to particular researches now current. Liturgical manuscripts were the most numerous of all, and representative manuscripts from each of the many liturgical types were chosen, including all those written before A. D. 1400. For the Byzan tinists special attention was given to musical manuscripts, in which the library is remarkably rich.

For paleographers all dated manuscripts up to A. D. 1600 were microfilmed. Hundreds of colophons were included in the routine operation, greatly enriching our sources of this type. Special requests were considered "musts" because they related to important researches already active. Every request from an institution or a scholar served as a guide to valuable selections in this vast library. Wherever miniatures were found they received special treatment under a 4" x 5" viewing camera. This operation resulted in 2,500 miniatures of which a large portion is new to scholarship. Manuscripts of secular content were found in variety and numbers, and these minority types were microfilmed completely. They include the fields of grammar and lexicography, medicine, law, history, geography, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and musical theory. They include the classical works of Homer, Euripides, Libanius, Plutarch, and others. As an over-all criterion all manuscripts written before 1600 were favored, but many later items also were selected

From 2,289 Greek manuscripts 1,073 were chosen. From 550 Arabic manuscripts 306 were selected. Of 257 Syriac manuscripts 159 were microfilmed. The smaller language groups were copied without omission: 90 Georgian, 41 Slavonic, 6 Ethiopic, and one each in Armenian, Latin, and Persian. A notable collection of firmans in Arabic and Turkish was completely copied, numbering 1,737 and dating from the earliest Arab period. Altogether about half of the great library was recorded on microfilm.

When we first approached the massive collection, we had some initial guidance from printed catalogs. The best of all was Gardthausen's, which was prepared in 1880 with brief descriptions of 1,223 selected Greek manuscripts.1 Of further assistance was Beneshevich who in 1917 published an additional 927 Greek items,2 but this catalog suffers from brevity and disorder. Mrs. Lewis had printed a checklist for the Syriac,3 and Mrs. Gibson a similar list for the Arabic,4 both of which are inadequate. Marr had described only selected Georgian manuscripts,5 and no guide whatever was available for the Slavonic and Ethiopic. There is no complete catalog of the manuscripts in the library itself but there is a partial one of the Greek manuscripts, which has been microfilmed. All these were available for our use and were helpful, but too great reliance upon them was to be avoided in the interests of an independent and complete exploration of the library.

The greatest treasure at St. Catherine's is the famous Codex Syriacus, for underneath its eighth-century Lives of Holy Women is to be found the text of the Four Gospels in Syriac written in the fifth century. From the sixth century there are two Syriac manuscripts of the Gospels and Epistles. The seventh century is represented by a Greek lectionary and five Syriac Biblical codices, while the eighth century yielded nineteen in Greek or Syriac. Here also are the earliest dated books in the library: Syriac copies of Mar Isaiah (A. D. 758) and Lives of Holy Women (A. D. 778). The ninth century is abundantly represented in each major group, and particularly by the earliest dated Arabic codex (a Psalter of A. D. 831), the earliest dated Greek codex (Homilies of Chrysostom written in A. D. 893), and the earliest dated Georgian codex (a Triodion of A. D. 852).

It was especially notable that many manuscripts in Greek or Arabic, particularly the latter, were written on paper as early as the tenth century. Indeed, one Arabic Psalter on paper was actually dated in 831. Another notable feature was the number of Greek-Arabic bilinguals, one of them an Evangelion on paper and dated in 995. The only Coptic text found was a bilingual Horologion, with Arabic, of the thirteenth century. There were found many palimpsests among Greek, Arabic, Syriac, and Georgian codices whose under writings may range from the fifth century on.

To find the New Testament text complete in one codex is quite rare, especially if the Apocalypse is included. At St. Catherine's we found and photographed 13 such manuscripts?most of them omitting the Apocalypse?dating from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. One of these included in its canon Third and Fourth Maccabees. Another, preceded by the Psalter, was written in 1242 and contained 27 miniatures. The earliest miniatures found were evangelist portraits in two ninth-century Evangelia. Numerous tenth-century miniatures were found in Gospel codices. Two Psalters, dated 1075 and 1275, also included a large number of miniatures. Probably the most famous Sinai manuscript with miniatures is the eleventh-century copy of Job in Greek, which exhibits 24 paintings. Certainly the most profusely illustrated codex is a Sacred History of the sixteenth century which has a gallery of 346 paintings. A curiosity is the complete Psalter of 151 Psalms, written in the fourteenth century on only six folios of paper. An object of pride is the "Golden Gospels" of the ninth century (though attributed to the era of Theodosius) written throughout in gold uncials. Some of the more important manuscripts have never appeared in any printed catalog because they had been held apart in the Monastery's Treasury.

Many of the bindings are very old, even original in the case of the ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts. Two were found with papyrus stiffening instead of boards under the leather. The Georgian collection preserved a large number of these ancient bindings, which are more than a thousand years old. In many instances, separated parts of manuscripts were identified in our editorial examination and reunited. In many other cases manuscripts were found in disorder and were rearranged before microfilming. Still others in disorder remained firmly bound, and though they could not be rearranged they were microfilmed in correct sequence. Some "lost" manuscripts were rediscovered, and other codices were treated and reconditioned. It was therefore a by-product of the expedition that the library we found was left in a better state upon our departure.


A similar expedition in Jerusalem had been undertaken in 1949 and resumed in 1950 after the work at Sinai was finished. The personnel was partly the same, including among others the same General Editor and the same photographer from the Library of Congress. The work here was done under the auspices of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The major objective was the notable library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and a secondary assignment was completed in the Armenian Patriarchate.

Although Jerusalem is not so difficult of access as Sinai, it was necessary to gather special equipment for the task. There is no electricity in the libraries, hence our own generator had to be transported from America and installed with the cameras. The work required the services of fifteen persons. In Jerusalem it was not necessary to set up an independent establishment, as expedition headquarters could be maintained in the American School.

The Greek Patriarchal Library is housed in a most modest structure, approached through an inner court of the Patriarchate. In fact the manuscripts themselves repose in a sixth-century Nestorian chapel. The collection is composite, having been brought together about 1880, and includes the former libraries of St. Saba, the Holy Sepulcher, the Holy Cross, and others. The ancient Monastery of St. Saba is set in the Judean hills west of the Dead Sea, and its most famous figure was John of Damascus whose writings are preserved in many copies now in Jerusalem.

The Patriarchal Library today contains 2,400 manuscripts, in eleven languages, dating from the ninth century on. Permission was granted to work through the entire collection, and a fine spirit of cooperation prevailed throughout our labors there. As at Sinai, so in Jerusalem we adopted the principle of selection and planned to microfilm about half the contents of the Library. The same criteria used at Sinai were applied in Jerusalem. Here too we had special requests from many scholars and research institutions, all of which were filled. From about 1,200 Greek manuscripts 679 were selected. Of the 161 Georgian 131 were microfilmed, and of the 50 Syriac 26 were copied. Smaller collections completely reproduced include 23 Slavonic and 21 Ethiopic manuscripts, as well as Turkish, Persian, Latin, and Armenian items. Altogether, 1,031 manuscripts were microfilmed, or almost half of the library.

Our best guide in Jerusalem for the Greek was the detailed catalog of Papa dopoulos-Kerameus.6 The late Robert P. Blake as a young man had cataloged the Georgian collection.7 Koikylides provided checklists for the Arabic,8 Syriac,9 and additional Greek codices.10 Fugitive lists of even the Slavonic11 and Ethiopic12 groups were found. Yet we did not place complete reliance upon these secondary sources since it was desired to make an independent exploration of the Library. In this we had every assistance from the librarian, Father Aristobulos, who maintained an excellent and complete catalog of his own.

The oldest manuscripts in this Library are 12 from the ninth century, mostly Chrysostom's writings. Of Chrysostom there are many copies, 16 of them from the ninth and tenth centuries. The earliest dated manuscript here is a work by John Neilos copied in 927, followed by a Chrysostom codex done in 987. A famous codex is Taphou 54 in which Leo the Notary copied the Apostolic Fathers in A. D. 1056. The oldest Syriac and Georgian codices come from the eleventh century, while the oldest Arabic comes from the twelfth. Galleries of miniatures are found in a Job codex with 117 paintings of the thirteenth century, a Gregory of Nazianzus with 98 paintings of the eleventh century, a Barlaam and Joasaph with 59 illustrations of the thirteenth century. In addition, there is a previously unknown Georgian copy of the Four Gospels with 47 miniatures.

In Jerusalem the expedition transferred for one intensive week to the Armenian Patriarchal library. It is said to contain 4,000 manuscripts but we were interested in a special list of 32. These had been specified in a scholar's request, particularly for their miniatures. From these 32 codices alone 424 miniatures were photographed on 4" x 5" film, and complete copies of all were made on microfilm. These included very special treasures, rarely made available, whose contents were little known and never before completely photographed.

Throughout the year's operation 2,706 manuscripts were selected from about 5,700 and were completely recorded on microfilm. Also recorded were the 1,737 firmans at Sinai. This required over 630, 000 exposures on nearly 100,000 feet of film. Since the expedition disbanded in September 1950, much work has been accomplished at the Library of Congress to prepare the materials for scholarly use. In the first place, the editors have been compiling data for checklists to be printed and distributed. They have been reading the film, literally by the mile, seeking accuracy of presentation of these data. Beyond the initial checklists, it is hoped to prepare later a detailed index guide offering to scholars much fuller information about the primary sources newly available on film. Ultimately, complete catalogs of different language groups in both Sinai and Jerusalem may result from the year's labors.

The accomplishments of last year's expedition could not have been achieved except for the unusual combination of factors provided. Such a combination had never before been found, and without any single factor the expedition would have been impossible. Only the unique confluence of equipment, personnel, funds, and permission permitted the work to be done. Every institution and agency involved played an essential part, and none more than the Library of Congress.

There is reason for gratification in the success of the venture, but what has been done represents only the initial value. The work of the past year was intensive, yet it is very little compared to the work it has rendered possible. The discoveries already made are surely superficial compared to those that await us. The immense amount of work done forms only a foundation for the structure that may now be reared. Heretofore, single scholars have occasionally gone to these great libraries and worked briefly on a fragment of investigation. It is now possible for hundreds of scholars throughout the world to work at leisure and at length upon great sources previously inaccessible to them. A slow and gradual progress may take on great momentum, and scholarly researches may find an acceleration hitherto impossible. From dissemination of these film copies may be derived a new possibility for international collaboration in research.

Kenneth W. Clark
Duke University

Dr. Kenneth W. Clark, Professor of New Testament in the Divinity School of Duke University, was Acting Director and Annual Professor at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem during the season 1949-50. When the project for microfilming the manuscripts at St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai was developed Dr. Clark was appointed General Editor, in charge of the selection, arrangement, and documentation of the manuscripts to be photographed. He was lent to the project for this purpose by the American Schools of Oriental Research, and served in this capacity at Mt. Sinai from December 1949 through May 1950. He also made all arrangements, editorial as well as material, for the similar project executed at the libraries of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, November 1949 and June-August 1950.

Associated with Dr. Clark in the work of the Sinai expedition were Professor Aziz Atiya, Professor of Medieval History at Farouk I University, Alexandria, and Professor Gerard Garitte of the University of Louvain. Professor Atiya, an eminent historian, was in charge of recording the Arabic documents, and Professor Garitte, an expert on Georgian and Armenian manuscripts, assisted in the field of his specialization. The expedition was led by Wendell Phillips, President of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, Inc., with William Terry as Field Director. Much of the photography at Sinai and Jerusalem was the work of Wallace Wade, who is a member of the Library's own staff.

Originally published by the Library of Congress in Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, Vol. 8, No. 3 (MAY 1951), pp. 6-12.


  1. Viktor E. Gardthausen. Catalogus codicum grae corum sinaiticorum. Oxford, 1886. [Return to text]
  2. Vladimir N. Beneshevich. Catalogus codicum mss graecorum, qui in monasterio Sanctae Catharinae in Monte Sina asseruantur. III, 1. Codices Nr. 1224 2150 signati. Petrograd, 1917. [Return to text]
  3. Agnes Smith Lewis. Catalogue of the Syriac Mss. in the Convent of S. Catharine on Mount Sinai. London, 1894. [Return to text]
  4. Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Catalogue of the Arabic Mss. in the Convent of S. Catharine on Mount Sinai. London, 1894. [Return to text]
  5. Nikolai IA. Marr. Opisanie gruzinskikh rukopisei Sinaiskogo monastyria. Moscow, 1940. [Return to text]
  6. Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus. Hierosalymitikē bibliotheke. . . . St. Petersburg, 1891-1915. 5v. [Return to text]
  7. Robert P. Blake. Catalogue des manuscrits georgiens de la Bibliothèque Patriarcale Grecque á Jérusalem. Paris, 1923-26. Extracts from Revue de V Orient chrétien, 3d ser., t. 3-5. [Return to text]
  8. Kleopas M. Koikylidēs. Katalogos arabikon cheirographōn tēs Hierosolymitikēs bibliothekes. Jerusalem, 1901. [Return to text]
  9. —. Katalogos synoptikos. , . . Berlin, 1898. [Return to text]
  10. —. Kataloipa cheirographōn Hierosolymitikēs bibliothōkēs. . . . Jerusalem, 1899. [Return to text]
  11. Nikolai F. Krasnoseltsev. Slavianskiia rukopisi Patriarshei Biblioteki v Ierusalimie. Kazan, 1889. [Return to text]
  12. Enno Littmann. "Die äthiopischen Handschriften im griechischen Kloster zu Jerusalem." Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, July 1900, vol. 15, pp. 133-61. [Return to text]