One of the world's greatest collections of manuscripts is now available to view in the online catalog of the National Library of Israel
A meeting in the desert.
The young scholar waited somewhat anxiously, for his counterpart to arrive. A negotiation was to be expected, and he was not entirely optimistic regarding his chances of success. In the meantime, at least, he was free to examine his fairly impressive surroundings.
It was the late 1960s, and Malachi Beit-Arié was head of the Jewish National and University Library’s Manuscripts Department. He had been sent to the Sinai Peninsula to negotiate with the local Greek Orthodox Archbishop. The Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) was seeking approval to microfilm the vast collection of manuscripts preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery, where Malachi now waited in the midst of the Sinai Desert. The monastery’s texts had survived for many centuries in this isolated location, but Beit-Arié’s aforementioned pessimism was rooted in the more recent history of the region.
After all, the Sinai Peninsula had just fallen under Israeli military occupation a year or so earlier during the Six-Day War. The monks of St. Catherine’s had grown accustomed to living under Egyptian rule and regarded the IDF soldiers who now roamed the surrounding desert peaks and valleys with suspicion. There was no guarantee they would agree to the Israeli library’s request.
Beit-Arié wandered through the monastery’s ancient grounds for some two days before Archbishop Porphyrios III of the Church of Mount Sinai and Raithu finally arrived from Cairo. Malachi was quickly summoned, and the two set out in the priest’s automobile for a nearby desert oasis. It turned out that Beit-Arié needn’t have been so concerned. The negotiations were held in good spirit, during that same drive. The Archbishop, Malachie soon learned, had studied Hebrew, and was surprisingly sympathetic to the idea of cooperation with Israeli academics, quickly agreeing to the Library’s proposal.
The two then boarded a flight to Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, where Beit-Arié soon found himself loaded onto the Archbishop’s private limousine. During the drive to Jerusalem, the priest conveyed his price for the exchange: a full set of the Talmud in English. This was quickly procured, and the contract was duly signed.
St. Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually functioning library, hidden behind immense walls which tower over all who approach its secluded location.
The monks of St. Catherine’s take their vows seriously. Life in such an isolated place is not for those lacking in faith, of one kind or another. The monastery was built in the southern Sinai Peninsula, surrounded by dramatic mountainous desert landscapes. It sits at the foot of what is considered by Christian tradition to be Mt. Horeb, the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The monastery even holds and nurtures what some believe to be the actual Burning Bush.
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great built St. Catherine’s, completing construction in the year 565 AD. Over a millennium and a half, the monastery’s library has accumulated one of the world’s most famous collections of early codices and manuscripts. It consists of some 3,400 manuscripts, among them a wide variety of Christian religious texts. These include early bibles, religious poetry and church music, writings by the various Church Fathers and different works of monastic literature. Also included are Greek classics, correspondence, writings on grammar, arithmetic exercises, rhetorical works, historiographical texts and other forms of secular literature.
While the vast majority of manuscripts were written in Greek (the monastery is part of the Greek Orthodox Church), there are also texts in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian and even languages that are no longer in use, such as Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Caucasian Albanian. The monastery’s oldest manuscripts date to the third century AD. All these works have been preserved thanks in large part to the aforementioned isolation, the impressive fortifications (Justinian’s walls are 36 feet / 11 meters high) as well as the dry desert climate.
Lately, however, there has been reason for concern. Though history has left St. Catherine’s largely untouched, the past few years have seen new unrest come to the Sinai Peninsula, with ISIS terrorists fighting an insurgency against the Egyptian military in the region’s northern areas. In 2017, an ISIS attack on a checkpoint near the monastery left one policeman dead and three others injured.
This is one of the reasons behind a recent push to document and digitize the historic treasures of St. Catherine’s Monastery, guaranteeing the survival of the priceless information and cultural heritage contained within. The National Library of Israel is part of this multinational effort.
In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, a territory it would control for well over a decade. Shortly after the war, Dr. Batya Bayer, at the time the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel, took note of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s. Bayer was interested in the study of early musical instruments and realized that the monastery’s manuscripts contained valuable information in this respect. She soon formulated an official proposal to microfilm approximately half of the texts preserved at St. Catherine’s. “The team should be as small as possible,” she wrote in her proposal, “preferably one microfilm machine and one photographer, to be augmented whenever conditions permit.”
By this point, around half of the monastery collection had already been microfilmed by a team from the Library of Congress in 1950. Following Beit-Arié’s successful negotiation, an Israeli team set out in 1968 to complete the earlier project and microfilm the rest of the monastery’s collection– meaning manuscripts which were written from the 12th century onwards.
Israel Weiser, a former employee of the National Library of Israel who worked on the project and who has since passed away, recalled that the team worked for four hours a day, five days a week (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) for around three months, only to be replaced by another team. Beit-Arié noted that this process continued for some two years. According to Weiser, the many hours of free time were spent in relative boredom in the isolated desert outpost (“They were eating rocks!” said Weiser). The project was a difficult one and those taking part had to make do without a regular supply of electricity. IDF generators were brought in to facilitate the work, and these were later left to the monastery’s monks.
Footage of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s Monastery, filmed in the early 1970s:
While researching this article, we discovered that another former employee of the Jewish National and University Library, cinematographer and photographer Jacques Soussana, had filmed rare color footage at the monastery in the early 1970s (see the Youtube clip above to view an excerpt of this footage). Jacques Soussana unfortunately passed away in 2019, but his widow Betty was kind enough to donate the 16 millimeter films he shot in Sinai to the National Library of Israel. They have since been digitized with the help of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. These films include footage of the famous manuscript collection, as well as scenes of monastic life in the desert. You can view this footage in the clip seen above.
Over the past two years, the microfilm material collected by the National Library of Israel team in the late 1960s has been scanned and uploaded to the Library’s catalog, where the general public can now freely view some 1,700 manuscripts in digital form. This was necessary because the microfilm material itself had begun to disintegrate, representing a real threat to the survival of the information contained within. There is also a separate project underway, being led by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) in collaboration with the UCLA library, to produce new high quality color photographs of St. Catherine’s manuscripts.
These initiatives will ensure that future generations will be able to access these cultural treasures that were once the reserved privilege of those who trekked across the barren desert sands.
Read more about the manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery, and browse through thousands of digitized manuscripts on the National Library of Israel website, here.