The Manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery: Now on the National Library of Israel Website

One of the world's greatest collections of manuscripts is now available to view in the online catalog of the National Library of Israel

St. Catherine's Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at 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.

A view from inside the walls, St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Psalms and Cantica, 1504, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

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.


Skulls of long-dead monks from St. Catherine’s past, 1975, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.”

Lives of the Saints, Canons to St. Catherine, by Ioannikios, 17th century, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

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.

The dramatic landscape surrounding the monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Horologion, 1375 Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

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.

The Story of Layla and Majnun – Romeo and Juliet of the East

This story which originated in 7th century Arabia has traveled across the world over the ages

A young Majnun embraces a blue-eyed doe. Illustration by Mohammed ibn Mula, 1603

In 1192, a Persian poet by the name of Nizami composed a poem based on the tragic story of another young poet named Qays ibn al-Mullawah, whose love for one Layla drove him completely mad. Centuries earlier, Qays had fallen in love with his classmate, Layla, and she with him, yet her parents objected to the relationship between the two. Even with the help of his friends and acquaintances, Qays was not able to unite with his great love. But he would not give up. Wherever he went and whomever he met, he was reminded of Layla. Whenever he got a chance, he would sing of his love for her. This soon won him the nickname Majnun (Arabic for ‘crazy’.)

The brokenhearted Majnun fled to the desert, where he continued writing poems for his loved one, tracing the words in the sand before they were carried off by the desert wind. Anguished and helpless, the thought of Layla kept Majnun awake at night. While he slowly grew out of touch with human beings, Layla remained loyal to Majnun. Her parents forced her to marry another man, though she refused to consummate the marriage, rejecting his attempts to woo her. With the help of a Persian nobleman (portrayed as the saint al-Khider, referred to in many stories in Islamic tradition), Layla was able to arrange to meet with Majnun. The two did not physically touch each other in that last encounter. Instead, they read love poems to one another from a distance; Majnun, enthralled by the perfect image he had constructed in his mind of his unattainable love, fled back to the desert. When Layla’s husband died, she was finally able to grieve publicly. Those around her believed she was grieving the death of her husband, while in fact she was crying over the ongoing separation from her great love, Majnun. Shortly after, she died of heartbreak and was buried, per her request, in her wedding gown. Majnun rushed to her graveside and died as soon as he saw it. And so, the two were buried side by side, their graves becoming a pilgrimage site – a symbol of their reunion, achieved only in death. Nizami’s poem ends with the dream of a common friend of the couple, in which the two are united in their love, living happily ever after in heaven, as a king and queen.


Lord Byron called the Persian lovers “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Much like the eternal lovers of Verona, the story of Majnun’s love for Layla appeared in oral legends as well as a number of manuscript fragments even before it was immortalized by a great writer – in their case, the Persian poet, Nizami.

Believed to date back to the 7th century, the story’s origins are not Persian, but Arabic. “The Book of Songs” (Kitab al-Aghani), written by Abu al-Faraj, a 9th century Arabic lexicographer and poet, tells the story of a poet who lived in the days of the Umayyad dynasty. Using his penname, ‘Majnun’, the anonymous poet was able to fearlessly express his unfulfilled love for his cousin, for whom he composed love poems that described the pain of being separated from her.

Short, anecdotal forms of the story of Layla and Majnun began to circulate in Arabic and Persian literature and poetry, every instance expressing a different aspect of the life and death of the two lovers. In one version, the pair meet in a field and not at school; some highlighted the companionship between Majnun and the wild animals he met while living alone in the desert; others focused on the correspondence between the married Layla and tormented figure of Majnun.

Hundreds of years before Nizami composed his famous version of the story, the legend of Layla and Majnun was already known throughout the Middle East. One reason the love story became so popular was its mystic features. Qays/Majnun was a perceived as something of a role model in Sufi mysticism. As the researcher Michal Hasson told us, “In Sufism, man seeks to unite with God, and the relationship between man and God is one of great love and yearning. Even the greatest mystics, who grow especially close to God over the course of their lives, can only fully unite with Him at death. Thus, the day of the passing of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti is celebrated every year and is called Urs, which means ‘wedding.’ Majnun, who spent his entire life searching and longing for his love, but would only unite with her in death, is the ultimate depiction of love and desire for God – and Layla, the reflection of the beloved divine one.”

In 1188, the Persian poet, Nizami, wrote his great poem, containing some 4,600 verses. Nizami replaced the original Arab-Bedouin setting with an urban Persian one, along with the secondary characters that accompanied the lovers – the Meccan governor who tried to help the two lovers reunite is presented as a Persian nobleman; the young lovers who originally met in the Arabian deserts – two commoners surrounded by camels and merchants – meet at the beginning of the Persian poem at school, as children of aristocracy.

Since Nizami published his poem in the 12th century, the story of Layla and Majnun has traveled far beyond the borders of the East. Many different versions were created and it became the most “reproduced” story in Persian history. Before it was translated into European languages in the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of Arab and Persian poets who hoped to achieve something approaching Nizami’s stature composed Layla-and-Majnun poems of their own. Later, the pattern was repeated in Turkish, Urdu, and many other languages. According to Michal Hasson, “Layla and Majnun can therefore be found in 17th century wall paintings in Rajasthan, in Mughal miniatures, in Arabic poetry and, of course, in Persian poetry, as well as in numerous other works in different languages. There is also a “tomb structure” dedicated to the lovers in a small town on the border of India and Pakistan.” Even the 1970 song Layla, written by British musician Eric Clapton, was inspired by the tale. Clapton became familiar with the story, and was able to relate to its theme of unattainable love, which reflected his own feelings toward Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of five different versions of Nizami’s work. One of them is a beautifully illuminated manuscript copied by Mohammed Ibn-Mula, around the year 1603. It contains many marvelous pictures, like the one below showing a young Majnun embracing a blue-eyed doe, a symbol of his one and only, long-lost love, Layla.


Another beautiful example is this Kashmiri manuscript from 1798, which contains an illustration of Layla and Majnun meeting one another.

In 2018, Yuval Shiloach first translated the story of Layla and Majnun into Hebrew, not from the original Persian version, but from Rudolf Gelpke’s English translation, published in 1966.

Read more about Layla and Majnun at Encyclopædia Iranica.

Thanks to Dr. Michal Hasson and Dr. Samuel Thrope for their help in writing this article.

Emirati Underground

With Israelis ready to flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Katie Wachsberger spoke to the National Library about the cutting edge of culture in the UAE

The streets of Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world's tallest building, in the background; photo by Katie Wachsberger

Four hard-core rockers are wailing away in a dimly lit garage. The long-haired, headbanging guitarist and bassist are playing faster than seems humanly possible, and the lead singer’s gravely growl sounds like the voice of Satan himself. For those who love it, the song, “Demean,” by the band Nervecell, is four minutes of Death Metal perfection.

It may be a shock for some to learn that Nervecell’s musicians do not hail from London, Stockholm, or San Francisco. Instead, the well-established group is the leading representative of a thriving Death Metal scene in the United Arab Emirates, one of Israel’s newest partners in peace in the Arab world.

If you ask Katie Wachsberger, though, there is no reason for surprise; Israelis should set aside their prior assumptions about what culture is and isn’t in the UAE. In a recent lecture that was part of the National Library’s “Reading Room” series of online events, Wachsberger uncovered the vibrant cultural scene in the Gulf nation. A research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking and the co-founder of the Unas Cultural Foundation, Wachsberger spoke to listeners from Dubai, where she spent over a month meeting with Emirati partners in the wake of the September 15 peace accord between Israel and the UAE.

Check out Katie Wachsberger’s lecture on the underground culture scene in the UAE:

The United Arab Emirates is a young country. Seven kingdoms, which had formerly been under British colonial rule, and located on the south-western reaches of the Persian Gulf, jointly founded the independent state in 1971. However, Emirati culture, as Wachsberger explained, is diverse and deep, with roots stretching back thousands of years to pre-Islamic times. As the country has grown into a cosmopolitan center for finance, trade, and business over recent decades, the cultural scene has expanded in stride. Major cultural institutions have opened branches there, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the American University in Dubai in 1995, and a planned Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.

What’s more, the Emirates is more and more a center for new creativity in visual arts, film, performance, and music–the head-thrashing Nervecell is just one example–rather than being only a passive recipient of western cultural exports. However, culture is complicated, and Emirates-based artists face their own unique challenges.

A Dubai art studio, photo by Katie Wachsberger

While the population of the UAE numbers almost ten million people, only some twelve percent are actually citizens. The rest are foreign workers and expatriates from all over the world, including South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and the rest of the Middle East. This diversity makes the country a cultural melting pot where different traditions can mix and recombine. Wachsberger cited a number of examples, including the CHI-KA women’s fashion line, created by a designer of mixed Emirati and Japanese heritage, that sells kimonos, abayas, and other clothes inspired by both cultures.

The CHI-KA shop & gallery, on Alserkal Avenue – the leading art district in Dubai, photo by Katie Wachsberger

Such innovation exists alongside traditional Emirati culture, which is largely similar to that of other Gulf Arab countries. While no longer the true popular culture of the UAE, traditional dress, dances, and music are supported by the government as part of its larger goal of preserving a certain national narrative.

“Emirati Boatman”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Although grassroots and innovative cultural projects are receiving more attention and support, they also still face a difficult path to success. Non-citizen residents, even those who have lived in the UAE for decades or generations, must have a work visa to remain in the country. For that reason, cultural entrepreneurs are obligated to quickly turn their projects into for-profit ventures, to find external support in government or academia, or to keep their day jobs and spread their work through social media rather than more standard avenues.

“Emirati Boys Playing”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Nevertheless, Wachsberger underlined that now is a moment of fascinating cultural transition in the UAE. New, critical, and innovative cultural projects are growing organically throughout the country and attracting attention at home and abroad. Artists are more optimistic about the future of Emirati culture than ever before.

The new connections between the UAE and Israel, she added, can help accelerate this momentum. Israel has a rich and robust cultural scene, with grassroots movements, activity in all the arts, and a long and developed tradition of cultural criticism. While Israelis are already imagining what peace with the UAE might mean for Israeli society, economics, and politics, the cultural effects in the Emirates could be just as deep and profound.

A Sufi Journey to Jerusalem

A seventeenth century travelogue by a famous Sufi mystic describes a strange and surprising image of Ottoman Palestine

Two ecstatic Muslim holy men in Jerusalem, photographed by the Christian missionary Robert E. M. Bain in 1894. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Late one night in the spring of 1690, the Sufi saint and scholar Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) had a dream. In his mind’s eye, al-Nabulsi saw himself leaving his house and making his way to one of the markets in Damascus, his home city. As he later recounted, (in Elizabeth Sirriyeh’s translation), he found there

one of the finest Arab horses offered to us to ride and we rode it and went on our way. Suddenly we encountered two strong and energetic young men; they were well-dressed, magnificently clothed in green and red. Each of them put the palm of his hand under my foot while I was riding and their palms took the place of stirrups, each on one side, and I rode the horse like that with the two young men.

The author of a notable–and still popular–book on dream interpretation, al-Nabulsi was an expert on deciphering the symbolic content of our nighttime visions. But not even he could see the dream was in fact a premonition. A few days later, al-Nabulsi set out on his famous journey to Jerusalem, which served as the basis for one of the most important accounts of seventeenth century Palestine. At the head of the caravan, as prefigured in the dream, marched two young majadhib, Sufi ecstatic holy men, who seemed “like angels.”

Illustration of Qays, known as Majnun, “the mad one,” as an ascetic surrounded by wild animals from a 1798 copy of Nezami Ganjavi’s Khamsa, from the National Library of Israel collections. Majnun, driven mad by his unrequited love for Leila, served as a model for Sufi ecstatic piety.

Al-Nabulsi was one of the leading Muslim intellectuals of his age, a wide-ranging figure whose over 250 works include treatises on Islamic law, the benefits of smoking, agriculture, poetry, commentaries on the classics of Sufi mystical literature, and more. Dozens of manuscripts of works by al-Nabulsi are included in the collection of the National Library of Israel. While a copy of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue is not among them, the collection does include an early 1902 printed edition of the work, acquired by the scholar and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda.

The scion of a wealthy family of judges and religious authorities that traced its own origins back to Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi garnered an early scholarly reputation and was teaching already at the age of twenty. As his engagement with Sufism (especially the work of Ibn Arabi, whom he considered his spiritual father) deepened, al-Nabulsi increasingly withdrew from public life. During one seven-year period, he is said to have remained confined in his house, letting his hair and nails grow long, and achieving a spiritual transcendence which he attributed to the overwhelming experience of God’s presence.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise, ‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi’s six-week-long journey to Palestine, which included seventeen days in Jerusalem, was only one of four long excursions that followed this period of seclusion. Aside from that journey, al-Nabulsi traveled through today’s Syria and Lebanon, completed the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (on which occasion he returned to Jerusalem for a second stay) and visited Egypt as well. Each of these trips became the subject of a travelogue.

In composing these travelogues, a genre known as rihla in Arabic, al-Nabulsi was following a well-worn tradition, the most famous example of which is Ibn Battuta’s (1304-1368) account of his thirty-year-long wanderings that took him from Morocco to China. However, al-Nabulsi’s travel writing is distinguished by his focus on Sufi themes and characters; it is no accident that the journey begins with an encounter with the two ecstatics. This is clear even from the title of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue: Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya (“The Intimate Presence on the Jerusalem Journey”). The “Intimate Presence” refers both to the name for the Sufi spiritual gathering, often held on Thursday nights, and to God’s own presence, which al-Nabulsi hoped to experience on the journey.

A 1902 edition of al-Nabulsi’s Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya, formerly owned by manuscript dealer Abraham Shalom Yahuda, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi crossed into the country via the Golan Heights, passing the snow-capped Mount Hermon. He complained of the cold and the lawlessness of the country, reporting murders, the looting of a mosque, and even a plot to kidnap him near Jenin, which, he said, was foiled by divine intervention.

Arriving in Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi and his party were met by a delegation of dignitaries, including members of a local Sufi order, who, along with a growing crowd, accompanied the group as they entered the Damascus Gate and made their way to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). On entering the sacred precinct, al-Nabulsi recited an appropriate verse (here in Samer Akkach’s translation) on the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, from where he ascended to heaven:

You journeyed by night from a sanctuary to a sanctuary

As the full moon journeys in the thick of darkness.

The travelogue, written in rhymed prose and interspersed with similar verses, includes descriptions about Jerusalem’s Muslim landmarks, including the Mamila cemetery and the Mount of Olives, as well as the city’s Christian sites. Al-Nabulsi and his party also made a side trip to Hebron to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, venerated as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Curiously, in his account of seeing the Dome of the Rock, which follows a long section recounting the powers and virtues of the site, al-Nabulsi erroneously states that the building was constructed by the Crusaders, rather than, as was also well known at the time, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (644-705).

While the travelogue provides fascinating details about Jerusalem and his visit there, al-Nabulsi’s primary concern lies elsewhere: seeking out and describing spiritual experiences, particularly his encounters with holy men and sacred shrines and tombs. In terms of the latter, for instance, al-Nabulsi records stopping to pray at the tomb of Samuel, located just north of Jerusalem, before entering the city. As for living holy men, these included both the members of established Sufi orders, and, even more so, the majadhib, ecstatic mystics who lived on the margins of society and its norms. Al-Nabulsi describes some of these majadhib as wandering unclothed and others as wearing only rags, endowed with special powers to read others’ minds and see the future.

Al-Nabulsi met large numbers of such holy men in both the city and the countryside. He describes a party of majadhib from Jenin who meet him as he arrives in the city, having learned of his coming by divine inspiration, and another ecstatic near Nablus who would march armed through the market. Near the village of Yabad, just outside Jenin, al-Nabulsi encounters an ascetic named Sheikh Za’id. A former slave, he was overcome one day by a sudden divine illumination and moved to a cave where he sat, naked, grinding coffee beans and dispensing coffee, blessings, and advice to those who came to consult him. Za’id, al-Nabulsi relates, was both fantastically strong and could see the future, and predicted a happy ending for the author’s journey.

What’s fascinating about al-Nabulsi’s description of a country teeming with miracle-working saints, venerable tombs, and ecstatic holy men–and his other travelogues paint a similar picture–is the fact that it has almost entirely vanished. While such figures continued to be part of the rural and urban landscape for generations, by the first decades of the twentieth century there were few of them left. They had been obliterated by the combined forces of modernization, and colonialism, as well as competing Wahabi and Salafi ideologies, which denounced Sufism as un-Islamic. One of the pleasures of reading al-Nabulsi is the glimpse he provides us into this strange and lost world.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.