At St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Egypt’s Mount Sinai, the silence in the library is broken only by low electrical humming, as an early manuscript is bathed in green light.
A team from Greece are photographing thousands of fragile manuscripts, including some of the earliest copies of the Christian gospels, using a complex process that includes taking images in red, green and blue light and merging them with computer software to create a single high-quality color picture.
There is a tangible sense of urgency to the mission.
Although the monastery has survived centuries of warfare, it lies in a region where militants have destroyed countless cultural artifacts and documents in Syria and Iraq. Egypt’s Christian churches have also been targeted by militants in the rugged and thinly populated northern Sinai.
‘The Holy Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai’ — which is part of the Eastern Orthodox church — lies in the safer southern half of the Sinai Peninsula. But in 2017, ISIL claimed responsibility for an attack on a nearby Egyptian police checkpoint, in which one officer was killed.
“The upheaval of our times requires a rapid completion of this project,” Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, Faran, and Raitho, and Abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery, said.
The aim is to create the first digital archive of all 4,500 manuscripts in the library, starting with around 1,100 in the Syriac and Arabic languages, which are particularly rare.
The task could take more than a decade, using digital cameras and computer arrays alongside sophisticated cradles designed to support the more fragile manuscripts.
The project began last year and is being undertaken by the non-profit research organization Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL), in collaboration with the monastery and the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA Library said it will start publishing the manuscripts online, in full color, from the fall of 2019.
“This library is an archive of the history of Christianity and its neighbors in the Mediterranean world, and therefore is of interest to communities all over the world who find their history here,” Michael Phelps, Director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, told Reuters.