New building for ancient desert library
Coptic monastery of Deir al-Surian in Egyptian desert was established in the sixth century
By Martin Bailey. Conservation, Issue 248, July-August 2013
Published online: 17 July 2013
One of the world’s earliest libraries—well over a millennium old—finally has its first dedicated building. The Coptic monastery of Deir al-Surian (the monastery of the Syrians), in the Egyptian desert, was established in the sixth century and some of its manuscripts were collected by its abbot during a trip to Baghdad in AD927.
The new building opened in May, in a two-storey structure nestling within the monastery’s tenth-century walls. It includes a reading room, a small display area, conservation facilities and a basement store, all of which are secure and maintain proper environmental conditions.
Although some of the collection was acquired by the Vatican Library in the 18th century and more went to the British Museum’s library in the 19th century, 1,000 bound manuscripts and 1,500 manuscript fragments remain at Deir al-Surian. These texts are in Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic and Arabic. They include the earliest dated Christian literary manuscript (AD411), the earliest dated Biblical manuscript (AD459) and the earliest dated Gospel manuscript (AD510). Some of these texts were discovered in 1998 in rubble underneath a wooden floor.
The collection was stored in the monastery’s ninth-century tower for centuries, until being transferred to a monk’s cell around 100 years ago. In 1970, a library was set up in an upper room of a new building. However, a downstairs kitchen posed a potential fire hazard, and temperature and humidity levels fluctuated wildly in the desert conditions.
Seven years ago, the abbot, Bishop Mattaos, and the Levantine Foundation (set up by the London-based paper conservator Elizabeth Sobczynski) made plans to construct a dedicated library on the site of a dilapidated 1960s building. The monastery’s librarian, Father Bigoul, and Sobczynski have conserved 20 codices and 300 fragments, and 70 more texts have been stabilised. However, work by Western specialists was interrupted in January 2011 because of the political upheaval that followed the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. The Levantine Foundation now hopes to send a team to Deir al-Surian in November to continue treatment and to initiate a digitisation project.
The collection is also being catalogued. Two volumes on the Syriac manuscripts, compiled by Sebastian Brock (University of Oxford) and Lucas van Rompay (Duke University, North Carolina), are due next winter from Belgium-based Peeters Publishers.
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