Sinai monks in historic agreement with British Library
Ownership dispute has been set aside for joint study and
digitisation of the world's oldest bible
By Martin Bailey
The Art Newspaper. com
LONDON. An emotional reunion took place in the vaults of the British
Library last month, when the archbishop responsible for St
Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt was shown the
Codex Sinaiticus, the world's oldest Bible. The manuscript, which
had almost certainly been at the desert monastery from the sixth
century onwards and possibly from two centuries earlier, was taken
to Russia in the 19th century in controversial circumstances. It is
so precious that only four scholars have been allowed full access to
the manuscript in the past 20 years.
Archbishop Damianos told The Art Newspaper about the moment when he
was finally able to look at the Old Testament. He turned to the
Psalms, the pages of which are worn at the edges from the
fingerprints of generations of monks. "I felt spiritual shock, a
feeling of electricity. I was completely overcome by emotion and a
sense of continuity with the past, but also spiritual peace," the
In a remarkable deal, the Greek Orthodox monks of Sinai and the
British Library have agreed to set aside their differences on the
question of who is the manuscript's rightful owner and will now work
together to digitally reassemble the Codex Sinaiticus. The British
Library owns the main part of the manuscript, which is claimed by St
Catherine's, but in 1975 the monks discovered 12 more leaves which
had been left behind in the monastery. The University of Leipzig
library and the National Library of Russia, which have further
sections of the codex, are also co-operating.
A formal agreement between the four parties was signed in London on
9 March, following years of delicate negotiations. Although hurdles
remain to be overcome, the project could provide a model which might
be used to handle other restitution claims faced by libraries and
museums around the world.
The Codex Sinaiticus project will, for the first time, give full
access to what is arguably the world's most important single
Christian manuscript (the Dead Sea scrolls are earlier, but they
comprise numerous manuscripts and only cover the Old Testament). The
Codex Sinaiticus is also the earliest known book, in the sense of a
substantial bound volume.
The manuscript arrived in Russia unbound, and was rebound in the UK
in 1935. Although originally in one very large volume, it is now in
two: the Old Testament is kept in the vaults and the New Testament
is on permanent show in the library's Ritblat Gallery, currently
open at the concluding verses of St John. On this page, ultraviolet
light has recently revealed that the last verse was originally
omitted, and a concluding design was later blotted out and the
missing words added.
Although a very scarce facsimile was published in Oxford in 1911-22,
its quality is unsatisfactory for a detailed examination of the text.
The codex was written by three scribes, and the use of computer
images that reveal details invisible to the naked eye may well make
it possible to determine who made the corrections. Some are
contemporary with the original manuscript, while others are later.
The texts will be examined in depth. For instance, in Codex
Sinaiticus the Gospel of St Mark ends at chapter 16, verse 8, with
the discovery that Christ's tomb was empty, although later Bibles
have another 12 verses on the Resurrection. The study may well
transform our understanding of the development of early Biblical
Last month's agreement is remarkable because the Codex Sinaiticus
has long been the subject of a restitution claim. St Catherine's
Monastery believes that the manuscript was wrongly taken by the
German scholar Constantine Tischendorf in the mid 19th century. All
parties have now agreed to participate in international historical
research, to document how the codex left Sinai.
"We want to discover the truth, even if it turns out not to support
our position. But if at the end of the research there is no firm
evidence either way, then we reserve the right to maintain our
claim", says Archbishop Damianos.
The British Library takes a similar position, expressed in more
secular terms. Clive Field, collections director, put it succinctly
in a private meeting with the monks: "Complete transparency, depth
of scholarship; that is our commitment."
The key question to be addressed is the arrangement which the Czar's
government negotiated with St Catherine's. This is assumed to be
reflected in a letter sent on 18 November 1869 by Archbishop
Callistratus of St Catherine's. Only brief extracts of the letter
have been published, and it is also unclear whether it was signed by
all the monks, which the present archbishop argues would have been
necessary for such an important decision.
This letter is believed to be in the archives of the Russian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since Tischendorf was acting as an
agent for the Czar. Astonishingly, the Russian authorities recently
refused a request to open the file, but the hope is that it will be
supplied now that the director of the National Library of Russia is
behind the project. Letters written by Tischendorf to his wife from
Egypt also survive with his descendants in Germany, and it is hoped
that Leipzig University library may be able to facilitate access to
The British Library describes the Codex Sinaiticus Digitisation
Project as a "blockbuster of scholarship". It encompasses four main
strands: conservation, digitisation, transcription and scholarly
commentary. On the conservation front, the section most in need of
work are the 12 leaves discovered at Catherine's in 1975, since
these are cockled and fragile, and have never been conserved. The
main part of the text, in London, is in remarkably good condition.
Only after conservation, can digitisation be undertaken.
The text will be transcribed, and translated into English, German,
Spanish and modern Greek. There will be a full scholarly commentary
on the texts, along with a history of the manuscript. The facsimile
and commentary will then be published in various forms: on the web,
in a CD-Rom and in a high-quality printed facsimile, as well as in
popular publications. The four-year project will cost -ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âº680,000, and
-ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âº150,000 has already been committed by the Stavros Niarchos
The survival of the first book
The Codex Sinaiticus was one of the original 50 Bibles copied in
Greek at the order of Emperor Constantine, or a direct copy of the
period. It dates from the mid-fourth century and it is likely to
have arrived at St Catherine's in Sinai when the monastery's church
was erected in the mid-sixth century.
The manuscript was "rediscovered" in 1844 by the German scholar
Constantine Tischendorf. He then managed to acquire 43 leaves, which
are now at the University of Leipzig. Tischendorf revisited the
monastery in 1859, eventually borrowing a further 347 leaves, which
he had requested for copying. He then left for St Petersburg, since
his mission was sponsored by the Czar. Tischendorf presented the
original to the Czar and published the text.
The terms under which Tischendorf took the codex only became clear
in 1960 when an 1859 letter was discovered in the monastery's
archive. In this, Tischendorf promised to "return [the codex],
undamaged and in a good state of preservation, to the Holy
Confraternity of Mount Sinai at its first request".
For the next decade Tischendorf and Russian officials attempted to
regularise the acquisition, putting pressure on the monks to confirm
it as a gift. In 1869, the Czar promised Archbishop Callistratus a
donation of 9,000 rubles (around $2,600) for the monastery and some
Imperial decorations, and in a letter dated 18 November 1869 the
Archbishop apparently offered the codex to the Czar as a gift.
In 1933, the Soviet government sold the Codex Sinaiticus, to raise
hard currency. It was bought by the British Museum Library (now the
British Library), through London dealer Maggs Bros. The price was
-ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âº100,000, the highest sum ever paid for a manuscript or book. Six
fragments which had found their way to St Petersburg through various
routes remained in the Imperial Public Library, now the National
In 1975, a further discovery was made behind a bricked-up doorway at
St Catherine's. Dubbed the "new finds", these comprised 1,200
manuscripts including 12 leaves (and a further 15 fragments) of the
Codex Sinaiticus. The best preserved leaves are on display in the
monastery's recently opened museum. M.B.