Deir al-Surian, the famous Monastery of the Mother of God, later renamed the Monastery of the Syrians, is located approximately 1.5 hour’s drive northwest of Cairo, Egypt in the Wadi el Natrun region of the ‘western desert’. The Coptic monastery dates to the 6th century AD and is one of the many early Christian monastic communities of Scetis. The monastry library contains approximately one thousand ancient and priceless Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Christian Arabic manuscripts, the oldest of which dates back to the fifth century and is considered to be the earliest existing gospel manuscript in the world by Dr Sebastian Brock, an expert on the Syriac language.
Over the past few years conservators from around the world have visited the monastery to undertake the long and arduous task of restoring many of these manuscripts, including 5th century AD Four Gospels (Syriac MS. 10), which was brought to the monastery from Bagdad by Moses of Nisibis in the 10th century, and a later Coptic Four Gospels (MS. 21) dating from the 13th century AD which was written in Deir al-Surian scriptorium. The conservation of these two ‘world heritage’ documents, which are housed within the monastery and may not be removed, was completed in 2010, funded by The Levantine Foundation.
In the past year, several of us from the Wellcome Trust have had the pleasure of meeting with Father Bigoul, the Librarian at Deir al-Surian, and Ms Elizabeth Sobczynski, the CEO of the Levantine Foundation to advise on the digitisation of these ancient manuscripts. Elizabeth and Father Bigoul were extremely interested in the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, in 2008/9, to conserve and photograph our Arabic manuscripts collection. In appreciation for the advice and assistance they received several of us were invited to the opening of the new Deir al-Surian Library by the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, and I was honoured to attend on behalf of the Wellcome Library.
The library opening on Sunday the 19th of May was a wonderful event. Speeches were given by Sir Derek Plumbly, President of the Levantine Foundation, His Grace Bishop Mattaos, Abbot of Deir al-Surian, Elizabeth Sobczynski and Father Bigoul. Among the 250 guests was the British ambassador to Egypt, James Watt.
Guests were invited to tour the new library and associated rooms, including the new digitisation studio which soon became a hive of activity. Television crews and photographers as well as guests were keen to know more about the proposed digitisation project and to see demonstrations of the digitisation process. Well after most of the guests had retired for lunch, I was still fielding questions!
Author: Thomas Cox is project photographer at the Wellcome Library