Reading Ancient Texts

Here’s a fascinating–and too brief–article on how contemporary scholars are endeavoring to read a collection of palimpsests hundreds of years old that are housed in Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

As is the case with all such palimpsests, the parchments have been scratched out and written over so many times that it is necessary to cast different wavelengths of light upon them in order to read the words that have been worn away.  It’s painstaking labor, with not a little detective work involved, but the payoff is increased understanding of over 6800 pages of text, involving the languages and cultures of the entire Middle East, going back, in some cases, a thousand years.

The most important conclusion being reached from the archival work is this:

“Some of the palimpsests that the team has recovered, however, suggest the tensions between Islam and Christianity were not always so fraught, and highlight the role the monastery played as a meeting point for the faiths. “We are recovering the history of the monastery from a time when there are almost no historical records,” says Father Justin Sinaites, a Texan who has been the librarian at Saint Catherine’s for the past 10 years and is charged with protecting its parchments. Many of the texts indicate an exchange of ideas and literature between the faiths, with early translations of Christian scriptures and liturgies into Arabic appearing in the palimpsests.”

Steven Runciman’s long and magnificent History of the Crusades supports the view that Islam and Christianity were, at the outset, more tolerant of each other’s faith than their descendants have been hundreds of years later.  Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads goes just as far in writing the history of the cultural interactions between the two while diminishing as much as possible the pro-Western biases found in many accounts of that history.


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