A Blog Dedicated to the Dispersed Manuscript Heritage of Saint Catherine’s Monastery


Figure 1: MS Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Iber. 4, photographed under UV light. Source: idw – Informationsdienst Wissenschaft.

1. “The history of the Sinai library till the second half of the nineteenth century is mostly a history of its despoiling”.1 The Byzantinist Vladimir Beneshevich (1874-1938) made this statement as early as 1911. At that point, scholars were only just beginning to get an idea of the extent of this “despoiling”. Moreover, the manuscripts of the Sinai library were still to be traded in Egypt and also in Europe and North America. St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai incontestably holds one of the world’s most important collections of ancient manuscripts. Only a few days ago, the news went through international media that Grigory Kessel (Austrian Academy of Sciences) has discovered a rare fragment (fig. 1) of one of the oldest Bible translations whose text (not the manuscript itself) dates back to the third century CE.2 The fragment originated from St Catherine’s Monastery, but is now kept in the Vatican Library. It is only one of the huge, yet elusive number of manuscripts to which Beneshevich drew attention. These are Sinai’s dispersed manuscripts – membra dispersa sinaitica. This blog is dedicated to their history.

2. The Urnarrativ of Beneshevich’s “history of despoiling”, which he probably had in mind, is certainly Constantin Tischendorf’s (1815-1874) discovery of Codex Sinaiticus and the events surrounding its dislocation (or at least of the greater part of it). Even though it has been recounted umpteen times, the fixation on this one manuscript has almost completely overshadowed that Tischendorf also brought a yet to be specified number of Eastern Christian manuscripts from the Sinai monastery. But the prominence of the figure of Tischendorf himself likewise obscured the dozens of manuscript hunters in his wake who – in various ways and for various reasons – came into the possession of Sinaitic manuscripts. As for Codex Sinaiticus, its present holding institutions (British Library, Russian National Library, St Catherine’s Monastery, Leipzig University Library) have set an example of what could potentially happen to all membra dispersa sinaitica. Since 2009, the manuscript’s dispersed parts are reunited digitally thanks to the efforts of the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

Figure 2: MS Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cod.arab. 1071, folio 1r. Source: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München.

3. I came across a Sinaitic fragment outside Sinai for the first time in 2016 in the Bavarian State Library, Munich (MS Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cod.arab. 1071; fig. 2). It belongs to a Christian Arabic parchment manuscript, probably written in the 9th century CE and containing biblical and theological texts. I got to see its parent codex at St Catherine’s Monastery in March 2017 (MS Sinai, St Catherine’s Monastery, Ar. 155, fig. 3). When I started researching its provenance, I soon learned that this manuscript’s “biography” (object-life) was connected to a staggering amount of other Sinaitic manuscripts outside Sinai. I also learned that long before me others, including Grigory Kessel, had already dedicated themselves to the painstaking task of reassembling dispersed Sinaitic manuscripts.3

Figure 3: MS Sinai, St Catherine’s Monastery, Ar. 155, f. 1r. Source: Library of Congress.

4. This work not only consists in joining fragments, but also in uncovering provenance history. A more recent awareness across philological disciplines of just how inseperable issues of provenance are from the meaning of written artefacts stored in modern western institutions has given rise to new approaches towards the study of manuscripts as bearers of text and material entities. These recent developments in manuscript studies, together with the fact that since 2016 I had collected notes on dispersed Sinaitic manuscripts (primarily Arabic ones), their collectors, and their former and present holding institutions, gave rise to the wish to bring this material together somewhere.

5. This was the principle reason for starting this blog. But there are other reasons as well. I decided to continue collecting my notes on Sinai’s dispersed manuscripts publically in order to get exchange started on this topic with an interested scholarly and non-scholarly audience. I also want to help others find infomation about and navigate networks of dealers, collectors, scholars, and public institutions involved in the dispersion of Sinaitic manuscripts. This is why, in addition to posts, I have set up three resource pages: Collectors and Dealers, Manuscripts, Bibliography. These are under construction at the moment, but will be updated continually. I will also try to stay up to date on pertinent scholarship and spotlight it wherever possible. At times, I will digress and look at potentially interesting developments in adjacent areas. In the long run, my hope is that the material collected here will eventually result in a monograph akin to Rebecca J. W. Jefferson’s recently published The Cairo Genizah and the Age of Discovery in Egypt (2022).4 I am convinced that a coherent and comprehensive account of the fate of Sinai’s dispersed manuscripts is an important desideratum. At this point, I have no idea if I will ever have the chance of writing this account. But working towards that goal – with baby steps – is what I can do.

6. A blog dedicated to Sinai’s dispersed manuscript heritage will hopefully ameliorate the present situation where information on manuscripts must be culled from disparate places. Some information on Sinaitic manuscripts outside Sinai (only Christian Arabic though)5 has been gathered on the Manuscripts and Manuscript Catalogues site of syri.ac. But this site doesn’t seem to have been updated for a while. Already in 2007, EMEL started the Sinai Diaspora Project, which, according to its description, is a “long-term program to digitize manuscripts which originate from St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai, but which are now scattered in libraries in Europe and North America”. I was unable to find any information about the current state of this project. In any event, the availability of Sinai’s “diaspora manuscripts”6 will have to be accompanied by a thorough understanding of their provenance history. Another valuable resource is the Manuscript Hunters webpage. This site, however, covers only the most influential collectors/scholars, only some of whom were in the possession of Sinaitic manuscripts. As this blog may eventually show, there exist hundreds of dispersed Sinaitic manuscripts in the global north and dozens of persons, some famous, some completely unkown, were involved in their dispersion.

7. This blog is, of course, also inspired by a number of other blogs. They all appear as bookmarks on the main page. What I’m most looking forward to now is gathering information, get it out there, engage with my readers, and learn from them.

Published: 15 April 2023. Last updated: 12 April 2024. License: CC BY-NC. Download PDF

Cite this blog post
Peter Tarras (2023, April 15). A Blog Dedicated to the Dispersed Manuscript Heritage of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Membra Dispersa Sinaitica. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vkva

  1. Quoted from Georgi R. Parpulov, “Membra disiecta Sinaitica Graeca“, Fragmentology: A Journal for the Study of Medieval Manuscript Fragments, 5 (2022), pp. 79-85, at p. 79. []
  2. The story was covered by ActuaLitté, Archaeologie Online, Independent, idw – Informationsdienst Wissenschaft, Medievalists.net, Merkur, Olhar Digital, Puls 24, Signum, Der Standard, Zeit Online, and zenit. Most of these links were collected by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller. For Kessel’s publications on the manuscript, see Grigory Kessel, “Membra disjecta sinaitica III: Two (Palimpsest) Fragments of Sin. geo. 49 and Their Four Syriac Undertexts“, The Vatican Library Review, 1 (2022), pp. 257-270; idem, “A New (Double Palimpsest) Witness to the Old Syriac Gospels (Vat. iber. 4, ff. 1 &5)“, New Testament Studies, 69/2 (2023), pp. 210-221. Grigory Kessel just wrote today on Twitter: “The last few days have been poisoned by a flurry of media reports in connection with my publication of the Old Syriac Gospel fragment. It seems that there is no end to the free interpretations produced by the journalists who not only don’t have a clue about philology, manuscripts, and (sic!) the Bible, but also don’t bother asking me for an approval of their narratives. At the same time, it is hilarious that even more than a century after A.S. Lewis’ discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus a combination of Old Syriac translation and a palimpsest is still highly ‘radioactive’”. []
  3. In the case of MS Sinai, St Catherine’s Monastery, Ar. 155, it was Paul Géhin who not only identified MS Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cod.arab. 1071 as one of its membra disiecta, but also discovered another two stray folios in MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Syr. 378 (now designated MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Syr. 378/8) as well as another 40 folios, which are MS London, British Library, Or. 8612; see Paul Géhin, “Manuscrits sinaïtiques dispersés I: les fragments syriaques et arabes de Paris”, Oriens Christianus, 90 (2006), pp. 23-43. The Munich, Paris, and London fragments were still joined when Georg Graf saw them in 1919; see Georg Graf, “Sinaitische Bibelfragmente“, Oriens Christianus, Neue Serie, 12-14 (1925), pp. 217-220. On the London fragment, see Fritz Krenkow, “Two Ancient Fragments of an Arabic Translation of the New Testament“, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 58/2 (1926), pp. 275-285. I have published my work on MS Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cod.arab. 1071 in Peter Tarras, “From Sinai to Munich: Tracing the History of a Fragment from the Grote Collection“, Comparative Oriental Manuscripts Bulletin, 6/1 (2020), pp. 73-90. []
  4. Rebecca J. W. Jefferson, The Cairo Genizah and the Age of Discovery in Egypt: The History and Provenance of a Jewish Archive (London [etc.]: I. B. Tauris, 2022). []
  5. André Binggeli, “Early Christian Graeco-Arabica: Melkite Manuscripts and Translations in Palestine“, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, 3 (2015), pp. 228-247, at pp. 230-231 already pointed out: “It would be extremely worthwhile to extend these first attempts at reconstituting dispersed manuscripts to the entire corpus of early Melkite Arabic manuscripts, beginning with the manuscripts still at the Monastery of Saint Catherine”. See also Mark N. Swanson, “Three Sinai Manuscripts of Books ‘of the Master and the Disciple’ and Their Membra Disiecta in Birmingham”, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 65 (1999), pp. 347-361, at pp. 348-349; Sebastian P. Brock, “The Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Arabic Manuscripts at Sinai”, in: Cyril Mango, Marlia Mango, Earleen Brunner, Father Justin (eds). 2010. St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai: Its Manuscripts and their Conversation: Papers Given in Memory of Professor Ihor Ševčenko: 27 November 2010 Stelios Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies University of Oxford (Oxford: Saint Catherine Foundation, 2011), pp. 43-50, at p. 50. []
  6. To my knowledge, the term was coined by Grigory Kessel, Natalia Smelova, “Sinai Syriac Manuscripts in Exile“, Sinaiticus: The Bulletin of the Saint Catherine Foundation, s.n. (2018), pp. 13-15. []

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