The Levantine Foundation

Location: Egypt

Subject: Archaeology | Development

Dates: 2002 | 2006 | 2010

Related ACE Cultural Tours: Egypt

Mission/Vision

To preserve, conserve and share ancient Near Eastern artefacts on paper and related material and disseminate information relating thereto.

Project History

The Levantine Foundation was founded in 2002 and is dedicated to preserving historic manuscripts dating all the way back to the 5th century. The ancient monastery of Deir Al Surian, in the Egyptian desert, contains a collection of Christian manuscripts of world importance. Many of these priceless works are in a parlous condition. The Levantine Foundation has been working with the monastery to build a modern library and to conserve and record the collection to preserve it for future generations. The collection is of historic significance to the worlds of scholarship, the Christian Church and the heritage of Egypt.

Part of the Foundation’s work brings top paper conservators such as David Jacobs – senior conservator at the British Library – to Egypt to help train local conservationists including the bishop and monks of the monastery. The collection is also being catalogued and digitised. It is a long and slow process and there is still a real danger that some manuscripts may be damaged beyond preservation potential by the time the team are able to get to them.

The foundation was established after Elizabeth Sobczynski, conservator of works of art on paper and now director of the Levantine Foundation, visited the site to examine the entire library. She was disturbed at what she found, as exposure to moisture had resulted in corrosion and serious perforations, and insect infestation was also apparent. It was agreed that urgent action was needed to introduce modern conservation techniques and improve environmental conditions.

Work is currently being undertaken with the aim of developing suitable thermal and humidity control for the library. The Architectural Association Graduate School in London is helping with technical advice and equipment, and is developing a passive cooling system for climate control.

Project & ACE

ACE was approached in 2002 by the Foundation requesting sponsorship for a project involving the conservation, digitizing and binding of the 10th-century Syriac manuscript “The Homilies of Jacob of Sarug”.

The Homilies are part of an astounding cache of manuscripts up to 1,500 years old, all found at the Deir al-Surian monastery in the western desert of Egypt. This Coptic Monastery, established in the 6th century and later occupied by monks from Syria and Mesopotamia, is currently home to 200 Egyptian Copts and has one of the richest ancient libraries in Christendom.

The find occurred when reconstruction work was undertaken on the ancient tower where the library had originally been established and comprised one complete manuscript and hundreds of fragments and single pages. It appears the first floor collapsed around 500 years ago and a new wooden floor was simply inserted above. The rubble of the earlier floor has now been removed and the curator, Father Bigoul, found a complete manuscript embedded in a section of disused water pipe. This parchment text has now been identified as a 9th-century “Book of the Holy Hierothos”.

During the 17th and 20th centuries the great monastic libraries of the Levantine were plundered by the European powers. At Deir al-Surian almost half of the collection was lost. Now, the Homilies of Jacob of Sarug, one of the great poets of the Syrian-Orthodox tradition, are safe in their rightful home. The book, dating from AD 956/7, is written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language, which dominated throughout the Levant during early Christianity. Once the conservation work is complete the book will, of course, primarily be for the use of the monks themselves. However, the digitized versions will make these rare documents available for scholars all over the world.

ACE continues to support the project donating funds towards the Foundation’s new proposal to build a purpose built library in which to keep the carefully preserved artefacts in a sustainable and safe environment where they are also accessible to the public.