In St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, there is a special decorated box with an outer wooden cover and an inner glass cover. Inside the box, carefully wrapped in silk is a manuscript which is the oldest extant copy of the four canonical gospels in Syriac. This manuscript was first discovered and photographed by Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, two middle-aged ladies who undertook the journey by camel to the monastery in the late 19th century.
This wasn’t the first journey they had taken. Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twins, were raised by their father who had a love of travel. Their mother died soon after their birth on January 11,1843, and he decided to raise them on his own. This included educating them “as though they were boys.” At some point he discovered that the girls had a talent for languages and told them that when they learned a language, he would take them to the country where it was spoken. With this incentive, they learned French, Spanish, German, and Italian and were rewarded with wonderful travels.
John Smith was a self-made man, a solicitor with a client base that gave him a respectable income. All of this changed when one of his clients, John Ferguson, died leaving what was at the time, the largest estate to be settled in the courts of Scotland. Ferguson was the recipient of the fortunes of four unmarried uncles who died intestate. He was also a distant relative of John Smith. This event made two great changes in the lives of the sisters. First, on the death of their father, they would become very wealthy, and second their father had to go to America to settle much of the estate. The girls were put into a boarding school, Birkenhead, near Liverpool, having to leave the small town of Irvine where they had grown up.
After the return of John Smith, the sisters continued their education at Birkenhead, then went on to a year of finishing school in London. The family moved to Kilbarchan, a village closer to Glasgow from which Smith could administer the foundation which received the bulk of Ferguson’s wealth. He also might have been thinking of the sister’s futures, hoping to introduce them to appropriate society for young women of wealth. Smith was a practical man, their lifestyle didn’t change drastically, and he framed his will so that the girls wouldn’t be left destitute in the event they married fortune hunters. Sadly, this became important sooner than expected. John Smith died when the girls were only 23 years old.
Bereft of their beloved father and without close relatives to interfere, the sisters decided to take a trip to Egypt. Some may have considered their trip too soon after their father’s death, but they had been raised not to worry too much about what others thought, and traveling brought back many wonderful memories of him. They had been raised strict Presbyterians and Egypt at the time, prior to many ancient archaeological discoveries, was considered the Holy Land, and with a planned trip to Jerusalem after sailing down the Nile, this silenced many critics. This trip (worthy of a post all its own) confirmed for the sisters a maxim that they would abide by for the rest of their travels, that you shouldn’t travel in countries where you don’t know the language. Their journey overland in Europe, down the Danube to Constantinople, then by steamer to Alexandria went without difficulties as the sisters spoke most of the languages they encountered. However, when they reached Egypt, they didn’t speak Arabic. This is something they would remedy on returning home.
When Agnes and Margaret returned home, there wasn’t much to hold them in the small town of Kilbarchan, so they moved to London. Over the next 15 – 20 years, the sisters would continue their studies learning ancient Greek and Hebrew, but also learning to speak Arabic and modern Greek. Of course they also continued to travel, including one interesting adventure to Cyprus and Greece where they traveled over the Peloponnese on horseback.
It was also during this time that both sisters met and married wonderful men who were very well-suited to them. After a 12 year courtship, Margaret married James Gibson in 1883. Unfortunately, he died only three years later in October of 1886. Margaret was so distraught that Agnes was afraid to leave her alone. Needing to get away, but not wanting to take a long trip, the sisters went to Cambridge for a month. It was here that Agnes met Samuel Lewis, who she married the next year.
Samuel Lewis was an administrator of the Parker Library, an expert in ancient texts, a collector and an inveterate traveler. He also was very gregarious and frequently brought home guests, introducing Agnes and Margaret to academic circles which were usually closed to women. Ironically, Agnes’s marriage also lasted only three years, ending with Samuel’s death in 1891. As had become their pattern, the sisters began planning another trip, this time to Sinai to travel in the footsteps of Moses.
Mount Sinai, the designated place where Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments, was also the site of St. Catherine’s monastery. Agnes and Margaret were aware of the recent discoveries at the monastery, including Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1859, and hoped to gain access to manuscripts. A friend and paleographer, Rendel Harris, had recently been to the monastery and had a good relationship with the monks. He told Agnes about a cache of manuscripts written in Syriac which he had not had time to examine. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic once spoken over much of the Middle East, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Agnes began to study it.
Over the months of planning, Agnes obtained a working knowledge of Syriac, and Harris also convinced the sisters to learn to use a camera. Once in Cairo, Egypt, (this time able to speak Arabic) they were able to hire an excellent dragoman, to organize their trip across the Sinai desert to the monastery, as well as introduce themselves to the Patriarch of the Greek Church. Supplied with letters of introduction from the Archbishop and Rendel Harris, the sisters set out for Suez. On January 28, 1892, they began their nine-day journey across the Sinai desert by camel.
The party was warmly received by the Prior of the monastery and Galaktéon, the librarian who fondly remembered Rendel Harris. Once their camp was set up in the garden, the sisters attended the afternoon church service, but on Monday February 8, they began the work they had come to do. Although Galaktéon didn’t understand why they wanted to see the oldest manuscripts as opposed to the beautiful illuminated volumes, he gave them access to the dark closet Rendel Harris remembered. There Agnes found an intriguing volume whose pages were stuck together.
Using their tea kettle to steam the pages, they were able to open the manuscript and discovered it was a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript whose pages have been recycled. The vellum has been scraped to remove the original text and been written over. Over time, however, the original words begin to show through. Agnes could read enough of the underlying Syriac to tell that she was looking at an old copy of the four canonical gospels. The upper layer was a text about the lives of women saints dated 778 CE, so the underlying gospels must be much older.
Agnes and Margaret photographed the entire manuscript as well as other documents, taking 1000 pictures over all, and hurried back to England to tell scholars about their find. Their challenges weren’t over. They had to develop their photographs, which they did themselves, and Agnes had to convince Professors Robert Bensly and Francis Burkitt, Syriac experts, of the value of their find. This she did and the next year a second expedition was mounted, this time including Bensley and Burkitt with their wives, and Rendel Harris.
The second expedition resulted in the transcription of the manuscript, and cataloging of all of the Syriac and Arabic texts in the library. These catalogs translated from Syriac to Greek by Agnes and and Arabic to Greek by Margaret were invaluable to the monks and to future scholars. Although, the expedition was filled with tension and mutual suspicion, eventually the manuscript was published.
The Syriac Sinaiticus, or Sinaitic Palimpsest, as it is now called, dates to the late 4th century and is the oldest known copy of the gospels in Syriac. It was the most important manuscript find since the Codex Sinaiticus and over time launched Agnes and Margaret into serious careers. Their work wasn’t honored by the University of Cambridge, which didn’t admit women, but they received honorary degrees from the universities at Halle, Heidelberg, Dublin and St. Andrews.
Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice
Professor Janet Soskice videotaped 52 minute lecture at Catholic University’s Mullen Library (2009)
(I highly recommend both the book and the lecture by Professor Janet Soskice.)
How the Codex Was Found by Margaret Dunlop Gibson at Internet Archive
“Sisters of Semitics: A Fresh Appreciation of the Scholarship of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson” by Rebecca J. W. Jefferson, Medieval Feminist Forum (free download)
Would you be interested in reading more about the sisters adventures? If so, let me know in the comments.