The Dispersed Manuscripts of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Peter Tarras has started a blog Membra Dispersa Sinaitica whose first post has the usefully descriptive name A Blog Dedicated to the Dispersed Manuscript Heritage of Saint Catherine’s Monastery:

1. “The history of the Sinai library till the second half of the nineteenth century is mostly a history of its despoiling”. The Soviet 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 (image 1) of one of the oldest Bible translations whose text (not the manuscript itself) dates back to the third century CE. 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. […]

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, 1071; image 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, image 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.

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.

Via a FB post by Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul). A valuable project — I hope it continues and thrives.


  1. I have visited St Catherine’s Monastery, whilst staying on a kibbutz in a gap year 1978. Sinai was controlled by Israel at the time. I was there for the sunrise on Mt. Sinai — which was stunning.

    The Monastery was closeted, except for one brother who was serving mint tea to tourists from an urn in a colonnade. (So no intimation of any manuscripts.)

    Coldest night of my life trying to sleep in a stone guest-house with no windows, at the foot of the Mount. Much relief at being able to warm up by climbing it.

  2. I was intrigued enough by the mention of Constatin von Tischendorf to look at his Wikipedia article. The tale of Tischendorf’s transfer of ancient documents from the monastery to the Russian Tsar and then further afield is a tangled one, and the section of the article on “Discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus Bible manuscripts” is twisted and hard to follow. The English is none too good, either. Things keep appearing and disappearing from view, and strange contradictory statements abound. An example is:

    “Those[who?] ignorant of the details of his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus accused Tischendorf of buying manuscripts from ignorant monastery librarians at low prices. Indeed, he was never rich, but he staunchly defended the rights of the monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery when he persuaded them eventually to send the manuscript to the Tsar. (????) This took approximately 10 years because the abbot of St Catherines had to be re-elected and confirmed in office in Cairo and in Jerusalem, and during those 10 years no one in the monastery had the authority to hand over any documents. However the documents were handed over in due course following a signed and sealed letter to the Tsar Alexander II (Schenkungsurkunde). Even so, the monks of Mt. Sinai still display a receipt-letter from Tischendorf promising to return the manuscript to them in the case that the donation can not be done. This token-letter had to be destroyed, following the late issue of a “Schenkungsurkunde”. (????) This donation act regulated the Codex exchange with the Tsar, against 9000 Rubels and Rumanian estate protection. The Tsar was seen as the protector of Greek-Orthodox Christians. Thought lost since the Russian revolution, the document (Schenkungsurkunde) has now resurfaced in St Petersburg 2003, and has also been long before commented upon by other scholars like Kurt Aland. The monastery has disputed the existence of the gift certificate (Schenkungsurkunde) since the British Library was named as the new owner of the Codex. (????)”

    Tischendorf appears to have been a prominent scholar, but in those days being a prominent scholar appears to have also involved rescuing priceless manuscripts from ignorant natives who have no idea of their historical and scholarly value.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I recall hearing one of my various Cuban-Jewish in-laws (now deceased), speaking some years back (in English) about a visit he had made to Mt. Sinai, in which he referred (in a respectful tone) to the monastery as “Santa Catalina,” which of course makes perfect sense as its name within a Cuban-emigre worldview.

  4. Ah, that takes me back to when I was a kid and my aunt and uncle took me along when they sailed their little boat to Santa Catalina!

  5. 26 Miles (Santa Catalina). “Water all around it everywhere…”

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I first thought it was a bit odd to refer to Beneshevich as a “Soviet Byzantinist” in the context of a remark he had made in the indisputably pre-Soviet year of 1911, but upon further investigation I find that a questionable label even for his latter career since the Soviet regime persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered him,* and not (as best as I can tell) because he was a devoted “Old Bolshevik” who had fallen on the wrong side of a no-honor-among-thieves feud among former colleagues. (He was born in what is now Belarus, so feel free to take the nationalist tack of spelling his surname Беняшэвіч rather than Бенеше́вич, although I’m not sure if there’s a standard/convenient way of rendering that shibboleth in romanization.)

    *Allowing his work on Ιωάννης Σχολαστικός to be published in German translation? Obvious Nazi spy, concluded the NKVD, although he was posthumously rehabilitated during the Khrushchev years.

  7. I quite agree — a prime example of lazy labeling.

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