The Saint Catherine's Library Conservation Project

The Library

The monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, is the oldest active Christian monastery in the world and its library can reasonably claim to be the oldest surviving library in Christendom. The library is still in use by the Fathers and scholars visiting the monastery. It holds a unique collection of manuscripts written in many languages (Arabic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Greek, Slavonic and Syriac) and in a variety of subjects. The collection is unique not only because of its palaeographic value but also because of the huge variety of undisturbed bookbinding features and techniques which are evident on the bound books. The importance of the collection can be further appreciated since most of the books retain their original or early Byzantine/Greek bindings. This is often not the case with manuscripts kept in western European libraries as old bindings were removed from the books and replaced with new ones as a result of fashion or wear and tear. The total number of manuscripts is approximately 3300, and although the dry conditions of the desert have helped the preservation of the books so far, a conservation-preservation plan is needed for repairing damaged manuscripts and ensuring for their preservation in the future. This work is being undertaken by Camberwell College of Arts with the support of the St. Catherine Foundation.

The Conservation Project

In order to plan any conservation-preservation work, the condition in which the collection is preserved needs to be assessed. In 2001, conservators from the Camberwell College of Arts, with the support of the St. Catherine Foundation, started surveying the manuscripts at the library of the St. Catherine's monastery. The manuscript survey is currently progressing and due to conclude in 2005 (update: see Manuscript survey finished). Its purpose is to record the binding structures, to assess their condition and prioritise conservation work. This will later be useful for estimating the resources needed to carry out any work planned. The project is headed by Professor Nicholas Pickwoad and a number of conservators from around the world have contributed with their experience to the survey. Working for the project has been a very appealing opportunity in the conservation world and hundreds of conservators have applied to take part. Due to the vast size of the collection, the cataloguing of the information collected is done electronically and a database is being built which will allow questions to be answered regarding the overall conservation planning and the current state of the collection. Because of the poor condition in which several manuscripts survive, an important part of the project has been to produce boxes for the protection of the manuscripts. The boxing of the manuscripts will be done using specially designed stainless steel boxes manufactured individually according to the size of each book. This information will be given by the survey database.