“A Hidden World Revealed: The Palimpsests of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai” synaxis and workshops cosponsored by the Seeger Center 

Feb. 7, 2023

By Catherine Curan

Twelve hundred years ago, a scribe in a secluded monastery took a piece of parchment laboriously inscribed with a religious text—and erased it.

Parchment was scarce in the Egyptian desert during the medieval era, prompting the erasure and reuse of manuscripts.

Beneath the new writing, however, traces of the original words remained. Today, scholars are deploying cutting-edge technology to view rare and important underlying texts on these layered manuscripts, known as palimpsests. The December 2022 synaxis and workshops, “A Hidden World Revealed: The Palimpsests of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai,” featured the latest noteworthy discoveries from the Sinai Palimpsests Project, which is restoring lost texts from Saint Catherine’s. Scholars, librarians, and digital imaging experts gathered in Princeton to study these manuscripts and the imaging techniques helping to bring lost words to light. The Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity, Comparative Antiquity: A Humanities Council Global Initiative, and Special Collections, Princeton University Library served as cosponsors. 

The synaxis and workshops drew participants from around the world. They included Dimitri Gondicas, Stanley J. Seeger ’52 Director of the Seeger Center, Jack Tannous, associate professor of history and Hellenic Studies and director of the Program in Hellenic Studies, Claudia Rapp, a professor at the University of Vienna and project scholarly director for the Sinai Palimpsests Project, and Father Justin of Sinai, Librarian of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

“Special Collections was delighted to cosponsor the synaxis and workshops, which brought modern technology, medieval manuscripts, and people together for enjoyment, learning, and discovery,” said William Noel, the John T. Maltsberger III ’55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections at Princeton University Library. 

Saint Catherine’s monastery and library

Saint Catherine’s Monastery was founded by the Roman emperor Justinian in the mid-500s. The library contains a storied collection of manuscripts in Greek and nearly a dozen other languages. Saint Catherine’s has about 160 palimpsests, which scholars value highly. 

The synaxis and workshops marked a milestone in a long tradition of Princeton scholarship about Saint Catherine’s. Helen Evans, curator emerita at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave the opening keynote lecture, “Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai: A Treasure Trove of Medieval Christendom.” Giulia Rossetto of the Austrian Academy of Sciences lectured about the discovery of a new Classical Greek text on a Saint Catherine’s palimpsest. 

Helen Evans, curator emerita at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying icons from Saint Catherine's Monastery.

Helen Evans gave the opening keynote lecture. Photo by Jack Tannous.

Hidden texts revealed

The opportunity to see a palimpsest from Saint Catherine’s, Garrett MS. 24, in Special Collections was one of many highlights for attendees. At an afternoon workshop, a group of students showed the results of their imaging work on this text, a Georgian prayer book from the tenth century with rare undertext in Christian Palestinian Aramaic from 500-825. 

New technology as a tool to study centuries-old manuscripts appealed to undergraduate students in science and engineering as well as history.

“We are always looking for ways to make the humanities intersect with science, and this was another and exciting angle,” said Tannous.  

The five-day synaxis and workshop series concluded with a lecture by Father Justin of Sinai before an audience of over 90 people. He spoke about “Shining Multispectral Light on the History of the Sinai Monastery.” 

Father Justin showed a palimpsest with undertext and overtext in Syriac.
Father Justin shared an image of a palimpsest with undertext and overtext in Syriac. Photo by George A. Kiraz.

A tradition of scholarship

Princeton’s study of Saint Catherine’s Monastery has deep roots. In the 1950s and 60s, art and archeology professor Kurt Weitzmann and University of Michigan art history professor George H. Forsyth took several trips to Saint Catherine’s to research the manuscripts, icons and architecture. 

“We are deeply honored to build on Princeton’s longstanding engagement with the monastic community at Saint Catherine’s Monastery by supporting scholarly gatherings such as this synaxis and continuing to enrich the University’s Hellenic Collections with special acquisitions made by the Seeger Center for teaching and research,” said Gondicas. 

These acquisitions include a paper icon from 1759 and a unique set of engravings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Sinai Digital Archive contains representative collections from Weitzmann and Forsyth’s trips to Saint Catherine’s. Julia Gearhart, director of the visual resources collection at Princeton's Department of Art & Archeology, and Alice Isabella Sullivan, an assistant professor at Tufts University, won the 2023 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize from the Medieval Academy of America for the website.

The Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies plans more talks on palimpsests in spring 2023.

Claudia Rapp, Julia Gearhart and Father Justin at Princeton.
Claudia Rapp, Julia Gearhart and Father Justin. Photo by John Blazejewski/Princeton University.