Discovered - Long Lost and Nearly Forgotten Christian Languages

 Saint Catherine's Monastery

The St. Catherine's Monastery is located is the shadow of Mount Sinai. It has the distinction of housing the oldest continuously used library in the world. It is also one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. The monastery was constructed between the years of 548 and 565 A.D. and its library contains thousands of ancient manuscripts and books. Unknown until very recently, was that some of these manuscripts contain very valuable and extremely rare secrets. These secrets include languages long lost to history. 

Saint Catherine's Monastery

The Monastery is controlled by the Church of the Sinai which is a branch of the Greek Orthodox Church. The complex was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. It is named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria. According to tradition Saint Catherine was a Christian saint and virgin. She was martyred sometime in the early 4th century by emperor Maxentius. Prior to her death at the age of 18, Catherine is said to have lead hundreds of people to Christianity. Interestingly, 1,100 years after her death, Catherine is said to have been one of the saints who appeared to Joan of Arc to comfort her.

In the 7th century the rise of Islam caused many Christian monasteries to close. Saint Catherine's remained open, mostly due to its remote location. This isolation cut them off almost entirely from the outside world. As a result, supplies and resources were limited. Because of this, the opportunity for the hidden secrets was inadvertently created.

When the monk's ran out of writing material, and could not get new supplies, they began erasing some of the older writings so the materials could be reused. How they selected which documents could be erased is unknown. They would then re-use the material, writing the new text in place of the old. When this is done it creates what is known as a palimpsests. 

[Palimpsest - a piece or writing material on which the original writing has been altered or erased to make room for later writings. In a Palimpsest some of the original material remains.]

In some cases there may be multiple documents beneath the current writing. How many layers of text are there depends on how many times the document was erased and reused. The more layers of text there are, the more difficult the recovery process. 

Palimpsest Hold Long Forgotten Secrets

Experts were excited to learn there were approximately 130 Palimpsests in the library at Saint Catherine's. Until recently, even when a Palimpsest was discovered it was generally impossible to decipher the original writing that had been erased. With new technology this is no longer the case. Using some of the same technology that has been used on the Dead Sea Scrolls, scientist are now able to recover the materials that were erased centuries ago. What they have found in Saint Catherine's Monastery is amazing. 

Since the project began the scientists have been able to process, and photograph 74 of the documents. These documents together contain some 6,800 pages. Each page is photographed multiple times, each time with different colored lights. Over time the original writing, the hidden treasure beneath, becomes visible.

The documents come from a wide range of times, from the 4th to 12th centuries. Among the treasures discovered were over 100 pages of previously unknown Greek poems. Scholars were also excited when they found the oldest known recipe written by the Greek physician Hippocrates.

[Hippocrates - is generally known as the father of medicine.]

Ancient Christian Languages

Aside from these amazing discoveries, scientist were also amazed to discover many of the erased texts had been written in obscure languages, some of which have not been used in centuries. Two of these obsolete languages were known to be used almost exclusively by small groups of Christians. The first is known as Caucasian Albanian. The second is known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic, which is a mixture of Syriac and Greek. It is believed this language has not been used since the 13th century. 

Christian Palestinian Aramaic was a language used by the Melkite Christian community located in Palestine and Transjordan. The language was used beginning in the 5th century up until the 13th century. The language stopped being used in the 13th century, but its existence was rediscovered by scholars in the 18th century. These new documents have helped scholars better understand the language and vocabulary, along with giving them several new words they had not seen or translated before.

[Melkite Christians were a group of eastern churches of the Byzantine Rite and were operated in the middle east.]

This group of Christians had their own unique art, literature and spirituality. The language fell out of use as the Islamic movement spread through the region and the Christian communities were either eliminated, or forced to relocate. If this group did relocate, it would seem they were acclimated into the new culture and adapted the new culture's language, abandoning Christian Palestinian Aramaic. 

With more than fifty documents left to evaluate, the scientists are left to wonder what they might find when the ancient writings are finally brought forward and can be viewed for the first time in more than 1,000 years. 

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