Doņa Ana County Historical Society
Las Cruces, Doņa Ana County, New Mexico

St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai
Old Images from the Library of Congress

Thanks to DACHS members Lustisha Piland and Buddy Ritter, St. Catherine's librarian, Father Justin, is scheduled to speak at a special Society presentation on November 9, 2017 at 7 p.m. in the Good Sam Auditorium. He will provide some background about the monastery, which is over a thousand years old, and about the collection of ancient documents he is the guardian of.

The following images were found in the Library of Congress and consist of photos taken about 100 years ago and two paintings from around 1840. There is one current color image that is a panorama - it is the last photo. As can be seen in the photos, the monastery is very isolated.  It is on the Sinai Peninsula and sits at the base of Mount Sinai.  It is controlled by the Eastern Orthodox Church and is a World Heritage Site.

Here is a description of Father Justin and his work provided by Buddy Ritter:
As interest in access to the texts has grown, so has the impetus to take new measures to document and preserve them. Making digital copies for public use will help prevent regular handling of the originals while also providing insurance in case the originals are damaged or lost.

That is where Father Justin comes in. Working in an eight-by-eight-foot plastic tent, he shoots images that practically replicate the originals enabling scholars to see even the minutest details.

The camera, made by the Swiss company Sinar, faces a specially designed cradle, a complicated contraption of aluminum bars and screws that supports the manuscripts' bindings without allowing the book to open more than 100 degrees. Two flashes with glass domes to remove harmful ultraviolet light stand on separate tripods on either side of the camera, and a computer screen and hard disk are nearby.

Because of Sinai's insidious granite dust, air in the tent is constantly filtered. This dust ''would reduce some of the equipment to a state of quite literally screeching inoperability in less than a year,'' according to David Cooper, a British expert in digitizing ancient manuscripts and an adviser on the St. Catherine's project.

Working alone, day and night, Father Justin's job requires meticulous attention to detail, but it may also seem mind-numbing. ''This is a job for a monk,'' he said, smiling, ''because it's this incredible combination of monotony and attentiveness. It's like driving: very boring, but at the same time you have to be very alert.''

Born in 1949 in El Paso, Father Justin grew up in a Baptist family that worked in religious-book publishing. He joined them during summer vacations, gradually learning about computers. While at the University of Texas, he developed a passion for Byzantine history, and at 22 joined the Greek Orthodox Church. He entered a monastery in Brookline, Mass., in 1974 and was put in charge of publishing the monastery's books and periodicals, honing his computer skills.

In 1996 Father Justin left the Brookline monastery and showed up unannounced at St. Catherine's with all his belongings to live an isolated, spiritual existence, immersed in Byzantine history. He also happened to arrive just as St. Catherine's was starting its digitization program. ''You can see it as an amazing coincidence or you can see it at a deeper level,'' said Father Justin, one of only two non-Greeks among the 25 monks here.

Because St. Catherine's is so remote, the monastery's abbot, Archbishop Damianos Sinaites (Sinaites, Greek for ''of Sinai,'' is the name taken by all monks at the monastery) has encouraged the digitization project as a way to share the manuscripts with scholars while also preserving them. At a cost of around $50,000, donated by European and American institutions and individuals, digitizing the manuscripts is part of a comprehensive conservation program that involves conservators' approving all manuscripts before they are photographed. Eventually some of the work may also be put online.

The ultimate goal of St. Catherine's digitization project is to photograph all 1.8 million pages in the monastery's manuscript collection. But with Father Justin working alone, that will not be accomplished in his lifetime. ''The product is good, but the rate of progress is glacial,'' Mr. Cooper said. ''The equipment could become outdated before it's done very much.''


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