Ancient Egyptian Monastery Yields Manuscripts Written In Lost Languages Over 1,500 Years Ago

Thanks to new scientific techniques, ancient languages that have not been seen in thousands of years are now being deciphered after a collection of manuscripts was found in an Egyptian monastery that was set up in 527 by Roman Emperor St. Justinian the Great.

Saint Catherine’s monastery on the Sinai peninsula contains what is now the oldest running library on the planet, and monks that once lived there would routinely take old bits of parchment that they or others had written on and do their best to erase them by sprinkling lemon juice liberally over the parchment and then scraping off the letters, according to The Atlantic. Afterwards, they were able to write Biblical texts over the original wording of the manuscripts. This was considered an excellent way at the time to recycle and reuse the parchment.

The Egyptian monastery of Saint Catherine’s is located in what is considered a holy place at the base of Mount Sinai, where God is alleged to have given Moses the Ten Commandments. Michael Phelps of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library based in California enthused that this Egyptian monastery is living up to its original mission as a place of discovery, as the Independent reports.

“The age of discovery is not over. I don’t know of any library in the world that parallels it. The monastery is an institution from the Roman Empire that continues operating according to its original mission.”

Tourists walk through South Sinai where St. Catherine's, the Egyptian monastery, is located.
Tourists walk through South Sinai where St. Catherine's, the Egyptian monastery, is located. Ancient manuscripts written in forgotten languages have been discovered at this monastery. [Image by David Degner/Getty Images]

In order to read what is beneath the ancient manuscripts, scientists used photographs that had been taken from many different angles as well as various areas along the light spectrum, and were able to discover ink traces that had been left behind by the earliest writers of the manuscripts before the text had been obliterated.

After following this method, scientists took parchment images and used those in a process with computer algorithms so that the ancient text beneath popped up and could be read, according to the Daily Mail.

One of the lost languages discovered at the Egyptian monastery of St. Catherine’s is known as Caucasian Albanian, a language that would have once been commonplace in the old Christian world of what is now Azerbaijan. Nearly every record from this area was destroyed in the 8th and 9th century with the loss of their churches.

Michael Phelps notes that the two Caucasian Albanian texts discovered on pieces of parchment are the only two known texts that exist in this language today.

“There are two palimpsests here that have Caucasian Albanian text in the erased layer. They are the only two texts that survive in this language. We were sitting with one of the scholars and he was adding to the language as we were processing the images. In real time he was saying ‘now we have the word for net’ and ‘now the word for fish.'”

St. Catherine's monastery beneath Mount Sinai in Egypt.
St. Catherine's monastery beneath Mount Sinai in Egypt. [Image by Paola Crociani/AP Images]

Another language that scientists have discovered written on the parchment found at St. Catherine’s monastery is known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic, which is a fusion of Greek and Syriac languages that came to an end in the 13th century. Some of the earliest known versions of the New Testament were composed in this now forgotten language.

Besides these ancient languages, researchers also discovered many pages of Greek poetry buried under Georgian and Arabic writing, as well as manuscripts on Greek medicine. One of these manuscripts contains the oldest writing attributed to Hippocrates, the spiritual father of medicine.

For those who would like to read some of the ancient manuscripts with lost languages found at the Egyptian monastery of St. Catherine’s, Michael Phelps and other researchers involved with this project will be placing their findings online.

[Featured Image by Hussein Talal/AP Images]