By Doug Powell
As Graham Eliot digitizes manuscripts in the world’s oldest library at the foot of Mount Sinai, a monk reveals the existence of a secret artifact behind the mysterious death of the prominent archaeologist who discovered it almost a century earlier. Now it is lost in the ruins of an Istanbul mansion. But the only photograph of the artifact reveals an even bigger secret—Mount Sinai may actually be somewhere else.
While in Istanbul, Graham learns the graduate student who was with him at the monastery library is missing. His last known location: one of the dozen mountains that may be the biblical Sinai. A forbidden mountain in a forbidden country. Now Graham has to find a way to rescue him without being detected. And in the process he may recover a history with explosive political implications.
Amber light tinted the small room, casting a fragile ambience like an ember that could just as easily flame up as extinguish. Graham Eliot allowed himself a moment to appreciate the equivocal light and how appropriate it was given that—in a way—it illuminated the future and the past simultaneously. The future was found in a complex assembly of black metal supports that yawned upward to form a large mechanical V-shape standing on one side of the room. A network of cables ran along the frame like muscles and tendons connecting bones. The wires were collected into a single thick electrical snake serpentining across the tiled floor to the base of a wooden table where the cables split into capillaries connecting to a control unit. A large monitor sat on the desk displaying the software interface that controlled the fifty-megapixel digital camera mounted to a conservation copy stand. Most of the screen was devoted to a window framing the item it documented. The past was found in the form of a 1,500-year-old codex sitting in the jaws of the stand.
Graham looked from the manuscript to its image on the monitor. The page had roughly the same dimensions of a small paperback, but the image on the screen was twice its actual size. The camera zoomed out, fitting not only the full folio on the screen, but also grayscale and color scale bars so the images could be calibrated for color accuracy.
“Looks good to me, Dr. Eliot.”
Graham leaned over the shoulder of the graduate student operating the camera, double-checked the settings, and made a final adjustment to the light temperature.
Alexander Pearl had become his grad assistant only a few months earlier, but they quickly developed a good rapport after discovering a common love of what Alexander called Classic Rock, but what Graham simply called music. In the first week of working together, Graham had been showing him how to use the image processing software and asked if he preferred to be called Alexander, or if he went by Alex or Al. Alexander responded by saying, “Only if I can call you Betty.” Graham had guffawed at the reference to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” and they had talked music ever since.
“What do you think?” Alexander asked. “Is what you see what you get?”
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” Graham said. “It’s going to take us a while to sort through it all. But I always love discovering the unseen.”
Collecting the data required twenty-four images taken under various narrow wavelengths of light from across the spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet. The images would then be compiled, enabling the final image to be enhanced using many of the same techniques that astronomers used to create pictures of galaxies and stars too distant to be examined any other way. This process of multi-spectral imaging had produced a number of surprising results, including the recovery of palimpsests—texts that had been erased and written over.
“Take it,” Graham said, tapping Alexander’s shoulder.
Alexander clicked a button and saved the image as an uncompressed RAW file that was then converted to TIFF and JPG formats before being uploaded to a database that scholars from all over the world could access. In Los Angeles, other students on the team from Calbi University would create an additional tape backup for storage as insurance that would allow the images to be recovered in the event of a catastrophic failure of the database server.
In the past, scholars had to travel to wherever the manuscripts were—libraries, museums, monasteries, private collections—and ask permission to study the copies. Sometimes a scholar would arrive at a remote monastery after weeks of travel only to be denied access to the material. That changed when Graham’s good friend and colleague Andrew Singer began an ambitious program aimed at digitizing every extant New Testament manuscript in the original Greek—over 5,800 copies. It had been wildly successful and expanded its scope to include early translations, commentaries, and writings of early Church Fathers.
But the program was threatened a year ago with the murder of Singer after he discovered a copy of an expanded version of the Copper Scroll, an unsolved treasure map found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The map had contained enough additional detail about the locations of priceless items from the second Jewish Temple that he had been killed for it. After following the map’s newly identified locations to prevent the murderer from damaging sites of profound biblical importance—including the Temple Mount—Graham assumed the work left undone by Singer.
“I still can’t believe I get to do this,” Alexander mused. “This camera is amazing. The next best thing to hydrosulfurate of ammonia.”
Graham laughed as he shook his head, thinking of how the chemical used in the 1800s as a reagent to enhance fading texts just as often destroyed them.
“And now look at us. Think about how far we’ve come. In the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, in the world’s oldest monastery, in the world’s oldest operating library, surrounded by a laptop more sophisticated than the computer used in the moon landing.”
As if to prove the point, Alexander transferred the image to the MacBook Pro sitting next to the monitor. He checked to make sure it was copying to the backup server in the cloud as Graham started tuning the LED lights, programming the wavelength for the next shot.
Alexander had recently graduated with a master’s degree in Ancient Near East Studies from the University of Michigan and had come to Calbi University to do his doctoral studies under Graham. Alexander’s upper Midwest accent sounded harsh and barbed among the laid-back delivery of the southern California natives. His dark complexion, stubbled beard, thin frame, and long, wild hair made him appear equal parts hipster and ascetic to the undergrads he taught. Graham thought he favored a young Chris Cornell, but when he said as much, he found none of his students had any idea who the singer or the band Soundgarden was, making him feel old.
What surprised Graham most about Alexander Pearl—aside from the stately name that seemed, on him, stolen from another time and place—was that his eccentric look encased a quick-witted, thoughtful young man who was both welcoming to and welcomed by everyone. And that had led him to a desert on the other side of the world, to the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-trodden Mount of Sinai, better known as Saint Catherine’s.
“So if Saint Catherine’s has its own camera to digitize this stuff, why are we here?”
Graham kept his eyes on the screen as he adjusted the settings for the lights. “Look at all these books. There are 4,500 manuscripts—sermons, liturgies, histories, biographies of saints—all kinds of stuff. Only the Vatican Library has more manuscripts. A lot of it was shot on microfilm sixty or seventy years ago. They’ve been working on digitizing it for several years, and the rate they’re going, it would take another 300 years to finish. Nothing happens quickly here. They need all the help they can get.”
“It’s kind of funny if you think about it,” Alexander said. “This is where God spoke from the Burning Bush, right?”
“Yes…” Graham said quizzically.
“Words came from the fire. Well, the fire in the monastery gave us all these texts. Words came from the fire again.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Graham smiled as he thought about how the manuscripts they were working on had been discovered. “I was in grade school when that fire happened—1975—and they still haven’t finished inventorying all of the manuscripts.”
“So that was like right after Moses was here, right?”
Graham laughed. “I might be old, but I grew up with all the good music.”
“No argument from me,” Alexander said, throwing his hands up. “But it does make me wonder how many other forgotten rooms there are in the monastery. And if it’ll take a fire to discover them as well.”
“It’d be great if there were ancient manuscripts in all the debris we sorted through,” Graham said. “But even without the New Finds from the fire, there was already more work here than we could do. The New Finds added another 50,000 fragments from more than a thousand different manuscripts.”
“Not to mention the icons,” Alexander said. “Some of the oldest to survive.”
“Exactly. A massive haul. Prince Charles may have donated the money for the camera rig they have, but he couldn’t give them more time in the day for the work or more monks to do it. And that camera costs more than the car you drive.”
“That’s not saying much.”
A knock at the door made both of them look up from their tasks.
“Enter,” Graham answered.
White light spilled into the room as the librarian entered. Father Nikolaos divided the jamb with a tall, almost skeletal figure draped in a black robe. A long, graying beard hung from his gaunt face, atop which sat the kalpaki hat of Greek Orthodox clerics, the traits accumulating to create the effect of elongation. Dark, melancholy eyes were shielded by wire-rimmed glasses that looked anachronistic on his otherwise ancient appearance. He carried an air of stillness about him, and seemed to move only when necessary, a discipline exemplified as he nodded a greeting to both men in a single, tilt of his head.
“I’m sorry to disturb your work, Dr. Eliot, but may I have a moment to speak to you? In private?” His gentle tenor voice floated into the dim room, matching the delicate atmosphere. Father Nikolaos’s English was almost without accent, and though Graham always imagined an exotic quality to the inflection, he knew it was actually Canadian and that Father Nikolaos was one of the first monks allowed at the monastery who was not from Greece.
Graham left Alexander with some instructions for continuing the work. As he closed the door, he could hear the first bars of the Genesis song “Behind the Lines” bleeding through Alexander’s headphones.
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Father Nikolaos guided Graham through the main room of the narrow library, hands clasped behind his back as he walked. Even in motion, the monk projected stillness, an illusion enhanced by the floor-length robe hiding the movement of his legs. As they passed a sign reading no photos or videos, Graham resisted the urge to make a joke, given the work he was there to do. Instead, he scanned the shelves of ancient books, and tried to make small talk out of the monastery’s most famous manuscript.
“The history here is almost overwhelming. I remember as a student I would try to picture what this place was like when Codex Sinaiticus was found.”
“Stolen.” Father Nikolaos stopped and turned to look at Graham. “Surely you mean stolen.”
The reaction made Graham wonder if his innocent banter had just provoked a quarrel about the story of the discovery of the oldest known complete New Testament.
“My apologies, Father. I meant no disrespect.”
“I understand.” Father Nikolaos gave another of his humble bows to acknowledge the contrition. He turned to lead them to a desk at the far end of the empty room. “Unfortunately, it is a tale told far too often. And like most such tales, its tellers fail to investigate the facts. Indulge me. Tell me the story as you know it.”
Graham paused, suddenly uncertain about what he had never questioned. “Constantin von Tischendorf visited here in the 1840s, searching for ancient copies of the Bible. He was one of the first scholars to do anything like that. He found pages of ancient parchment in a basket that was going to be burned for heat. When he took a closer look, he recognized the text was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. He found about forty-five pages and published them after he returned to Germany.
“In the following years, he came back two more times looking for the rest of the Bible. The second time he found the remainder of the Bible in the cell of one of the monks. Altogether, the codex contained the complete New Testament as well as a lot of the Old Testament. Pages were clearly missing, most from the beginning of the book, but some from the end. The codex was so old—mid-fourth century—that it was created before the end of the canonization process.Tischendorf then convinced the monks to send the manuscript to Saint Petersburg as a gift to the czar, who was the monastery’s source of funding. As a result, the world’s oldest Bible was put on display in a Russian museum. Sixty years later, the Soviet Union sold it to the British Museum. I’ve seen it there many times.”
Father Nikolaos showed no emotion as he patiently listened to the account that had become one of the most well-known stories in biblical archaeology. When he spoke, his voice was utterly reasonable. “Consider this: have you ever burned parchment? It gives off very little heat. Not to mention the stench is unbearable. And surely I do not need to point out the irrationality of burning books to heat a library.”
Graham knitted his brow in thought, but before he could respond, the monk continued.
“Consider also that Tischendorf did not speak modern Greek well. Yet modern Greek was the only language spoken by the librarian at that time. How could the librarian convey to Tischendorf he was burning the manuscripts? That’s who he claimed told him what was happening.”
“I had no idea,” Graham admitted.
“No. Then consider this.” Father Nikolaos gestured to Graham to take a seat in the chair opposite him, and opened the lid of a MacBook Pro. After several mouse clicks, he spun the laptop around to reveal the screen and let it speak for itself.
Graham stared at the document for several seconds before picking his way through the handwritten modern Greek.
I, the undersigned, Constantin Tischendorf, attest that the holy confraternity of Mount Sinai has delivered to me as a loan an ancient manuscript of both testaments. Being the property of aforesaid monastery and containing 346 leaves and a small fragment. These I shall take with me to Saint Petersburg in order that I may collate the copy previously made by me with the original at the time of the publication of the manuscript. This manuscript I promise to return undamaged and in a good state of preservation to the holy confraternity of Sinai at its earliest request.
Graham realized it was the note surprisingly discovered in 1960—some said a little too conveniently—and matched Tischendorf’s handwriting.
“As you can see,” Father Nikolaos said, pushing the computer aside, “we are still waiting for Tischendorf to honor his promise.”
“Again, I did not mean to offend you, Father. Please forgive me. At least The New Finds returned some of Sinaiticus to you,” Graham said, referring to the twelve folios and fourteen fragments of the legendary Bible that had been discovered in the debris of the forgotten storeroom.
Father Nikolaos formed a small, kind smile, which—on his normally passive face—looked almost radiant. “There is no need to keep apologizing, Dr. Eliot. I merely thought you would appreciate knowing the truth.”
“I do,” Graham said. “It’s fascinating.”
“Actually, that appreciation is why I wanted to speak with you.” Father Nikolaos paused, apparently carefully choosing the words to say next as he kept his eyes on Graham. “I have been in contact with Chaim Yaniv at the Israel Antiquities Authority. He tells me you can be trusted. That you helped him in a sensitive matter.”
Graham recalled the events of a year earlier in the wake of Singer’s murder, the explosion that killed a friend and almost killed him, the discovery—and loss—of one of history’s greatest treasures. It had been Yaniv, the director of the IAA’s Robbery Prevention Division, who had entrusted him with the mission. Although it sounded like a life-threatening quest, Graham looked back on it for what it was: the tool God used to restore his faith just when he had abandoned it.
“That’s true,” Graham said, guarding himself with a short answer until he knew what they were talking about.
“Good.” Father Nikolaos tilted his head down slightly and arched his eyebrows. “What I am sharing with you must remain confidential.”
“Yes, of course. What is this about?”
“I’m afraid it is far more serious than a stolen book.” Father Nikolaos raised his head, resetting his expression to its usual state. “It is about murder.”
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