Found at last: the world's oldest missing page

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Fifth-century Christian text turns up under floor in Egypt, bringing early church martyrs to light

A year after the Romans packed up their shields in AD410 and left Britain to the mercy of the Anglo-Saxons, a scribe in Edessa, in what is modern day Turkey, was preparing a list of martyrs who had perished in defence of the relatively new Christian faith in Persia.

In a margin he dated the list November 411. Unfortunately for the martyrs, history forgot them. At some point, this page became detached from the book it belonged to. Since 1840, the volume has been one of the treasures of the British Library. It is known only by its catalogue code: ADD 12-150

The missing page has always been a fascinating mystery for scholars and historians. Now, after an extraordinary piece of detective work, that page has been rediscovered among ancient fragments in the Deir al-Surian monastery in Egypt. It is, according to Oxford University's Dr Sebastian Brock, the leading Syriac scholar who identified the fragments, the oldest dated Christian text in existence.

"It is a list of martyrs and it must have been added to the main book at the last minute," he said. "There were three fragments from the last page. It was a distinctive handwriting, and it was very exciting to identify it. It is very important to complete the book. Many of the names on this list we have not come across before. So it gives us a lot of clues about that half of that century. Rome at the time was officially Christian, so the rival Persians would have persecuted Christians."

The fragments were among hundreds discovered beneath a floor in the Deir al-Surian, which is itself a treasure trove of ancient books. Dr Brock and his colleague, Dr Lucas Van Rompay of Duke University in North Carolina, are now working on the first catalogue of the many manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old.

Elizabeth Sobczynski, founder of the Levantine Foundation, which supports the conservation of the mon-astery's manuscripts, is raising money to build a state-of-the-art library to preserve the remaining ancient books. "I found four fragments, and joined three of them together," she said. "These fragments survived for so many centuries, which is amazing .... They could so easily have been swept away."

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