Monks cling to lost pages of history

One of the great forgotten libraries survived the Lebanese war but may not last another 100 years

THE handwritten text of Sheikh Yahi Bin Jarar's Problems and Questions of Philosophical Logic survived the last century of the Crusades. It escaped the fratricide of the Fatimid and Mameluke empires, the Christian- Druze war of 1860, the collapse of the Ottomans and the shellfire of Lebanon's civil war. But when Father Joseph Melki holds up the leather- bound volume, the delicate black and red calligraphy as sharp as it was the day a monk inscribed the Aramaic text in 12th-century Baghdad, sunlight shines through the spine of the book. And when he turns the pages, dozens of lines of text are missing, some of them torn away over the centuries but others warped by damp.

Fr Melki's fingers caress the edge of each page, just outside the indented centre upon which the long-dead monk copied out the words of thephilosopher, who died in 974AD. He touches the leather cover with its patterned stars and geometrical designs, as if the book is an old friend, which in a way it is, rather than a work of antiquity. His short white beard, pale brown soutane and elegant, if dated French give him a diminutive appearance, but he is the keeper of one of the world's great forgotten libraries - and one whose gold-leaf Korans and manuscripts of the Crusades, of Plato and Aristotle, are in danger of crumbling to pieces without the help of modern science.

"We have many Aramaic and Arabic manuscripts from the 12th and 13th centuries, a hundred or so from the 14th and 15th centuries, and the remainder of the books from the 17th and 18th," Fr Melki announces, counting hundreds on his fingers. "We have 400 manuscripts in a state of very serious deterioration and they will be lost if they are not repaired soon. They are the only known copies and their loss would be irreparable."

The miracle is that the library of the Deir el-Shurfeh monastery, high in the mountains above Beirut, has survived this long. Towards the end of the 1975-90 civil war here, Christian Lebanese militiamen placed an artillery battery behind the monastery, and Syrian shells crashed into the building. One exploded on the wall of the manuscript library, showering with red-hot splinters the room in which the golden Korans, 13th-century and 14th-century editions of Plato and Aristotle and a 10-volume history of the Crusades lay neatly stacked on shelves. Not one piece of metal touched a single page.

"Our seminarians and refugees were in the cellar of the monastery but I slept above ground, close to the library, and neither I nor the library was touched," Fr Melki says. It is clear that he believes in the hand of God.

The problem is that the proffered hand of scientific help has not been received within the walls of the 18th-century Syrian Catholic monastery with the enthusiasm that might have been expected. Earlier this year, the monks of Deir el-Shurfeh wrote to the Institut Catholique in Paris and Louvain-La Neuve in Belgium, seeking assistance in preserving a manuscript collection which they believe to be the sixth most important in the world after libraries in the Vatican and Oxford and in Russia, France and Germany.

European specialists arrived to inspect the 3,000 titles, stacked behind glass in a locked room above the monks' refectory. But their proposals did not meet with Fr Melki's satisfaction.

"We had three demands: that a method be found of protecting the volumes from humidity in a stable temperature, that repairs should be made to the manuscripts, and that there must be someone here in the library to work on them and catalogue the books. We also want to keep the reproduction rights of our books. But we were presented with a contract to sign, which appeared to allow a university to make copies of the volumes for students and others. What we need is a patron of the arts, a Maecenas, to help us pay for the restoration. These are our books and they must remain in our library. And when our patriarch asked me about this, I advised him that we should not sign." As a result, not a single one of the manuscripts has been repaired.

Fr Melki brings from his desk a brochure advertising the benefits of manuscript reproduction on CD-Rom. "Do you know what this is?" he asks. I try to explain the principles of high-definition computer reproduction, but am forced to agree that I have a dim notion only of the science of photography. Fr Melki, it seems, is something of a computer Luddite. There appears to be no telephone in his office and on his desk stands a 30- year-old typewriter stuffed with paper and carbons. Nor are computers the only focus of his suspicion. "The equality of men and women repre- sents the decadence of the West," he decrees as we are walking later in the courtyard of his mon- astery. "The superiority of women over men is a catastrophe."

And this, I began to suspect, lay behind Fr Melki's difficulties with the library. For if he is a chauvinist - a remark of mine which caused him to smile a little grimly - he is also a fine scholar, fluent in Aramaic, the language of Christ in which many of the manuscripts are written and which is still in use in some Syrian villages. Fr Melki himself comes from the poor northern Syrian town of Hassake, not far from southern Turkey, where Michael al-Kabir al-Seriani - the 11th-century monk whose contemporary history of the Crusades remains one of the monastery's priceless possessions - once lived. Fr Melki's sense of history is as precise as his distrust of modern capitalist science and morality.

He is well aware that the monastery's 12th-century manuscripts of Yahi Bin Jarir's Guide to Philosophy are the oldest copies in existence. The only others are in the Vatican and Oxford (where the volume is dated 1573). Of the same author's Problems and Questions, Nos 1-6 of the 17- volume collection at Deir el-Shurfeh were lost long before a monk called Jarweh created the manuscript library in 1784.

Fr Melki's love of books - of the actual physical pages of text as well as their contents - is descended from that of the medieval monks and early Renaissance scholars who were able to pass on knowledge and philosophy, human or divine, only through the handwritten word. By photographing their work and applying capitalist principles to reproduction, modern science has, in a sense, mocked both the labours and philosophy of those early scribes.

Perhaps that is why Fr Melki concludes with a gentle, troubling homily. "If these books have lasted for 800 years, they will last for another 100," he says. But the litany of endangered volumes suggests science will have to overcome heroic rhetoric if he is to be proved correct.

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