Janet Soskice The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (2009)
Then her eye fell on an anonymous volume: ‘It had a forbidding look, for it was very dirty, and its leaves were nearly all stuck together through their having remained unturned probably since the last Syrian monk had died, centuries ago, in the Convent.’ Agnes was struck that the Syriac text she was examining, a collected lives of women saints, seemed to have been written on top of something else. As she looked closer she could see two broad columns of underwriting peeping out from beneath the text and she could make out page headings, also in the Syriac language, that clearly belonged to the earlier text. ‘Of Matthew’, ‘of Luke’, it read. This was a palimpsest. Agnes had never seen one before, but their father ‘had often related to us wonderful stories of how the old monks, when vellum had become scarce and paper was not yet invented, scraped away the writing from the pages of their books and wrote something else new on the top of it; and how, after the lapse of ages, the old ink was revived by the action of common air, and the old words peeped up again; and how a text of Plato had come to light in this curious way’.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Soskice offers a really readable account of how two Victorian sisters not only managed to get themselves to the isolated Monastery of St Catherine's in the Sinai Desert but also possessed the talent to recognise that a palimpsest manuscript in the monastery library held a lost Syriac version of the Gospels.
Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson (née Smith) had some advantages over other Victorian ladies, being financially independent and, for most of their lives, lacking relatives or husbands (although both were briefly and happily married) who might stand in the way of their unconventional activities. Both were diligent students and scholars, learning an remarkable number of languages between them (an endeavour assisted by their being twins and thus being able to spend days at a time speaking only ancient Greek to each other!). Both were keen to utilise the technology of photography to disseminate their discoveries to the world. Both were snubbed by the university of their adopted home town, Cambridge, where women were not granted degrees until 1948 despite receiving honorary degrees from many other universities. Despite the snub, these ladies went on to found a Presbyterian college in Cambridge, Westminster College.
The twins in 1914 (source)
Soskice's story of their discoveries - and the subsequent academic jealousies that it provoked - is immensely readable, and filled with nice details:
It was reported that they had astonished their neighbours by taking exercise on parallel bars in their back garden – in their bloomers – and that their new house avoided the cause of this distress by incorporating a tower with gymnastic ropes so that the two sisters could exert themselves in privacy.
Margaret was asked by a young Sunday School teacher to visit a pupil about whom she was anxious. Margaret went at once, and reported back ‘You are quite right. The father does drink. If I lived in a house like theirs, I should drink too.’
Rating: 9/10. Thoroughly enjoyable. I now know how to remove rats from a dahabeeah.