Lebanese monastery to archive first Arabic Bible, thousands of manuscripts

By Nadia Mayen
Al Arabiya with Agencies
A collection of 30,000 books is set to be digitally archived by the priests of St. Saviour Monastery in Joun, Lebanon. The monastery is home to thousands of ancient religious manuscripts including the oldest Arabic Bible printed in 1591 in Rome. The collection has been handed down by priests from generation to generation.

The monastery, which is located in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains, was founded in 1711 by Bishop Aftimios Sayfi — also known as Euthymios Saifi — of the Melkite Catholic church. He first started collecting the books from across his diocese which stretched from Tyre in Lebanon, to Houran in Syria and across to Georgia in the Caucasus.

“There is a big collection of rare old books in this library which was considered one of the most important libraries and then there are the manuscripts,” said Archmandrite Jean Faraj, General President of Basilian Order of Saint Saviour.

Rare books of different categories ranging from literature, theology, poetry, philosophy, church music, psychology, medicine, language, law and holy books, as well as the biographies of saints and popes and periodicals and journals can be found inside the monastery’s library.

Old encyclopedias, dictionaries and copies of periodicals and journals of the time as well as writings by priests in Arabic, Latin, Greek and Georgian are also in the collection. Some pieces are even handwritten by the priests.

“The library now contains about 30,000 books, most of them old books but there are also some new books. The majority are legacies from the fathers who used to keep books about their areas of knowledge and after their death they became the monastery’s property.There are up to 3,000 manuscripts and we still have about 350 missing manuscripts which we are trying to retrieve,” said Father Makirios Haidamous, the secretary of the library.

He also said that the St. Savior monastery had started a project to digitally archive the collection and had technical assistance from University of St. John in Minnesota in the U.S.

“We set up a studio in August 2o11 to reproduce the manuscripts. Our friend Francois Aziz al-Zein is helping us by photographing copies of the original manuscripts and has, so far, photographed about 1740 manuscripts,” said Father Haidamous.

The library also contains Islamic manuscripts and prayer books in Syriac, Turkish and Arabic, a number of which have been written in gold calligraphy.

“We have books that date from 1200 while some are newer but the majority of the manuscripts are from the 16th and 17th centuries,” said Father Haidamous.

St. Saviour library has survived several incidents of theft and fires and the Lebanese war between 1975-1990 losing hundreds of books from its collection.