Ancient Manuscripts Digitized

( [email protected] ) Mar 19, 2004 08:43 AM EST

Mount Sinai, Egypt – In the world’s oldest Greek Orthodox monastery, Saint Catherine’s, a preservation effort involving some of the world’s most advanced digital technologically advanced digital preservation is taking place to preserve the monastery’s 3,300 priceless ancient manuscripts.

The equipment, handled by the Reverend Justin Sinaites, includes a digital camera that can create a 75-megapixel image- 300 times more megapixels than the average consumer digital camera.

"When you consider the conditions under which the Saint Catherine's team is working, 75 megapixels is pretty amazing and would not have been possible only a few years ago," said Matt Gainer, the digital imaging director at the University of Southern California.

The library of Saint Catherine’s contains around 4,500 manuscripts, two-thirds of them in Greek, the remainder in Arabic, Syriac, Glagolitic, and other languages. The earliest date from the 4th century and include texts on the extremely rare and fragile papyrus. Archbishop of Sinai, Archbishop Damianos, will make available these treasurable manuscripts to scholars throughout the world while protecting the fragile originals from wear from direct handling and provide a backup in case of damage or loss.

The images captured are of such high quality that they are nearly replicas of the originals from which scholars can examine even the minutest details. The camera, made by the Swiss company Sinar, is positioned in front of a specially designed cradle that supports the manuscripts’ bindings while allowing a maximum opening of 100 degrees. Two flashes with ultraviolet filtration and a computer complete the assemblage of equipment used.

Multiple exposures along with the incremental movement of the camera enable the extremely high-resolution images. The camera can take as many as 16 shots per quadrant for a total of 64 exposures and a resolution of 75 megapixels (20 megapixels is comparable to a high-resolution 35-millimeter color film). The resulting image is a digital file of 450 megabytes, the space required for the installation of the entire Microsoft Office suite.

The $50,000 preservation program is funded by European and American institutions and individuals and involves conservators’ approving all manuscripts before they are photographed. Some of the work may also be made available for viewers online.

The goal of the project is to photograph all 1.8 million pages in the collection, a task impossible for just one individual to complete in a lifetime. "The product is good, but the rate of progress is glacial," said Cooper, the British adviser on the project. "The equipment could become outdated before it's done very much."

The plan is to finish digitizing Saint Catherine’s manuscripts in 10 years, but the costs of the program and the requirement for the experts to live in an isolated monastery are the two elements that will make the goal a difficult one to achieve.