12. The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

           The Sisters of Sinai describes the adventures of Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, twin sisters who independently explored the Middle East in the late 1800’s and made one of the most important discoveries in biblical history. Agnes and Margaret came of age in a time when the historical accuracy of the bible was being called into question publicly. Scholars were extremely interested in amassing scientific proof to substantiate or undermine the veracity of biblical stories, and wealthy tourists were taking trips to the holy lands of Palestine and Egypt.

Born in 1843, and originally from a small town in Scotland, Agnes and Margaret were raised by their father in a somewhat unconventional manner for the time. Their father was adamant that Agnes and Margaret become well educated in an era where women were not allowed to attend most universities, and frequently took the twins traveling with him. After the death of their father, Agnes and Margaret continued their studies (they were already fluent in German, French and Italian) and began to travel independently, going to Europe, Egypt and Palestine in 1868. Their trip to the Middle East fueled their continued study of languages, driving them to study Greek, Syriac and some Arabic.

The twins, still unmarried at the time (generally unheard of in their small community) were renowned for doing vigorous athletic exercises on the jungle gym in their backyard. Although their frequent travels and odd behavior somewhat alienated Agnes and Margaret from their community, they found friends within a small circle of likeminded academics interested in religions and in the Middle East. Margaret married in 1883 and Agnes in 1887; both to clergymen, and unfortunately, each marriage soon ended with the surprise death of the husband.

Thankfully, their short lived marriages were happy ones, and especially productive for the twins’ interests in the Middle East. Through their husbands, Agnes and Margaret were introduced to scholars that eventually pushed the sisters to return to Egypt, specifically to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai – a long deferred dream. The sisters were not at all ignorant of the possible biblical textual treasures that lay there, and were in fact searching for any texts of significance on their planned trips to Egypt in the 1890’s.

In fact, the twins made several trips to Egypt searching for manuscripts, and while they may blur together in my mind, they made some fantastic discoveries. While usually following leads from other scholars, Agnes and Margaret were courageous enough to travel unaccompanied, and while not always fluent in the local language (although between them, they ended up being proficient in 12 languages), they set out to make important discoveries.

In Cairo, Agnes and Margaret followed up on a lead from a friend and found the Cairo Geniza. Following Jewish custom/tradition, papers with the name of God, or with any religious markings on them are not supposed to be thrown away – they should be buried by the individual, or by a synagogue. Many synagogues kept repositories for such papers, waiting for time or space to bury them all. The Cairo Geniza is one such repository, located in the Ben Ezra synagogue, and at the time of Agnes and Margaret’s visit, contained some 200,000 papers dating back to 870 AD. The Geniza was known at the time by some scholars, but its significance was unknown until Agnes and Margaret brought back fragments to their friend Solomon Schechter – a hugely important figure in American Judaism.

However, St. Catherine’s Monastery proved to be the most fruitful source in Agnes and Margaret’s search for important religious documents. Although it took several trips and much infighting with friends and scholars, the twins discovered one of the oldest known copies of the gospels, written in Aramaic. On a solo trip to the monastery, Agnes and Margaret found the manuscript, but it was not until they returned with more scholars that they were able to document and translate the material. This discovery was of huge importance at the time, and although their colleagues in discovery tried to discredit the twins on many fronts, Agnes and Margaret were lauded for their accomplishments in the field, and eventually awarded honorary degrees from Cambridge. It’s also worth noting that the two sisters traveled by camel for more than 9 days at a time to reach the monastery, when they were both in their 50’s and 60’s.

Although told in a more narrative fashion, Soskice, a professor at Cambridge, is clearly writing a scholarly biography of these women’s lives and of their redoubtable achievements. Agnes and Margaret’s accomplishments were attacked in their own time and have largely been eroded from mainstream history. Soskice work seeks to remedy any misconceptions about the major role the twins played in the discovery of the gospels, but also to shed light on an extremely interesting set of intrepid lady adventurers. This book is clearly not for everyone, but if you’re interested in Middle Eastern history, the history of the bible, awesome ladies, or a good travel narrative, Sisters of Sinai is well written, and extremely engrossing.

Pages: 316/3169

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~ by lefaquin on July 14, 2012.

One Response to “12. The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice”

  1. […] twins do a lot more awesome stuff – to read more, head over to my full post! Share this:ShareTwitterFacebookEmailDiggStumbleUpon Posted by lefaquin in 4 stars – a great book […]

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