Digitization of Ancient Manuscripts Under Way
The Institute has begun to digitize numerous manuscripts from medieval Egypt as well as two large microfilm collections of manuscripts from repositories in Jerusalem, Armenia, Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere. The digitized images will become part of an electronic archive that will facilitate scholarly study of these rare texts.
The medieval Egyptian manuscripts were donated to the Institute by the late Aziz Atiya, distinguished professor of history at the University of Utah. They consist of important religious and legal texts written in Coptic and Arabic. The microfilm collections include (1) S. Kent Brown's extensive film archive of ancient manuscripts from Cairo's Coptic Museum and from several religious and educational organizations in Jerusalem and Egypt; and (2) images of ancient manuscripts from several monasteries, including St. Catherine's in Sinai and Mt. Athos in Greece. BYU purchased the latter collection from the Library of Congress.
The microfilming began in March 1979, shortly after a fire destroyed the Church of the All-Holy Virgin in Old Cairo, resulting in the loss of nearly 200 manuscripts. "That loss galvanized the resolve of the authorities of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt to seek assistance in preserving the church's manuscript heritage," said Brown, the director of Ancient Studies at BYU who worked with Dr. Atiya on the Coptic Encyclopedia project. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time, because I was then working at the Coptic Museum, which lies only 100 yards from the church building that burned. With the assistance of many, including BYU, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mormon Archaeology and Research Foundation, the microfilming project grew from that point."
|Lynne Shumway (standing) supervises BYU service representatives working on electronic archive of ancient texts.|
According to Brown, transferring 1,503 early Christian manuscripts from microfilm to electronic images will ease tremendously the work of scholars around the world who regularly request copies of those texts for their research. The digitized images will offer greater legibility and ease of manipulation. "The service of transferring the manuscript images is a gift beyond words to all who work on these ancient texts," he said.
Four BYU service representativesDon and Ruthell Haycock of Rangley, Colorado, and Chuck and Dorothy James of Lyman, Wyomingare providing valuable assistance in this long-term project. Under the direction of Institute technology manager Steven W. Booras and archiving manager Lynne Shumway, they use a scanning device to capture the microfilm images (400,000 of them in Brown's collection alone) in electronic format. Then they enter each image and relevant metadata (information that will be used to compile a descriptive index for each manuscript) into a database.
"The service representatives have proved invaluable in helping the digitizing project to move forward," said Shumway. "They have quickly become familiar with terminology and the technology related to the digitizing process and are excited about being able to recognize basic Syriac letters and numbers."
Once completed, the electronic archive will be a boon to scholars researching the ancient and medieval history and literature of the Near East.