Coptic Book Covers at Al-Gourna

All the way back in February 2005, Al-Ahram announced the discovery of two Coptic payprus codices, one "set of parchments between two wooden labels," and an assortment of ostraca beneath a sixth-century monastery in Al-Gourna near Luxor.

They described the contents as following: "The first book has a hard plain cover embellished with Roman text from the inside while the second includes no less than 50 papers coated with a partly deteriorated leather cover bearing geometrical drawings. In the middle, a squared cross 32cm long and 26cm wide is found. As for the set of parchments, Gorecki said it included 60 papers with a damaged leather cover and an embellished wooden locker." (Egypt Today also picked up the story, explaining that "Theologists cannot wait for the restoration processes to begin..." I know, it is a bit rude to poke fun of foreign news agencies helpful enough to publish info in English. But I can't help but ask: Are there any theologists out there standing by for these results?)

Science and Scholarship in Poland later described the actual contents of these manuscripts: 1. "One of the books" is the only complete text of the "Canons of Pseudo-Basil" in Coptic, which previously has only been extant in Arabic. 2. "The other" contains the "Life of St. Pistentios." 3. The stack of "richly decorated" parchment turned out to be the only complete translation of Isaiah in Coptic. In the bindings of the two codices were found scraps of "The Suffering of St. Peter," "another religious text," and some tax receipts. Someone has dated the Isaiah manuscript to 9/10th century, the two codices to 7/8th.

(Roger Pearse also has a comprehensive page on the find that I will be checking for updates periodically.)

Other descriptions of the find have either been too hard to track down, or they don't exist. So far many descriptions of the covers, bindings, and manuscripts are a bit ambiguous, but they sound like remarkable witnesses to Coptic bookbinding, especially in light of their decorative nature. Typically, if a spine and covers are intact enough that their padding and stiffening materials (such as the apocryphal materials recovered from these codices) are both sizable and legible, then that is a good indication that a decent technical description of the binding process can be made. To be fair, I can only state this with certainty on the basis of images of Coptic bindings from which other legible papyrus or parchment manuscripts have been extracted. Unfortunately, I have no first-hand experience with seperating materials of this age from ancient Coptic bindings. (If anyone ever needs a hand in this capacity, let me know.) But I have lifted things like handwritten guard duty records on folded rag-based paper from the spines of Revolutionary War-era American bindings (if I recall correctly, it was a bound book by Thomas Paine). In such a modern context it is the case that the sizability and legibility of spine padding materials is directly related to the overall condition of the covers. I think it would be safe to say the same thing of books from the 7/8th century. All this is to say that even though reported descriptions of the covers claim they are deteriorated, the fact that legible manuscripts have been lifted from the bindings indicates that they may be fairly intact.

After requesting images and/or more detailed descriptions of the find, I just recieved an email response from the very helpful PCMA, stating that "Tomasz Górecki, the head of the mission working at Sheikh Abd el-Gurna" will be in the field for a few more months. When he returns, I may be able to get some photographs and/or more detailed descriptions of these covers. If so, I will be more than happy to share them here.


Roger Pearse said...

Anything more that you can get will be useful!

All this highlights just how many physical ancient books there are sitting under the sands awaiting discovery. I believe that J.M.Robinson has a list of at least 37 such finds over the last couple of decades.

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