The Coptic Museum archives, considered to be the world's most important Coptic library and containing more than 5,000 manuscripts and books, are being given a facelift.
Serenity, peace and complete quiet are the overwhelming sensations in the museum library, despite the presence of two dozen experts and restorers who have spread themselves to each corner of the reading room. Since January, the library has been converted into a scientific laboratory so that a comprehensive survey to assess the current conditions of its treasured manuscripts and books can be carried out. Armed with white gowns, masks, small brushes, glass plaques, small pieces of cottonwool and special liquids, junior and professional restorers sit in front of their improvised desks examining the piece of manuscript win their hands. They are looking for parts of each manuscript that show signs of being infected, and then they will identify its causes, take notes and rescue the pieces that are in need of attention.
The article explains why Coptic documents tend to be in worse shape than Arabic documents in terms of material and history of handling:
"I am very happy to be taking part in such a great project," Hamdi Abdel-Moneim, an expert in manuscript restoration, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his 22-year career in restoring Islamic manuscripts, it was the first time he had come face to face with Coptic pieces. "They are totally different than each other," Abdel-Moneim said, pointing out that Copts used goatskin or manuscripts while Muslims, writing at a later date, used paper, which required different maintenance and restorative treatment. "I have examined almost 30 per cent of the stored collection," Abdel-Moneim said, "and I have realised that the condition of the Coptic manuscripts is worse than Islamic ones since they have been handled more often by monks and other churchgoers. But Islamic ones are much better preserved since they have been kept in hard covers, like the Quran for example."
Abdel-Moneim noted that spots of wax and oil are easily seen on the manuscripts, while others had been attacked by insects. Ten per cent of the stored collection was badly damaged and required an immediate attention, since the goatskin interacted with itself, thus transformed into gelatin, which made it beyond repair. He said the books were in better condition but many had wax and water spots as well as holes and tears.
"The project also is trying to adjust the incorrect restoration implemented during the 'era of the Martyrs' in about 1600, when monks glued the manuscripts to sheets of paper in an attempt to support them. Regretfully, however, this treatment led to the deterioration of some parts of the manuscripts, while some others were lost in the process.
Sounds like the stories of the early handlers of the Dead Sea Scrolls or, worse, the Tchacos Codex.
The restorers are using state-of-the-art techniques, giving each MSS a "digital birth certificate," controlling the immediate environment, particularly humidity, etc. And it seems to be a training ground for junior restoration experts, since the Coptic materials are multiple: goat skin, papyrus, fabric, etc.