Ancient Book: Codex Sinaiticus And Sinai Palimpsests

One of the important clues in the next ARKANE book, Exodus, comes from a manuscript fragment found in the monastery of St Catherines in the Sinai, Egypt. No spoilers here, but Morgan Sierra must find a possible location for the Ark of the Covenant at the traditional place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

codex sinaiticus
Codex Sinaiticus

St Catherine’s has one of the most extensive collections of ancient manuscripts in the world, mainly due to the fact that the monastery was never sacked. It is remotely situated in the Sinai desert but was also granted a protection from the Prophet Mohammed so the monastery was safe during the expansion of Islam across North Africa. The dry climate also makes it perfect for manuscript preservation.

The Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex Sinaticus is just one of the manuscripts that was found at St Catherine’s and it is now mostly held by the British Library in London, although fragments remain at the monastery as well. Written in the middle of the 4th century, it is the oldest complete copy of the Christian New Testament, and also contains the Septuagint Old Testament. It is written in ancient Greek and is so fascinating because of how many corrections there are, from individual letters to whole sentences, as well as the differences it represents to the Bible used today. This 2 min video gives you an initial view of the Codex.

The entire Codex has now been digitized and you can read it online – with some translation available if your ancient Greek is rusty! I actually did a whole semester during my Theology degree at Oxford translating John’s Gospel from ancient Greek so it is a particular thrill to me to be able to read the text itself. I have seen the actual book at the British Library, it’s indeed a marvel and I just had to include it in Exodus.


archimedes palimpsest
Archimedes palimpsest

Palimpsests are pages or scrolls that have been used once, then scraped and used again, but with certain technologies, the original text underneath can be read and exposed. Because material for writing was rare and expensive, in ancient times, they often reused scrolls. One of the most famous is the Archimedes Palimpsest where a 10th century Byzantine prayerbook was written over the original mathematical text from Archimedes dated around 200 BC.

St Catherine’s monastery is now working with a team to digitize the manuscripts that remain – this article in the Washington Post (Sept 2012) discusses the preservation project and also the 130 palimpsests, the texts written under other texts, that have been found on the site.

I find the idea of palimpsests to be fascinating, and even the word itself is evocative. What riches could be found under the many thousands of ancient documents in the Vatican archives? What will researchers find with new technologies? And how does a fragment of such a text impact the plot of Exodus?

Images: Top Codex from the British Library,

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