PROVO When their boat capsized in the Nile River, the Vatican monks feverishly dived for the priceless manuscripts they had just obtained from an Egyptian monastery.
One monk died in the accident, but the treasured writings of Ephrem the poet copied by Assyrian monks in A.D. 522 and 523 were saved and laid on the shore to dry in the early 18th century sun.
From there, the manuscripts traveled to the bowels of the Vatican Library and nearly 300 years of exile, out of reach of members of the Eastern Christian churches who revere Ephrem until the Vatican agreed to let teams from Brigham Young University scan 14,000 pages of Syriac Christian writings and publish the color images next month on a DVD.
The texts provide a new window for study of Mesopotamian Christianity, which began when missionaries from Jerusalem or Antioch visited what is now Iraq and converted large numbers of people who spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic.
The manuscripts, some never before published and others never previously available in raw form, could show the mind-set of Jesus Christ on cultural and religious issues brought to the region by the missionaries soon after his death, said Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East.
The Syriac churches remained separate from the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek influences on the Catholics, said Noel Reynolds, director of BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.
"These texts present important Eastern Christian traditions that have not been preserved in the Greek manuscripts," Reynolds said. "Our perception of Christian history often ignores the Eastern component, which was at least as important historically."
Bishop Soro, whose office is based in San Jose, Calif., approached BYU in 1997 after he read about the institute's creation of a digital database of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"I think it was God's hand bringing us together," he said. "This DVD will let us see how primitive Mesopotamian Syriac Christians thought about various issues, because that style of thinking is probably closest to the way the Lord himself thought."
The project marks the first collaboration on ancient manuscripts between the Vatican and LDS Church-owned BYU, as well as the Assyrian Church of the East.
The newly digitized collection of 33 manuscripts some dating as far back as the fifth and sixth centuries includes unpublished manuals on church services, commentary on Matthew and John and homilies by Jacob of Serugh. Many of the texts have never been studied before, said Kristian Heal, a research associate at BYU's institute and a specialist in Syriac studies.
"That list of manuscripts, to any person who knows anything about early Syriac Christianity, immediately make that person like a child in a toy store," Bishop Soro said.
It is also only the first phase of the project. The Vatican recently gave final approval to the DVD and raised the possibility of completing the project, which Reynolds assumes would mean the digitization of another 50 to 100 manuscripts.
Ephrem's fourth-century writings were copied in the early sixth century and then purchased by Moses of Nisibis for the Egyptian Monastery of the Syrians between 900 and 1000. The dry, warm desert air preserved the manuscripts until emissaries from the Vatican Library obtained them and nearly lost them when their barge capsized on the Nile.
For centuries, Syriac Christians have lamented the loss to the West of such documents, either to foreign invaders, thieves or libraries and museums.
"We felt for a long time we were being robbed," Bishop Soro said. "I cannot overstate this point: Thank God for that robbery. Providentially, these manuscripts were kept for us. Now we emphasize not ownership but the accessibility to the ideas, that gospel, that good news that is represented in the text."
While the DVDs will provide access to original documents for some of the 1 million members of the Assyrian Church of the East, they also will draw interest from scholars.
"My first reaction when I saw some of the images was that the quality is much better than the original manuscript," said Syriac Christian scholar and Duke University professor Lucas Van Rompay in a videotaped interview conducted by BYU. "What I see here at Brigham Young University is really a large-scale effort to preserve these manuscript collections. I haven't seen anything of the same level, of the same expertise and of the same breadth."Comment on this story
For Bishop Soro, the project is the realization of a dream."It was rather an emotional moment when I first viewed the content of the DVD in Rome," Bishop Soro said. "These manuscripts really tell our 'lost' story."