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Top>Research>Ancient Arabic Documents Remaining in St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula —Valuable materials for research medieval Egyptian history—


Toshimichi Matsuda

Toshimichi Matsuda [Profile]

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Ancient Arabic Documents Remaining in St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula

—Valuable materials for research medieval Egyptian history—

Toshimichi Matsuda
Professor of Medieval Egyptian History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Sinai Peninsula and the Documents of St. Catherine's Monastery

When conducting historical research in the field of Japanese history, it is common practice to use ancient documents which remain throughout the country. Conversely, the medieval Islamic world has not left us with many ancient documents which can be used as materials for historical research. However, a relatively large amount of ancient documents have been stored for a long period of time in St. Catherine's Monastery, located on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Why have these documents been left remaining in the monastery? St. Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of the Mount Sinai, which is the place where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. In ancient times, a never-ending stream of believers visited to worship at this location. In the 6th century of the Western calendar, Emperor Justinianus of the Byzantine Empire issued an order for a monastery to be built in a fortress-like form similar to the form that exists today. Afterwards, the monastery continued to exist as a center for Christian faith in the Eastern part of the world, and as one of the centers of academic research in Christianity.

In the middle of the 7th century, Egypt was conquered by Arabian military forces which came from the Arabian Peninsula. After the invasion, Egypt was ruled by an Islamic government. However, the monastery received generous protection from the Islamic government. The reason for this protection was that, in the past, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad had protected St. Catherine's Monastery by granting it a covenant. It was said that the original copy of that covenant was drafted by Ali, a man who later became caliph, and was affixed with the seal of Muhammad. (A manuscript containing a record of the monastery's history states that the original copy was taken to Istanbul by Sultan Selim of the Ottoman Empire, a successive conqueror of Egypt. It is also stated the Selim left a copy of the covenant in the monastery.) This covenant promised the protection of the monastery and its monks. Therefore, the successive rulers who controlled Egypt followed this covenant and issued a large number of declarations for protection of the monastery.

Waqf Manuscript

Waqf Document

Operation of St. Catherine's Monastery was supported by waqf (donated assets). Buildings, land and other real estate from Christian areas such as Cyprus, Crete and Greece and Islamic areas such as Egypt and Syria were designated as waqf for the operation of the monastery. Profits coming from these sources were used for operating the monastery. A relatively large amount of real estate from districts inhabited by Greek Orthodox Christians in Tur, Gaza and Cairo was designated as waqf. The designation of these waqf was recorded in detail in written documents known as waqf documents. These documents were based upon existing regulations for donated assets under Islamic law, and were recorded after being examined by court officials and notaries. A portion of these documents was stored in Islamic courts (they do not currently exist) and a portion was stored in the monastery.

Furthermore, the monastery was located inland from the city of Tur, which was the transportation center for the southern region of the Sinai Peninsula. Several tribes of nomadic peoples lived in the surrounding area. These nomadic tribes entered in agreements with the monastery. As part of the agreement, the tribes carried goods such as food and salt for the monastery and also provided security. For this reason, a variety of written documents certifying the rights of the monastery were stored within the monastery. A list of such documents is given below.

Also, approximately 3,330 ancient manuscripts remain in the library of St. Catherine's Monastery. The manuscripts are written in 12 different languages including Arabic, Greek, Syrian and Coptic. This collection is viewed as the second most important in the world after the Vatican library. The collection of the monastery library includes works such as the Sinai Codex, a Greek version of the bible from the 4th century, as well as a Syrian evangel from the 5th century and an Arabic biography of a Christian priest written in the 9th century. These ancient manuscripts began to attract attention from academic circles after entering into the 19th century. Tischendorff visited the monastery 3 times beginning from 1844 in order to conduct a survey of religious manuscripts. It was also Tischendorff who discovered the aforementioned Sinai Codex. Tischendorff borrowed the manuscript and took it back to St. Petersburg (he left a borrower's note which stated his promise to return the manuscript). However, after the end of World War I, the Codex was sold to The British Museum for 100,000 pounds. It remains in The British Museum today (the manuscript is currently exhibited in the British Library under the name of the Sinai Codex).

Research in the written documents of St. Catherine's Monastery

The written documents of St. Catherine's Monastery are written on parchment or paper. There are a total of 1,072 ancient documents written in Arabic. A breakdown of the materials is shown below.

  1. Covenants with prophets
  2. Decrees issued by sultans from the caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty until the Mamluk Dynasty.
  3. Firmans of the Ottoman Dynasty until the end of the 16th century.
  4. Treaties
  5. Fatwas
  6. Deeds
  7. Procés-verbax
  8. Administrative mandates addressed to the governor.
  9. Articles regarding various matters.
  10. Letters
  11. Inventories
  12. Accounting reports
  13. Bills
  14. Receipts
  15. Addendums

Research in medieval Egyptian history has been conducted using these written materials. That research has clarified items such as the following.

1. How were people of different religions governed by the Islamic state?

How were people of differing religions and ethnicities governed before the formation of a nation-state? Fundamentally, the Islamic state governed based on Islamic law. Under Islamic law, Christians and Jews within Islamic territories were treated as dhimmi or as ahl al-Dhimma (contract citizens). This word refers to people who establish a relationship between the Islamic government and the dhimma (pact of protection for lives and property). Such people were also called citizens of religious texts (Ahl al Kitab). As dhimmi, such people received protection from the state under Islamic law and were also entitled to certain rights.

Under the political ideals of the Islamic state, the caliph acted as ruler and governed in accordance with Islamic law. As much as possible, freedom was granted to people of different religions within the state. For example, the official public policy towards dhimmi during the Mamluk Dynasty which governed medieval Egypt can be seen in decrees issued by the sultan, who acted as the ruler. These decrees state that the protected status of the dhimmi shall continue forever, and their safety shall be assured under the protection of Islam. Another phrase that can be seen in the decrees states that the dhimmi shall follow Islamic governance and Islamic law. Within the decrees issued by the sultan, there are also decrees issued as responses to direct appeals made to the sultan by monks regarding prejudices that they suffered. This material shows the actual state of direct appeal made during the Mamluk Dynasty.

2. How was Islamic law actually applied?

Within Arabic documentation, legal written documents are vital for understanding the position of Christians. Legal written documents contain materials such as sales documents, mortgage documents, waqf documents, loan documents, iqrar (recognition) documents, istibdal (procedural change) documents, and fatwa documents. The majority of legal written documents are records of the movement of real estate. This can be seen in sales/purchases documents and waqf documents. There are few examples of such movement of real estate taking place between parties of different religions, i.e., from Muslims to Christians or from Christians to Muslims. In almost all cases, the parties were both Christians.

Generally speaking, waqf had spread widely as a donation system of Muslims. However, written documentation remaining at the monastery shows that Christians living within Islamic society had designated waqf for the operation of churches and monasteries. The documentation also shows that such waqf was approved by Islamic court officials.

3. The role of public notaries

These legal documents were mainly created by public notaries. Public notaries played a vital role in the application of Islamic law to the daily life of the general public. They conducted a variety of testimonies, gave consultation regarding legal matter, and worked together with court officials to create legal documents. When performing such duties, public notaries referred to a shurut, the name for a collection of legal examples. Shurut contained examples of various envisioned cases for the application of Islamic law and the drafting of documents, and these examples were used by notaries when creating legal documents. For example, when creating a sales contract, a public notary would select the required contract from a large number of model sales contracts contained within the shurut. The notary would then enter required items based on the form of the selected contrary. Finally, the notary would sign the completed contract.

Therefore, many people visited public notaries to obtain advice related to legal matters conducted as a part of daily life. In this way, notaries fulfilled the role of joining Islamic law and citizens within society.

4. Daily life of the dhimmi

Although the dhimmi encountered political discrimination, they shared many aspects of their daily social life with Muslims. These shared aspects include a variety of social activities and economic activities. Dhimmi also participated equally in joint social activities together with Muslims. Dhimmi also participated in public water projects such as the digging of water channels and canals, as well as the construction of reservoir embankments. The funds required for such construction projects were collected as special taxes from all citizens, including the dhimmi. Funds were also collected from mosques, monasteries, and churches.

From the information given above, it is possible to get a glimpse of the codependent relationship that existed between dhimmi and Muslims in daily life (excluding the aspect of differing religions). The theory of Islamic law states that Islamic law was only to be applied to relationships between dhimmi, individual Muslims, and the Islamic state. Islamic law was not to be applied to relationships between individual dhimmi. However, in actuality, sales contracts show that selling and purchasing was conducted freely between dhimmi, as well as between dhimmi and Muslims. These contracts were conducted based on Islamic law.

At St. Catherine's Monastery, a fairly large amount of written documentation has been preserved for many centuries. This documentation has been used in historical research regarding the system of Islamic law, as well as in research related to the role of dhimmi. However, only a portion of the documentation has been used in research until now, and there are great expectations for research in the future.

Toshimichi Matsuda
Professor of Medieval Egyptian History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Born in Katori County, Chiba Prefecture in 1952. Holds a Doctoral Degree in history (Chuo University). Left the Doctoral Program of the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University in 1992. In 1995, assumed the position of Special Instructor of the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University, afterwards becoming an Assistant Professor of the same faculty. From 2002, has served as a Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University. His specialty is medieval Egyptian history, with particular focus on historical research of the Mamluk Dynasty. Also conducts research of ancient Arabic documents. Holds an interest in the Mediterranean area which is an amalgamation of Islamic civilization and Western European civilization.
His major written works include Historical Research of the Documents of St. Catherine's Monastery (Chuo University Publishing Office). Enjoys playing the cello.