'Sisters' adventures fascinating

In "The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels," Janet Soskice, professor in philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge, tells the fascinating story of the remarkable identical twins who made one of the most important scriptural discoveries of modern times.

In 1892, Scottish twins Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson in the Greek Orthodox monastery at St. Catherine's at Sinai found a palimpsest -- a parchment manuscript that has been written on more than once -- with the earlier writing incompletely erased and legible. The discovery has proven to be one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

The idea that two women in the Victorian age would travel in the Middle East, as Lewis and Gibson did, was unusual for the time. The sisters' mastery of classical and modern languages, mostly self-taught, was even more unusual. Extremely wealthy and devout Presbyterians, the sisters regarded the extraordinary achievements of their lives as the work of a greater providence.

The girls were born on Jan. 11, 1843 in Irvine, Scotland to lawyer John Smith and his wife, Margaret. Mrs. Smith died only two weeks after the birth of the girls. Smith never remarried and educated his daughters, more or less, as if they had been boys with an emphasis on study and exercise.

Finding that his young daughters had a gift for languages, he entered into a pact with them: For each foreign language they should learn, they would be taken to visit that country. With travel as an incentive, the girls mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian while still quite young.

Smith died when his daughters were 23 years old, leaving them very wealthy. Unconventional for their time, to assuage their grief they traveled to Egypt and the Holy Land a few months after their father's death. After returning from this year-long trip, the sisters moved from Scotland to London. Later, they would move to Cambridge.

Both sisters wed in their 40s and were widowed after less than four years of marriage. At age 49, they began their adventures as amateur Bible hunters in the Middle East.

Soskice is at her best when describing the journeys to the Middle East. In January 1892, the sisters left Cairo for a nine-day journey to Saint Catherine's at Sinai. Along the way, they slept in tents and endured temperamental camels and an unscrupulous dragomen (travel guide), while facing uncertain welcome from the monks deceived by earlier travelers and scholars in pursuit of artifacts.

The sisters were welcomed by the monks and allowed to visit the library and to explore the contents of a dark closet. It was in this closet that Agnes Gibson saw the underwriting of an earlier Syriac Gospel beneath a text on the lives of female saints in a bound book of parchment. The sisters returned to Cambridge with more than 300 photographs of the manuscript and a desire to convince scholars at the university of the importance of their discovery. This led to a second journey to Saint Catherine's with Cambridge scholars along as experts to validate their find. Upon returning to Cambridge, the scholars attempted to take the bulk of the credit, and soon the twins found themselves engaged in a series of well publicized rows.

The sisters never backed down and studied intensively to become experts in Syriac themselves. Despite their lack of formal training, Lewis and Gibson became renowned scriptural authorities and collectors of ancient manuscripts.

Janet Soskice's research is impeccable, the story itself is an inspiration, and the telling is first-rate. "Sister of Sinai (Knopf, 2009)" is one of my favorite books of the year.

Gloria Barton is a librarian at the Lee County Library in Leesburg.