The Bible of Elazığ: a backroom to a parallel universe (2)

The first part of this story appears in an earlier article on the blog, which you can find here.

Part two

Ankara lies in the highlands of Central Turkey, in the center of this enormous country that sprawls along the entire coast of the Black Sea to the north, bordering Georgia, Armenia, and Iran to the east, Syria and Iraq to the south, and Greece to the west. The western coastline borders the Mediterranean; far to the north is the site of the mound of Hisarlik, where archeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ancient site he claimed to represent the city of Troy of classical antiquity. His discovery convinced many scholars that the tales of Homer were rooted at least partially in real, historical events. While researching another book I had discovered a curious fact about these excavations: one participant had been Rudolf Virchow, the famous Berlin physician whose work became the foundation of modern cancer research.

The boundaries of modern Turkey were fixed during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of events over the long history of the Ottoman Empire, machinations that followed the First World War, and the subsequent war of independence headed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The result is a huge territory that encompasses a multitude of cultures which have been extraordinarly difficult – some consider impossible – to integrate under a single political system. Istanbul and its inhabitants pursue a modern, Western lifestyle. Central regions are occupied by diverse populations grouped under the collective term “Anatolian”. The southeastern region is home to a vast group of Kurds with close cultural ties to populations in Iran, Iraq and Syria. In many cases the fates of the youth in this region are almost wholly dictated by the patriarchs of their villages, whose main interest appears to be the perpetuation of ancestral lifestyles, and dictate who may get an education and who may marry.

Ankara is home to a beautiful Museum of Anatolian Civilization and Culture which displays the ancient, turbulent history of this vast country. It has been occupied and overrun by virtually every Mideastern and Mediterranean culture since the times of the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians. A walk through its rooms passes exhibits containing 40,000 year-old relics of a prehistoric culture dedicated to the Earth mother, monumental heads of Sumerian kings, friezes recounting the Epic of Gilgamesh, and so on into modern times.

As I began looking into the plausibility of an ancient Bible, I discovered that early Christians had spread through central and eastern Turkey during the first and second centuries, establishing small communities devoted to the new cult of Christ. As far as I knew, the oldest religious manuscripts were written on scrolls of papyrus – but then I discovered that in about the second century CE, the Christians in precisely these regions began producing the first modern books. They wrote on parchment made from the skins of antelopes, goats, and gazelles, which were often bound and often wrapped in leather. So far, everything was consistent with the images I had seen.

Ancient documents, sculptures and other relics continue to be found throughout Turkey all the time, often by modern looters. Many never see the light of day. Some disappear into the hands of private collectors. Others are immediately snapped up by the Turkish government, under laws which give the regime automatic ownership of all artifacts of historical value.

The intent is absolutely valid: to protect objects of cultural importance, ensuring that they will be appropriately handled and become part of the public heritage. But this system presumes that the authorities will protect them and deal with them wisely. There have been many cases where artifacts disappear and end up on the black market anyway; others vanish for decades and reappear under suspicious circumstances. And there are rumors that early Christian documents that do not support Muslim interests have simply been destroyed.

Clearly any involvement with such artifacts puts a modern scholar on shaky legal ground. As my inquiries into the manuscript progressed this made me highly uncomfortable, but I justified my actions the following way: first, the document might well simply be a forgery, in which case the statutes probably wouldn’t apply. Secondly, they did not belong to me, and I had no say in their fates. Third, I would have no part in any attempt to remove them from the country. Fourth, it was completely unclear whether the document had actually been found in Turkey at all. There was reason to think it had been discovered across the border in Syria or Iraq, where wars had devastated all sorts of amazingly valuable artifacts. In that case, a rescue attempt was completely justified.

But the most important consideration on my part was the concept that if this artifact were real, it would be one of the most momentous discoveries in cultural history. Modern scholarship pertaining to the early Christian era stretches back to the efforts of the early Church to align the New Testament with the old and sanitize early accounts of historical events, and there it stops. The modern gospels appear to have been written in the first and second centuries CE, but the oldest existing versions date to the fourth or fifth centuries. Any document older than that – particularly one in an unknown language and script – would surely provide stunning new insights into the events described in the gospels. Its content might differ from others that have been passed down in incredibly significant ways.

Although I was raised in a Protestant church, I am not in any sense a believer in any traditional Christian sense of the word. But whatever this document contained belonged to the entirety of humanity. And whatever happened, whatever my personal feelings, I was determined that its contents should be made available to the world. That could be done through a photographic record of the manuscript.

* * * * *

I began talking to experts and combing through on-line archives of ancient scripts, hoping to identify the alphabet in which the manuscript was written. If that problem could be solved, the text would be readable. Someone had photographed the entire document, producing 105 pages that were still entirely legible.

I was constantly alarmed that something might happen to the manuscript. I knew nothing about the person who possessed the book or the conditions under which it was being kept. My very first effort was to ensure that it wouldn’t be damaged through mishandling or simple exposure to the air. If it was real, it had clearly been unearthed very recently, and unless extreme measures would taken it would rapidly begin to decompose. Once the document came into the possession of experts, it would probably never be touched by hand again, but only handled under the most careful measures required to ensure its long-term preservation.

My contacts in Berlin refused to put me in touch with the owner. I repeatedly pled with them to tell their Turkish relatives to go to a museum or institute with expertise in the conservation of manuscripts and obtain some sort of climate-controlled box where it could be stored. They promised to do so. Later I discovered, to my horror, that none of these requests had been followed.

* * * * *


The script itself was magnificent: written in a clear hand apparently from right to left, with four straight lines per page. Beautiful characters slanted into each other and ended in strange half-circles. None of the experts I consulted could help with the script.

One Biblical scholar was highly skeptical – he knew of no written language that combined diacritic dashes and dots with the sort of strange, linked, cursive circles and crosses and s-like forms. “Probably a forgery,” he said. But who would invest such an immense amount of effort to invent such a form of writing from scratch, and eke out over a hundred pages that must say something – if it could never be read at all? Whoever had written it – ancient or modern – was telling some story, in some language. If it was a forgery, it was madness – but there was a method to it. If it was a forgery, why so many pages? Why invent an entirely new script? To make it more difficult to detect the fact that the forger didn’t perfectly master some ancient dialect? Think of the effort required to pull this off – and to keep going, for 105 pages!

I discovered that the third century CE was a time of immense linguistic innovation, in which any language might be written in virtually any alphabet: ancient Aramaic with Greek or Roman characters, ancient Latin in Hebrew letters, Arabic characters used to represent completely different languages…

The beauty of the writing itself was so seductive that I began spending vacation days holed up in the archives of the University of Heidelberg, poring over catalogs of scripts from all possible ancient sources.

The most similar writing systems seemed to be early Arabic alphabets called Nabataean, Jazm, and Musnad, Arabic Kufic, Pehlavi, Old Syriac, or Old South Arabian. Examples can be seen in the following reference: Abulhab, Saad D. “Roots of Modern Arabic Script: From Musnad to Jazm.” Sawt Dahesh. 50-51 (2007-2009), published by CUNY Academic Works and available online here.

The resemblance was never complete, but such early Arabic scripts date from different centuries and different locales. It was plausible, given the time and place in which it was presumably written, that this manuscript might hold the only known example of a particular script. But I kept looking, and even now I keep my eye on discoveries of new scripts and manuscripts – thinking that someday, one of them will leap out and match it.

I can only warn you: don’t go down that rabbit hole. After hours everything blurs into one another and you begin seeing similarities everywhere. One day I was sure I had pinned the script down when I stumbled across some reproductions of “ancient Greek magical papyrii…” The next morning I woke up, took another look, and realized there was virtually no resemblance at all.

* * * * *

During a crazy adventure you shouldn’t be deterred by petty obstacles such as not being able to read a language, or identify the language, or even the alphabet it was written in.

In fact, the uniqueness of the script itself might not pose an insurmountable obstacle. If I could break the system into individual letters, methods from computational linguistics could be applied. It might be pinpoint elements of vocabulary and structure that would identify the language, and at that point someone should be able to read it.

That would be a costly effort, and it would require bringing in someone passionately interested in deciphering the document. It would also require having more than just a sample; I’d need photographs of the entire manuscript. It would also mean bringing in another outside party who would be the first to know its contents, and yet was willing to keep the entire story under wraps until we could establish the authenticity of the book.

That would be a huge risk considering the fantastic potential value of the artifact. If it were real, judging from other historical manuscripts, the value of this book would well over 100 million Euros. And that was a conservative estimate.

Before undertaking anything of the sort, it would be necessary to definitively exclude the possibility that it was a modern forgery.



The story continues in Part three, coming soon.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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