The Bible of Elazığ (4)

Part four

(For the beginning of this story, see the earlier posts at part 1, part 2, and part 3

Our host produced a folded white cloth and pinched its folded corners. With a single brisk shake it unfurled, was lifted by a draft and drifted onto the table like a settling cloud. Abdullah patted around to flatten the creases. These preparations were made with the attention of a small ceremony. I noticed the cloth seemed to be perfectly clean – later I would wish I had taken a much closer look. Then the door to the next room opened and I caught a glimpse of shelves with regiments of books aligned from floor to ceiling.

Immediately my first question was answered: the only protective measures they had implemented to protect the Bible of Elaziğ, in a house ruled by central heating, was to put it in a plastic bag from a grocery store.

Aldi, I think, but it may have been another German chain.

The extent to which they had followed my urgent requests, apparently, was to put the bag inside a second plastic bag. Markus gave me a strange look – my mouth was hanging open, I probably closed it.

Abdullah helped the man who’d carried it in extract it from the outer bag, into which the old man reached to withdraw the Bible – with his bare hands. I opened my mouth again – thinking of the box of sterile Latex gloves I’d obtained from the lab and been carrying since leaving home. This didn’t seem like an appropriate moment for a lecture on processes of degradation triggered by a transfer of oils, acids and bacteria from a person’s hands, or the need to handle ancient documents under sterile environmental conditions. I closed my mouth again. Probably.

The object that came out of the bag was much smaller than I’d imagined – about the length and breadth of an iPad, but considerably thicker. I realized my expectations about the scale had come from the only format I’d seen it in: the size of the screen of my 17″ notebook computer, which I had been using to zoom in and out, altering the contrast and color range, trying to expose details of its script and the drawings.

Once the book appeared, they handled it gingerly, respectfully, but still with their bare hands. The old man placed it carefully on the cloth, stepped back, then touched one corner and made a minor adjustment until he was satisfied it was centered against the bleached background.

Even the most faithful posters and reproductions of great paintings somehow never do justice to the works themselves, and I had the same impression here. Part of this feeling had to do with its diminutive size, the precision of its outline against the white frame of the cloth. Maybe it became more real by more closely resembling most of the other books in my life.

The leather cover that had been bound around it wasn’t quite as dark the images had suggested. The warped, spotted surface might have been a mummy’s skin. The photographs suggested a pitted, moon-like landscape, but this had exaggerated the depth. Live, it looked more like a wrinkled rubber sheet. At that moment I had no doubt I was looking at something truly ancient, something that had been passed from hand to hand, entombed and lost, resurrected through an accident, finally to arrive to us, in this room, swimming up through the depths of time.

I examined the edges; the spine was more like a fold. From the outside I couldn’t see stitches or any other signs of the means by which the inner pages had been attached to it.

Markus and I walked around and around it, looking at the book from all angles. I had asked a few experts for advice about features to look for that might tell us something about its true age; they hadn’t said much about the cover, but it wouldn’t have helped. My mind was a blank.

At some point I opened my bag to unpack the gloves. Abdullah reached for the book to open it. “Wait,” I said, but by the time George had translated that single word, he’d carefully pulled back the cover with his bare fingers. As if once more made any real difference after they’d surely already handled the book the same way dozens or hundreds of times.

I expected the cover to crumble as he peeled it back, but we were spared that, at least.

In contrast to what I’d seen for the outer leather, the parchment of the inside pages looked quite a bit darker than it had been in the photographs, which considerably weakened its contrast to the drawings and script running across its pages. That might have been due to alterations in the contrast and color values of the image files from their original photos; it could also mean that the manuscript was deteriorating from exposure. I assumed that they’d taken those images using a normal light source that was surely pretty strong. I’d asked the Berlin faction early on to keep to tell them in the strongest terms that it had to be kept away from light, which might massively accelerate its degradation.

I was alarmed, but glad that Markus had equipment for infrared photography. It added urgency to the images we planned to take: unless the Bible could be put into the hands of expert conservationists very soon, subtle features of the pages might be lost forever.

The old man’s finger hovered over the first page, which displayed an image of a cross placed among writing and symbols. George, who was just on intent at looking at the book as we were, fumbled for a moment over the translation.

“He says these are the marks of the scribes – the way they signed their work. He says some of the other symbols are a form of representing dates. It’s an old system but he says it’s known and people know how to translate it into the modern calendar. That’s how they came up with the year 232 for when it was written.”

As more pages were turned, the old man kept up a running commentary. We came to one of the first images, of a stone portal structure with two towers. “The ruins of this this structure still exist,” George translated. “In Syria. This place is known – it’s near where the book was found.”

Another drawing – what appeared to be a woman in a scarf and a long robe marked by ornamental spots, under bent palm trees. “You note the shape of the trees? Leaning toward and around her? This was a symbol pointing to something holy, something divine.”

I described my efforts to identify the script, which triggered another long discussion with the old man. Finally George turned back to us. “He says that they showed some of the images to a professor from the university, who thought it might be a form of Old South Arabic. The old man says he has seen it on other documents – and that he can even read parts of it.” Another long conversation in Turkey. “He’s a sort of scholar who has been finding things his whole life. When people learn what is written here, he says, it will change the world.”

* * * * *

Markus hadn’t yet unpacked his equipment, but time was passing and we needed to set things up if we were going to photograph the book. Abullah talked to the old man a while, and then he nodded.

“You can take the photographs,” he said, through George. “But you must leave them here. And also the camera.”

“The camera?” Markus said, astonished.

“Yes, he is very concerned about this getting out, about the story getting on the Internet.”

Markus assured them that once he had taken the images, he would remove the memory card. They could keep it until we had subjected material from the book to Carbon 14 dating and verified that it was as old as they claimed. At that point we would discuss how to deal with the photographs.

More talk. “No,” Abdullah told us. “You’d have to leave the camera. But you will get it back, of course.”

“There won’t be any images on it when we leave,” Markus protested. “I’ll make sure they are erased, and I’ll show you while I’m doing it.” He shot me a pained expression. “If I’d known, I would have brought another camera, or bought one. But I can’t leave this one here.”

“We need the images,” I said. “It was the whole point of the trip – that, and getting a sample.” I added that they had known that was our intent from the beginning; if they were going to make an unreasonable demand, they should have told us.

On this point, however, the old man would not be moved, for whatever reason. We were stuck; one of the main reasons for this whole crazy enterprise had just collapsed beneath our feet. I could ascribe the whole thing to their paranoia – at least until what happened next.

“But he has many pictures they took themselves on his computer,” Abdullah said. “We will let you take some of them with you.”

Markus laughed bitterly. We looked at each other – when dealing with crazy people, what could you do but shrug?

At least they made no objections as I prepared to take get sample for the dating analysis. That, too, had been discussed in advance. And for all the talk that we might be dealing with a forgery, the fact that they were letting us do this had been a major factor in the decision to come.

It had been an argument I had raised many times with my wife, who had never believed the Bible could be real and had objected to my involvement from the beginning. “You shouldn’t waste time and money on this,” she had said – many times.

“When we do the dating, we’ll know for sure,” I told her. “The family in Turkey has to know that the results will be totally unambiguous. If they know the thing isn’t real, why would they ever let us come take a sample?”

She didn’t have an answer but refused to be budged. “They want something from you,” she declared.

“What could they possibly want from me? I’m not going to buy it, so what could I possibly do for them – unless it’s authentic?”

I still had on my latex gloves as I considered the problem of taking the sample. I was determined not to cause any damage to the manuscript, which meant taking great care with the inner pages. The edges of the parchment were frayed, so I gripped the border of a page with a pair of small tweezers. I pulled very gently and a miniscule fragment came off. I placed it in a plastic bag.

I also wanted to have the cover tested, so I had them close the book again. When they had placed it on the table, the cloth underneath had been clean; now a flake about half the size of my fingernail lay there, having crumbled off the leather exterior. It went into another bag. I packed them both into the pouch on my belt I used to carry my cell phone.

Those few moments would haunt me for the next four years, when I would reproach myself again and again. Because everything depended on those samples. And I had quite possibly just made a terrible mistake.

* * * * *

Abdullah and the other young man packed the Bible back in its Aldi bag and carried it into the next room. Out came a Macintosh laptop, where they’d stored the images that the family had taken of the Bible. The old man sat down and tapped his way through folders with his short, blunt fingers. He inserted the memory stick I’d brought along. I sat down beside him and he began scrolling through the images, which were high-resolution versions of those I had seen in Berlin. A few of the drawings were partly obscured by flares from the flash they’d used, but in terms of preserving the text, these weren’t bad at all. Our plan to use infrared had had more to do with capturing details that might be lost as the manuscript deteriorated.

I had assumed that we’d be limited to taking along a few images of pages of script, given their concerns about our use of those taken with Markus’ camera. But the old man was willing to part with any of the photos I wished, including those of the drawings. As we scrolled through the book, we’d come to something and he’d even say, “Oh, you need that one, of course.” In the end I had nearly all the images they’d taken, of the entire book.

I assured him I wouldn’t use them without permission, and he waved his hand, as if this had no importance. Markus was practically gaping as he watched the whole procedure.

As that was going on, one of the women we’d met at the beginning came in and served tea. We were sipping it when Abdullah sprang the last surprise of the day on us.

“He says that when this book was discovered, there were 16 other manuscripts along with it.”

What?

They weren’t Bibles, Abdullah said, but seemed to have more to do with the life of the community that had produced the other book. Maybe we’d like to see some of them?

More plastic bags began to emerge from the neighboring room. The objects they brought in were like no books I had ever seen before. All were enclosed in leather covers, but of odd shapes: sewn together in triangles, or circles. The lettering on some glowed in a luminous gold; in others, the pages inside were thicker, possibly made of leather, with characters that had somehow been pressed into the surface.

“He has images of some of these other books, and you can take them as well,” Abdullah said. Out came the stick again, and the old man began dragging entire folders of photographs onto it.

* * * * *

We moved through customs without problems as we caught our flight the next morning to leave Elazığ. In the air the whole trip seemed like a bizarre dream. Markus and I had talked it up and down and were unable to make any sense of the old man’s curious behavior.

Two days later, on a bright Friday morning, I drove to Mannheim to deliver my two samples to the Center for Archeometry of the Curt Engelhorm Museum. Before the trip I had contacted them to find out whether they could handle the dating and how much material they’d need. Also to check prices; I was going to be out a few hundred more Euros. Normally the work would take two months – it could be done faster if I was willing to pay a lot more.

I’d found out they were receiving funding from the Klaus Tschira Foundation in Heidelberg, established by one of the billionaire founders of the software giant SAP. By chance I knew someone highly placed in the foundation who could give them a call – getting me the normal rate for a quicker analysis.

I filled out some forms and turned over the samples at a desk on the second floor. The fragment from the cover was certainly large enough to perform an accurate analysis, they said. The bit from the inner pages, the one I’d prefer to have analyzed, was questionable; they couldn’t guarantee that it had enough mass. I could only afford one test.

“What we’ll do is measure the smaller piece and use it if it’s sufficient,” they said. “If it is, we’ll use it. Otherwise we’ll go with the other one.”

They were curious about the source. “I’ll tell you more when I have the results,” I said.

With that I left the mystery in their hands, and drove home to pack for a three-week vacation with my family.

The conclusion of the story will appear in part 5, coming soon!

Published by

russhodge

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 https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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