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Westminster College : Sisters of Sinai Travel Lantern Slides

Gibson, Margaret Dunlop, 1843-1920, Lewis, Agnes Smith, 1843-1926

Westminster College

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926), and her twin sister, Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843-1920), were born in Irvine, in Scotland; but they lived and worked together in Cambridge from the 1860s until their deaths in the 1920s. They were considerable Biblical scholars who earned the name ‘the Sisters of Sinai’ from their nine journeys to Egypt, and particularly St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, made between 1868 and 1906. They stayed at St Catherine’s to translate previously unknown Biblical manuscripts there, which they later published; they brought back further manuscripts from booksellers in Cairo for the College and for the University; and with Solomon Schechter they discovered the Cairo Genizah.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The Sisters were keen photographers, and photographed manuscripts at St Catherine’s monastery as a way of taking clear copies of original documents, which they then transcribed, translated, and published on their return to England. Perhaps the most famous of these was Syriac Sinaiticus, the Sinaitic Palimpsest, which they discovered in 1892. However, they also took almost 300 photographs of landscapes and people during their travels. These images record their visits to sites of Biblical interest – mountains and monasteries, tombs and temples – across Egypt, including Sinai and the Nitrian Desert, and also to Jerusalem, modern-day Syria and Jordan, and Greece. They show the people the Sisters travelled with –academics, cooks, monks at St Catherine’s – and provide fascinating glimpses into what travelling in the desert was like for intrepid ladies in the 1890s.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The Sisters were prolific authors, but as well as their many scholarly works, Mrs Lewis also published a popular account of their two trips to Sinai in 1892 and 1893, in <i>How The Codex Was Found</i> (Macmillan & Bowes, Cambridge: 1893). This was followed by <i>In The Shadow Of Sinai</i> (Macmillan & Bowes, Cambridge: 1898), which recounted their travels and research in 1895, 1896, and 1897 and included some of these images as illustrations. The Sisters also had their collection of travel photographs made into lantern slides, which they used as illustrations when giving talks. (An example of one of the Sisters’ lectures with lantern slides was published, though without illustrations, as ‘A Visit to the Coptic Monasteries of Egypt’ by Mrs Lewis, in the <i>Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society</i>, 1900.) This collection mostly comprises their own images, but these are occasionally supplemented with commercial slides.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>For a modern introduction to the life of Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson, see Professor Janet Soskice’s book <i>Sisters of Sinai</i> (Vintage, London: 2010), which also features some of these photographs.</p>

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