Margaret and Agnes Smith were identical twin sisters born in
Scotland in the mid-19th century. They suffered tragedy early on
when their mother died two weeks after giving birth; their father
died when they were just twenty-three, leaving them wealthy but
alone in the world.
How Margaret and Agnes made one of the most significant
scriptural discoveries in history is the subject of The Sisters of
Sinai, the latest book by author Janet Soskice, a fellow of Jesus
College at Cambridge University. She recounts how the intrepid women
found and deciphered one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels
- written in ancient Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic, which was the
native language of Jesus.
You needn't follow a particular religion to become engrossed in
this enthralling narrative. "The Sisters of Sinai" is a tale of
grand adventure and far-flung travels, and it proves appealing even
on that level. Soskice is so adept at making a rarefied subject
accessible and vivid that the narrative seems almost cinematic. If
the heroines hadn't been identical twins, in a film adaptation Dames
Judi Dench and Maggie Smith would be brilliantly cast in the lead
Margaret and Agnes were well educated, thanks to their austere
father's belief that they should have the same rigorous education as
boys did. They mastered French, Spanish, Italian and German early
on, and as a reward they were treated to a visit to each foreign
country whose language they'd learned.
The sisters were delightfully eccentric; while living in
Cambridge, England, "they had astonished their neighbours by taking
exercise on parallel bars in their back garden-in their bloomers,"
Soskice writes. They also bought one of the first motor-cars in
Cambridge, which made them the source of much gossip. They refused
to succumb to the typical habits of women of their class, "flitting
about, gaily ornamented, from luncheons to teas, from dinner parties
to balls with no fixity of purpose." Instead, they devoted
themselves to exercise, teaching Sunday School, volunteering in
their church soup kitchen, and their avid intellectual pursuits.
Although they found happy marriages in midlife, both husbands
died just a few years after they'd been married - a "cruel fate," as
Soskice writes, leaving the sisters with only each other yet again.
As always, in periods of deep mourning, travel was their primary
means of consolation. (Soon after their father died in 1866, the
twins set off for Egypt.)
Their trip in 1892 to the library of St. Catherine's Monastery at
Mount Sinai was transformative. It was also dangerous: a nine-day
caravan across the Sinai peninsula by camel, sleeping in tents, with
the threat of fierce sandstorms, being kidnapped, and contracting a
potentially fatal disease. Yet the only complaint Agnes recorded in
her diary of the journey was that their attempts "to read the Psalms
in Hebrew while riding were frustrated by the rolling gait of the