The Sisters of Sinai

By Ciuraru, Carmela | The Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Sisters of Sinai


Ciuraru, Carmela, The Christian Science Monitor


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 roles.

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 camels. …

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