American archivists have discovered the oldest known map of the stars, hidden in a 1,400-year-old Syriac language Christian manuscript found in an Egyptian monastery. 

The “Ladder of Divine Ascent” manuscript, dated to 600 A.D., was written by John Climacus, a Syrian-born Byzantine monk and Christian author. Climacus embraced a reclusive lifestyle, joining the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, where he lived until he passed away in 649 A.D. 

Some time after its discovery, the manuscript was moved to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., where museum scholars used advanced imaging technology to reveal the ancient manuscript’s multiple layers – finding the long-lost star map of Greek astronomer Hipparchus, created more than 2,000 years ago.

Hipparchus is considered the father of trigonometry and is widely seen as one of antiquity’s greatest astronomers. While scholars knew of his star map’s existence from various historical references, there was no trace of the actual artifact.

The museum scholars published their findings in October in the Journal for the History of Astronomy.

Brian Hyland, associate curator of medieval manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible emphasized the great importance of the discovery. 

“The newly discovered text is a remarkable breakthrough that highlights the creative use of multispectral imaging technology to read previously lost texts,” Hyland said. “It also attests to the accuracy of Hipparchus’ measurements.”

History scholars believe that Hipparchus’ document was the first attempt in human history to measure the exact locations of the stars. The accuracy of his work is especially impressive when one considers that it was conducted long before the invention of telescopes. 

“It is a major milestone in the birth of science as a collective endeavor to measure and predict our surroundings,” said Victor Gysembergh, a historian at the French National Center for Scientific Research. 

Egyptian state authorities have neglected many important sites of Christian antiquity in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, where the manuscript was found. In 2017, Egyptian newspaper Sada El-Balad brought attention to the dilapidated monasteries on the peninsula. 

“Despite being one of the oldest monasteries in Egypt, Deir el-Wadi suffers from neglect,” stated the newspaper, about one of the Sinai’s oldest Christian monasteries. “Nobody guards it, and the state has treated it as an isolated area from life and humans, with no historical importance.”

This August, Egyptian authorities announced plans to restore the monastery, in an effort to draw international Christian tourism to Egypt, with tourism representing an income source crucial for the struggling Egyptian economy. 

“Restored Christian archaeological sites in Sinai will contribute significantly to spiritual tourism,” said the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities’ general director for South Sinai, Abd al-Rahim Rayhān. 

Director of South Sinai Antiquities Ahmed al-Hashash also stressed that the 6th century Deir el-Wadi monastery “is one of the most important archaeological sites in South Sinai.”

The monastery was founded as a fortress against the invading Persians, during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian. 

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