Egypt is best-known for its coveted ancient history: a continuous civilisation that has lived along the banks of the river Nile for thousands of years. Many of the finds archaeologists and Egyptologists have made in the region consist largely of things like great statues of the pharaohs and mummified remains. In the 19th century, however, Robert Curzon, an English traveller and aristocrat, set out on a journey to the North African nation in search not of ancient Egypt, but ancient Christianity.
Curzon arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, three years later, and was aware that the country held early records about the religion that once swept the world — but did not know where to start.
But he was in the right place — by 300 AD Alexandria had become one of the great centres of Christianity.
Around the same time in Britain the religion was illegal and was often punishable by death.
Its followers within the Roman Empire would have to wait another 14 years to practice their faith freely.
So, with a knowledge of Christianity’s history, Curzon knew that Egypt held some of the religion’s earliest monasteries and, by extension, some of its earliest texts.
His momentous journey was explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Bible Hunters: Search for Truth‘.
Dr Jeff Rose, an archaeologist who presented the show, travelled to Egypt to follow in Curzon’s footsteps, and explained how the monastic movement began in Egypt.
He said: “Monks who had gone out to the desert to live in solitude banded together in self-sufficient communities and those became the first monasteries.
“One of the oldest monasteries in Egypt, and the world, is the Syrian monastery 90 miles west of Cairo.
“In 1834, it took Curzon nearly two days to reach it by boat and camel, today it’s less than two hours away by [motor]bike.
“Founded in the sixth century AD, the monastery was known for its wall paintings in its library of precious manuscripts.
“When Curzon visited the library, he found the place in complete disarray with manuscripts just littering the floor.”
Many of the books had been burned by poverty-stricken Egyptians desperate to keep warm.
But, some of the texts had been safeguarded and kept under lock and key.
Curzon was certain this was the case, and is said to have plied a blind monk with alcohol and coaxed him into showing him to the secret library within the depths of the monastery — and that is exactly what the monk did.
The Englishman soon found himself surrounded by ancient biblical texts.
Dr Rose explained: “Inside the room, Curzon found a treasure trove, the dusty pages of some of the earliest dated Bible texts in existence.”
He found fully bound Christian manuscripts, as well as several gospel fragments, all written in ancient Syriac — a language similar to what Jesus would have spoken.
The texts dated back to the fourth century AD.
Dr Rose continued: “Curzon also stumbled upon a surprise — a biblical text, the Acts of Peter and Paul, which was never included in the Bible.
“At the time, questions about why this Christian text was omitted led to speculation among scholars about the accuracy of the Bible.”
Five years after his now-famous voyage, Curzon, hungry for more answers, set out once again.
This time his travels took him to Mount Athos in Greece — an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
His journeys resulted in the book, ‘Visit to the Monasteries in the Levant’.
It gained huge traction, and by 1881, Curzon had completed a further six expeditions to the Levant and the surrounding region.
His finds were viewed as breakthroughs in modern understanding of Christianity, and culminated in the British Museum’s acquisition of the collection of Nitrian manuscripts.