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The Sisters of Sinai

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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.”

The women were keenly interested in ancient biblical manuscripts (and Agnes’ husband had been a scholar of Jewish and early Christian archaeology). With the help of a generous Quaker scholar who was intrigued by these audacious Scottish sisters – and who remained a steadfast supporter – Margaret and Agnes learned how to use camera equipment so they could photograph any important discoveries for later study. He also told them of a “dark cupboard” beneath the archbishops’ rooms at the library that contained chests of Syriac manuscripts – possibly some of the earliest texts of Christianity. Agnes had recently steeped herself in studying Syriac, in preparation for what she might find, and Margaret learned the language later on.

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