Cliffs and Columns, Camels and Levers

Two hundred years before Christ, while Archimedes lived and taught there with scores of other great scholars, Alexandria, Egypt was the intellectual capital of the world.

In those heady days Archimedes boasted that were he given a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, he could move the world.


Four hundred miles south of Archimedes’ Alexandria and six hundred years later, a young Egyptian peasant did just that: he moved the world, though the world at the time knew it not.

And the world today has forgotten it.

His  lever?

His  will and example.

His fulcrum?

The lands lying within sight of this forbidding cliff, Abu Jamal, the “Amen Cliff.”

Jabal al-Tarif

Today, in the village of Faw Qibi seven miles east of this cliff, camels stand and cattle graze among fallen columns — the sole remnants of a great basilica where thousands of monks once raised their voices to heaven, a basilica famous as far away as central Europe.

Ruins_of_the_Basilica_of_St_Pachomius 3

Lying higgledy-piggledy, this way and that, and too heavy for plunderers to drag away, the fallen columns themselves look almost like one long lever broken in many pieces, a lever perhaps insufficient to move the world literally, but a reminder nonetheless of the world-changing power that once was concentrated within the walls and under the roofs they supported.

Over a thousand years ago, and before these columns fell, some men, acting in hope or desperation, jammed ancient books into large jars, and carried them away from this  grand structure to bury them furtively at the base of the nearby  cliffs, where they slept until one torrid day in 1947 and another in 1952 brought their discovery by peasants digging for fertilizer.


Then, like angry genies set loose from a jar, some of those books shook the confidence of scholars and assailed the faith of Christians, shoving right into the Twentieth Century the very controversies that led to their burial in the first place.

In the following posts, I will recount some of the highlights of the tale of these books and speak of their impact — then and now. I will show why they and the issues they raise need to be considered not only by scholars, but by any who share the Christian faith of the men who, when they sensed their time was past, buried these documents, hoping, as in fact happened, that these books would once again see the light of day and once again be, as they should be, the concern of believers.