Whenever I’m reading an impressive and enjoyable book, I’ll wonder if that book will make my personal year-end best of list. Of course, since I almost always limit that list of books to just ten (or 11 if I happen to be channeling the spirit of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel) I really don’t know which ones will make that final cut until the very end of the year. As of right now anyway, there’s one book that stands a pretty good chance of making that year-end list. After letting Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels sit unread on my shelf for the better part of a year, last month I finally cracked it open. After only a few pages I cursed myself for not starting it sooner. It’s a fantastic book.
It is the story of two Victorian era Scottish sisters, their extensive Middle Eastern travels and the sisters’ eventual discovery of an ancient Syriac manuscript of the Gospels. More than just a biography of two intrepid sisters, Soskice’s book encompasses history, travelogue, gender studies, archeology, biography and Biblical scholarship.
There are many reasons why this is a great book. It’s not just well-written. Employing a rich vocabulary, Soskice’s writing is sophisticated without being stuff or overly academic. If The Sisters of Sinai was restricted solely to the story of two Scottish sisters’ discovery of an ancient Biblical manuscript that alone would make this an enjoyable book. But thankfully it’s more than that. In order to tell the sisters’ story in its fullness, Soskice discusses the political and social developments of the day (both in Europe and the Middle East) including gender inequality, Western encroachment into the Arab World and modern Biblical scholarship.
After thoroughly enjoying The Sisters of Sinai, I’m inspired to explore a pair of other books which I think make great follow-up reads. Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza has been sitting on my desk for over a year, and after reading Soskice’s account of the sisters’ exploration of the Cairo geniza I’m eager to learn more. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, since it deals with the rediscovery of the 2000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh, might also make for enjoyable reading. Plus, to top it all off, both books, just like The Sisters of Sinai could make great contributions to the Middle East Reading Challenge. How could I go wrong?