[ilds] DG Bitter Lemons -- in praise of agnes

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Thu Jul 5 17:59:27 PDT 2007

The image

Lewis, Agnes Smith (1843-1926), Arabic and Syriac scholar and novelist, 
was born Agnes Smith on 16 April 1843 in Irvine, Ayrshire[. . . .]

Her inheritance from her father left her wealthy. Later their fatherly 
mentor, the minister Dr William Robertson of Irvine, inspired her 
intellect and supported their desire to travel. The sisters' journey to 
Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine resulted in her travel book Eastern 
Pilgrims (1870). In the following years she acquired several languages 
(Greek, Spanish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian). For several years 
she wrote novels: Effie Maxwell (1876), the partly autobiographical 
Glenmavis (1879), and The Brides of Ardmore (1880). Several journeys 
followed and resulted in two travel books, the pro-Greek Glimpses of 
Greek Life and Scenery (1884), and Through Cyprus (1887), and the 
translation of a Greek handbook The Monuments of Athens (1884) by P. G. 
Kastromenos. In 1883 her sister married James Young Gibson; he died 
suddenly on 2 October 1886. On 12 December 1887 Agnes Smith married the 
Revd Samuel Savage Lewis (1836-1891), classicist, antiquary, and fellow 
and librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; they had no 
children. After his sudden death (31 March 1891) she published the Life 
of the Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis (1892). After their husbands' deaths she 
and her sister lived and travelled together. Their home was her large 
Gothic revival house, built in 1890, Castle-brae in Chesterton Lane, 
Cambridge. There they studied and entertained; at their garden parties a 
piper played on the lawn. Always loyal to Presbyterianism, they attended 
St Columba's Church and assisted in its Sunday school and other 
activities. Forceful, they were considered eccentric. They dressed 
expensively if somewhat frumpishly, and wore white stockings. They had 
one of the first cars in Cambridge.

Agnes Smith Lewis's scholarly career began late. Persuaded by Dr James 
Rendel Harris, from 1892 until 1906 she and her sister made several 
journeys (1892, 1893, 1895, 1897, 1901, 1906) to Cairo, the monastery of 
St Catherine at Mount Sinai (where Harris and Tischendorf had discovered 
important manuscripts), the Coptic convent of St Mary Deipara at Deir 
al-Suriani in the Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt, and Palestine for research. 
Already in 1898 her In the Shadow of Sinai: a Story of Travel and 
Research from 1895 to 1897 appeared. Her proficiency in modern Greek 
enabled her to gain permission to enter the Greek Orthodox monastery of 
St Catherine and to be on excellent terms with the monks. The first and 
second trip to St Catherine were the most successful. It was then that 
she discovered and photographed part of the Syriac Codex Sinaiticus 
(gospel palimpsest manuscript, fifth century AD), the second known 
manuscript of the Old Syriac version beside the incomplete 
'Curetonianus' published by William Cureton (1858); this new discovery 
resulted in A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the 
Sinai Palimpsest (1894), The Old Syriac Gospels, or, Evangelion 
da-Mepharreshê (1910), and the more general Light on the Four Gospels 
from the Sinai Palimpsest (1913). Her two letters dealing with the 
discovery of the gospel palimpsest and addressed to the editor of The 
Times were printed privately as Two Unpublished Letters (1893). During 
her succeeding trips to St Catherine she prepared manuscript 
descriptions which were published in Catalogue of the Syriac MSS in the 
Convent of S. Catherine on Mount Sinai (1894). She also copied three 
lectionaries of the gospels written in Christian Palestinian Aramaic 
(Palestinian Syriac) and published them together with another version 
from the Vatican as The Palestinian Syriac Lectionary of the Gospels 
(1899). Further Syriac text editions by her are Select Narratives of 
Holy Women (1900), Apocrypha Syriaca: the protevangelium Jacobi and 
transitus Mariae (1902), and Acta mythologica apostolorum (1904). 
Considered an authority on Syriac, she was asked to contribute her 
translation of the Syriac version of Ahikar which appeared as The Story 
of Ahikar (1898).

At the antiquities market in Cairo, Agnes Smith Lewis purchased 
manuscripts including unique palimpsests written in Christian 
Palestinian Aramaic (now in Westminster College, Cambridge). These not 
very legible palimpsests were edited and published as A Palestinian 
Syriac Lectionary (1897), the only non-palimpsest manuscript, Codex 
climaci rescriptus (1909), and The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert and 
the Story of Eulogios (1912). Less successful was her edition, together 
with her sister, of palimpsest fragments from the Cairo genizah 
overwritten in Hebrew and Galilean Aramaic which were entrusted to her 
by S. Schechter, and four fragmentary pieces from their private 
collection. The fragments appeared in Palestinian Syriac Texts from 
Palimpsest Fragments in the Taylor-Schechter Collection (1900). An 
addition was published two years later as An Appendix of Palestinian 
Syriac Texts. One spectacular discovery among the sisters' acquisitions 
from the Cairo genizah in 1896 was a fragment in Hebrew of Jesus Ben 
Sira (Ecclesiasticus), a Jewish text composed in Hebrew about 180 BC, 
but only known until then from the Greek translation in the Septuagint. 
Her purchases in Cairo subsequently led Schechter to go to the Cairo 
genizah, once the Ben Sira fragment (39: 15-40: ?) had been identified. 
She and Alphonse Mingana edited the controversial Leaves from Three 
Ancient Qurans, Possibly pre-Othomanic (1914).

Agnes Smith Lewis's scholarly achievements were honoured with the 
Triennial gold medal of the Royal Asiatic Society--the blue riband of 
oriental research--in 1915, presented by Austen Chamberlain, secretary 
of state for India. She received honorary doctorates from Halle an der 
Saale (PhD, 1899), St Andrews (honorary DD, 1901), Heidelberg (honorary 
DD, 1904), and Dublin (LittD, 1911). She and her sister gave funds for 
the site and towards the buildings of the Presbyterian theological 
college, Westminster College, Cambridge. In May 1897 they laid the 
foundation stone. They also purchased the library of Eberhard Nestle, a 
renowned German New Testament scholar, containing valuable editions 
(later sold) for the college. In her last years she was entirely 
incapacitated by paralysis. Her sister died on 11 January 1920, and she 
died on 26 March 1926 at her home, Castle-brae, Chesterton Lane, 
Cambridge. She was buried in Cambridge. She left the residue of her 
estate to the English Presbyterian church, mainly for Westminster 
College. Castle-brae became a hostel for Clare College students.

Christa Müller-Kessler [DNB]

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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