Photographs / Robert Van Nice

Reminiscing over Sinai

Written by Jessica Cebra, ICFA Departmental Assistant

The Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report recaps the institution’s initiatives and achievements of the previous year, including exhibitions, publications, lectures, and fieldwork. The reports for the academic years 1957-1958 and 1960-1961 modestly note Robert Van Nice’s leave of absence to spend “several weeks on Mt. Sinai assisting the expedition of the Universities of Michigan, Princeton, and Alexandria in architectural survey work at the Monastery.” While the Sinai Archive currently resides within the University of Michigan’s department of the History of Art, we’ve discovered some Sinai-related materials in our Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers collection, as well as over 300 strips of 35mm film shot by Ihor Ševčenko.

Moon over Mt. Sinai, photo by Ihor Ševčenko, Neg. # 2012.0070.0347

Moon over Mt. Sinai, photo by Ihor Ševčenko, Neg. # 2012.0070.0347

St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, Egypt, was erected in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great, on the site traditionally thought to be where Moses stood when God spoke to him from the burning bush. Early Christian hermits of the 3rd century, escaping persecution, took refuge in the Sinai desert, grouping themselves together in small communities for protection. Justinian’s secretary records in a treatise:

“On this Mount Sinai dwell monks whose life is but a careful rehearsal of death, and who therefore enjoy without fear the solitude which is dear to them . . . Emperor Justinian built them a church which he dedicated to the Virgin, that they might therein spend their life in continual prayer and service of God. He built this church, not on the summit of the mountain, but much lower down; for it is not possible for a man to spend the night upon the summit, since constant crashes of thunder and other terrifying manifestations of divine power are heard at night, striking terror into man’s body and soul.”

The monastery is one of the best preserved ecclesiastical structures of the Justinian age, after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Previous attempts to survey the site in the 19th and early 20th centuries by foreign governments and art historians were limited, and often stunted, due to the harsh desert conditions and lack of efficient modes of transport through the mountainous terrain. The development of modern, practical vehicles and technology opened the doors for a larger scale expedition in the years 1958, 1960, 1963 and 1965, led by George H. Forsyth, Jr. of University of Michigan. With the permission of the Egyptian government and authorization by the late archbishop and abbot of St. Catherine, his Beatitude Porphyrios III, the expedition was organized to comprehensively document the monastery’s artistic treasures, including mosaics, frescoes, icons, illuminated manuscripts, liturgical objects, furniture, and of course, the architecture. This was no easy task, as it required immense preparation and planning for the transport of the participants, their equipment, and everything else required to sustain their 3-month long visits each year.

George H. Forsyth, Jr., director of the expedition in 1958 and 1960, focused on the monastery’s wood and stone sculptural reliefs, while a number of scholars studied various aspects of the site from its icons and capitals to its Islamic antiquities. The expedition involved many familiar faces from the Dumbarton Oaks community who employed their subject specialties and skills: Kurt Weitzmann – paintings and mosaics (and director of the project in 1963 and 1965); Ihor Ševčenko – inscriptions and manuscripts; Paul Underwood, Ernest Hawkins, and Carroll Wales – cleaning and preservation of the sanctuary church mosaic; and Robert Van Nice – architectural survey.

After reviewing correspondence between Van Nice and Forsyth involving visas, flights and itineraries, health conditions and insurance, food supplies, clothes, equipment, logistics, and expenses, the realities of the expedition become both amusing and daunting. Though there are existing travel diaries on Sinai as early as 1483, and another from 1885, which warn against the dangerous conditions and the inhabitants of the desert, the letters between Van Nice and Forsyth portray more of a technical challenge. Here are some excerpts from an 11-page inventory of 57 boxes prepared for the 1960 trip:

Sinai IMG_2918

“Contents of boxes,” page 1, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.

"Contents of boxes," page 2, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.

“Contents of boxes,” page 2, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.

List of expenses, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers

“Sinai expenses,” from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers


Pemican? “Pemmican” is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food, “Contents of boxes,” page 4, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.

Van Nice’s daughter, Molly Van Nice, shared the following with ICFA: “I think Dad loved the Sinai gig, but the first time they went it was like going to the moon. They provisioned for a safari with water and pemican and pith helmets and no apparent recognition of the fact that people actually lived there and survived.” The crew ensured that they’d have all the necessities, including electric generators, scaffolding, ladders, and surveying instruments. In addition, the project photographer Fred Anderegg needed photographic processing equipment and chemicals, and somehow managed to establish a photo-developing laboratory in the desert. Anderegg was basically in charge of managing the equipment and supply levels, including food. He states in a note before Van Nice’s arrival “I have enough pemican to feed an army!” There are other notes between Forsyth, Anderegg, and Van Nice regarding the problematic conditions and complaints of “no heating to keep one from shivering.” Van Nice to Angeregg: “Last evening I sent off … a shapeless package of old clothes, including a pair of ‘longies’ against your threat of really cold weather … and a couple of special pencils.” You can see the lift that was used to transport larger items into the monastery here.

Forsyth describes the end of the previous 1958 trip to Van Nice, who left early to continue work in Istanbul: “As you can imagine, the last days there were very strenuous. Due to the political situation, we felt we might have to leave early, and, therefore, we put on a final burst of speed in order to come away with a maximum amount of material. The disconcerting aspect was that we were almost marooned during the last two weeks of our stay. The frontier at the Canal was closed to incoming visitors, and there was danger that even Pericles [their local guide] might not be allowed to come in and get us. Our U. of M. truck had been returned to the Alexandria customs, because its permit had expired and could not be renewed. So we were left with no transportation but camels. Moreover, it was very hard to learn what was going on in the world outside. Our principle source of information was Radio Moscow, which sounded mighty ominous. The Voice of America hardly ever got through. Finally, we took advantage of the arrival of a Bedouin convoy of trucks which arrived at the Monastery loaded with grain to stock the place in case of eventualities. On their return trip to Suez, they transported us and all our equipment in a wild drive of one night.”

Although it is not specified, we can assume that the “political situation” that Forsyth refers to relates to the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the establishment of the United Arab Republic, and Lebanese political tensions in 1958. During Robert Van Nice Jr.’s visit to ICFA last year, we conducted an oral history where he recalled his father’s projects and stories, including his sighting of a “dust storm far off in the distance” from atop Mt. Sinai, which peacekeeping troops later confirmed as an Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no other mention of conflict encumbering the expedition in the correspondence, nor in subsequent publications. There is only expressed gratitude to the Egyptian government, the Fathers of the Monastery (“they showed an unfailing friendliness in spite of the disruption which our work inevitably caused in their devout way of life”), and the devoted services of the Bedouins.

The Sinai expedition spawned a number of published volumes and articles, and received extensive press in magazines like National Geographic (January 1964) and Research News (August 1962). More recently in 2010, the Stelios Ioannou Center for Classical and Byzantine Studies and Oxford University hosted a conference in memory of Ihor Ševčenko entitled “St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai: Its Manuscripts and their Conservation,” and the papers were published by the Saint Catherine Foundation. Ševčenko researched, photographed and wrote extensively on Byzantine written culture. His negatives held at ICFA document some of the epigraphy and paleography found at St. Catherine’s, as well as the surrounding environment and the monks who assisted him in the library.

Ihor Sevcenko studying the manuscripts in Saint Catherine's Monastery library. Neg. # 2012.0070.0326

Ihor Ševčenko studying the manuscripts in Saint Catherine’s Monastery library, 1963. Neg. # 2012.0070.0326

St. Catherine’s is one of the oldest active monasteries housing priceless Byzantine religious art and manuscripts, where scholarship and conservation projects continue to this day. The experience of the “Michigan-Princeton-Alexandria Expedition” can only be known by those who were there, but we can at least get a glimpse into this exciting undertaking. Upon return from his trip to Sinai, and later Istanbul, Van Nice received a letter from Anderegg with photographs enclosed. Together the images form a panoramic view of the memorable Mount Sinai. In another letter to Forsyth, Van Nice writes “it will always be the greatest pleasure to reminisce about Sinai.”

Mount Sinai photographed by Fred Anderegg, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.

Mount Sinai photographed by Fred Anderegg, from the Robert L. Van Nice Records and Fieldwork Papers.


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