The Bible of Elazığ: a backroom to a parallel universe

Bizarre, serendipitous adventures in science communication

Part one

This incredible story goes back a few years and adheres as closely to truth as memory and my notes permit. I have changed some names, for reasons that will become clear. It began a few months after I had finished a book called The Case of the short-fingered Musketeer, which concerns the heroic efforts by physician/scientist Friedrich Luft and his lab to discover genetic mechanisms underlying essential hypertension. I covered that story in the book, as fully I could. But except to a few close friends, I’ve never recounted the extraordinary events that happened in its aftermath.

To put things into context, the research carried out by Fred and his group involved a family of farmers living in Northern Turkey. They suffered from a genetic disease that was thought to be unique at the time, but over the course of the project Fred’s group uncovered a number of other families around that globe that are affected. People suffering from the hereditary condition called Bilganturan’s syndrome have very short fingers and toes, a short overall stature, and amazingly high blood pressure.

One unusual aspect of the group’s research was that the Turkish family had been actively involved in the project for many years, which made their perspective an important part of the story. When I told Fred I wanted to write a book about their work, he decided to mount a new trip to visit the family on the Black Sea. I tagged along on a week-long expedition, where the scientists collected samples that would eventually lead to the solution of the family’s unique condition. Later we paid a visit to a Nihat Bilganturan in Ankarra, the physician who had written the first paper about the family’s disease in the early 1970s. He was an amazingly colorful figure whose work had taken him to the US, Saudi Arabia and around the world – I’m still hoping that a massive autobiography that he was working on will be published someday.

Those two visits represented my entire experience of Turkey when I set out to write the Musketeer book. That obviously wouldn’t do: so much of the tale revolved around crossing cultural and societal borders, and two of the main characters were young physicians whose Turkish parents had immigrated to Germany in the 1960s. One branch of the family affected by the disease had moved to the Stuttgart region. To have any hope of realistically portraying their thoughts and their lives, I carried out extensive interviews with many of them – usually through translators. But I still needed more.

Living in Berlin brings you into daily contact with many such immigrants and their children, from all walks of life. Whenever I could I began engaging these people in conversations, in hopes of improving my understanding of their situation. One of those chance encounters led to the wild and unexpected adventure I’ll describe here.

* * * * *

For ten years I’ve had a small apartment near the S-Bahn station in Pankow, not one of the glamourous areas of the city. The steady rise in rents is a sign that things are improving, but the cafés and shops in the neighborhood have had a hard go of it. Just as you get to know the regulars, a place changes hands.

The corner near my place used to be occupied by one of those night shops you find all around Berlin. Mostly run by Turks or other immigrants, their main source of income is a flow of pedestrians who stop by for beer or cigarettes, then step outside to smoke and drink. They bring their empty soldiers back inside, collect the refund, then buy the next round. The city hadn’t yet toughened up on indoor smoking, so there was a perpetual cloud emerging from a back room where they had a row of computers that people could use to surf the Internet. It was handy if you needed a late-night e-mail fix, but hard on the lungs – and you certainly didn’t want to watch the surfing habits of the denizens that hung out there.

The place was run by two middle-aged Turkish men who would chat the ear off anyone who expressed an interest in their home country. When they found out about the book I was writing… Let’s just say they began considering themselves key, confidential informants on every possible topic. I had long reached the saturation point by the night somebody broke in and absconded with their computers, upon which the place passed into the hands of a younger generation of German Turks and a new set of informants.

I didn’t see the original owners again until about two years later, when I was at the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, running late for some appointment. I ran up the steps to the S-bahn and arrived on the platform just as the doors of the train were closing. I jammed my way in, sat down, and tried to catch my breath. When I’d recovered enough to take in my surroundings, I noticed a short, hefty guy with bristly white hair sitting across the aisle, staring at me. I couldn’t place him until he came over to sit down next to me. It was one of the original owners of the shop.

The first thing he said was, “You’re a scientist, aren’t you?”

No, I said, but I certainly knew enough of them.

“We need your help,” he said.

* * * * *

Such moments of serendipity happen in Berlin all the time, and there’s no predicting what will come of them. You meet people by chance, talk about nothing in particular, and then run into them a couple of years later when your lives have entered a new phase.

Ali, as I’ll call him here, was cagey about the topic on his mind. The first step was to exchange cell phone numbers. Maybe we could meet in a day or two down by the Yorckstrasse? It sounded like a small adventure; how could I possibly refuse?

So the next Saturday I took the S-bahn to the station south of Potsdamer Platz. Ali collected me on the platform and led me down the stairs, then on a long walk farther to the south down a boulevard lined with trees. We turned east and walked a hundred meters more where he stopped, opened an unmarked door, and gestured that I should enter. Inside was another world: a Turkish tea shop.

I hadn’t noticed them before, but in certain neighborhoods you’ll find many such doors; at any moment they might open to reveal a cluster of men, reading newspapers and drinking tea and arguing about impenetrable topics. Here there were four or five guests sitting around a table, engaged in the usual activities under the drone of a television set mounted on the wall. It was tuned to one of those strange dramas that had been perpetually running on the TV in the restaurant of our hotel in Turkey: a melange of soap opera and family story in which people would shout at each other; someone would unexpectedly burst into tears, followed by the sudden appearance of a gun. An utterly foreign dramaturgy that was impossible to follow if you didn’t know the language.

As we entered the shop, conversation broke off abruptly and the heads of the men turned to rake me with a suspicious, penetrating stare. Ali said something that seemed to appease them; after a comment or two they turned back to their newspapers. A young man emerged from behind a counter and, without asking, served us black tea in small, glass cups. The tea was steaming hot and had to be taken in small sips. We chatted about something; I don’t remember what, but it was nothing meaningful.

What am I doing here?

After ten or fifteen minutes of this, Ali stood up. “Come,” he said, and gestured toward a door behind the counter. We passed into the back room, a combination between office and storage room, with a desk littered with papers, stacks of boxes, and an ancient leather sofa creased and stained by ages of wear. There was a rust-encrusted bicycle leaning against one wall. Ali moved some stuff off the sofa. “Sit,” he said, and I sat down on the sofa, sinking in deep. Now really wondering what I was doing there.

My host sat down at the desk and shuffled some papers around. He got out his cell phone, scowled at it a while, and punched in some numbers. An excited conversation. He hung up and smiled at me. “You want some more tea? I’ll get us some more tea.” And he left.

Ten minutes later he returned with tea and another Turkish man who hadn’t been outside – tall, thin, balding, with black horn-rimmed glasses. Mehmet, let’s say. We sipped and once again, talked about nothing in particular for a while. The newcomer asked about my work, in a way that suggested I was being cross-examined. To turn the tables, I asked about his work.

“I’m a lawyer,” Mehmet said.

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

* * * * *

This was the first of five or six meetings that eventually took place in that tea shop near the Yorckstrasse or another nearby. Each time I had the feeling I was undergoing some sort of test, and each test I passed unlocked a bit more of an incredible story. Later I understood that the people I was meeting had very good reasons for their extreme caution and distrust of strangers. But at the time this all seemed like a bizarre symptom of a cultural code I didn’t understand – especially since they had approached me for help, rather than the other way around.

It was the third meeting, I think, when they asked me if I had any experience with “very old things.”

What kind of old things?

Very old… objects.” Mehmet’s eyes were glued to my face.

“Old” could mean almost anything – historical? archeological? paleontological? I had nothing like professional experience in any of those domains, but if he was talking about something truly ancient, I’d at least gotten my feet wet. As a high school student I’d joined a month-long paleontology trip across the state of Kansas, which culminated in the discovery of a dinosaur near Lake Wilson. Then at the university I’d fulfilled part of my science requirement with classes in archeology. The high point of that period was a year in Bordeaux, where alongside an intensive program to become a French teacher, I’d taken a year-long course in prehistoric art. Most weekends the professor would take us on expeditions to the caves of the Dordogne, where we’d stand under glowing painted figures of animals or follow a herd of mammoths that had been engraved on the walls of the twisted corridors. Once we spent four hours walking through the grotte Rouffignac carrying only lanterns, which was as near as you could get to the experience of a prehistoric sculptor who had followed the same route 30,000 years ago. For some reason those ancient artists rarely depicted humans; when they did, the images were usually tucked away in nearly inaccessible corners of the caves. At one point the guides lowered us students down into a hole on a rope, one-by-one, to bring us face-to-face with a drawing of a human head.

I came out of my reverie, and realized that I was tired of whatever game Ali and Mehmet were luring me into. If they wanted my help, it was time to let me in on what was going on.

“What kind of objects?”

They gave each other a long glance. Finally Ali said, “A cousin of mine, in Turkey… found some things. Very old manuscripts. We would like to know what they are.”

“Where are these things?”

“In Turkey,” Ali said. A pause, and another glance. “But they have pictures.”

He didn’t have them now, he said. But he would call his cousin, who might be able to send some. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow.”

* * * * *

Finally catching a glimpse of the pictures took two more trips to Yorckstrasse and two more visits to the back room, then an invitation to dinner in a Turkish restaurant. There we were joined by a third man whose name I never learned and whose relationship to this strange band of “relatives” – as was the case for Ali and Mehmet – never became completely clear. Later I found out that the term “cousin” was being used in the broadest possible way. And that my new-found acquaintances were playing fast and loose with some of their facts. But they’d succeeded in hooking me with a story and drawing me into an adventure that was just beginning.

Ali finally resolved some issues with the Internet – his “relative” was only willing to provide the images on a secure server for the shortest possible time. The first time we tried to log on – from another shop with Internet access – they had already been deleted. The second time we could scroll through a few of the photos. There was a thick brown book wrapped in some kind of warped leather, and a few shots of inner sheets of parchment containing drawings and line after line of a very odd script that resembled nothing I’d ever seen before.

It was impossible to say anything from images alone, of course. But I had to admit that the thing looked old – amazingly old.

The manuscript was 105 pages long, completely legible, and the images were stunning and incredibly intriguing. There were several crosses, in styles I didn’t recognize. Another image represented a snake, curled in an S-like form followed by the strange script. Its tail was curled around what looked like an infant.

Later they told me that the images had been examined by an expert. If his analysis was to be believed, the book was a Bible, although no one had been able to decipher the text. From the images they believed it to represent a part of the New Testament.

And one of the initial pages with a cross held a notation – written in what the expert claimed was a recognizeable dating system. If their interpretation was correct, the book dated from the year 232 CE.

Unbelievable. Especially given the fact that the oldest extant New Testament manuscript anywhere in the world – except for a few fragments – dated from the third or fourth centuries CE!

What to do? Armed with a few images that they were finally willing to part with, I decided to hit the libraries and talk to scholars from the fields of ancient manuscripts and Biblical history. It was immediately clear that a true Biblical manuscript even remotely that old would be a momentous, Earth-shaking finding.

All of this had dropped into my lap completely by accident, but if there was anything to the story at all, I had to pursue it.

The story continues in Part two, coming soon.

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