Monday, 12 August 2013

Venice of the north and the Masoretic quest (6)

The history of St Petersburg goes back only as far as the early 18th century when Peter the Great and his successors had grand designs for a city to be built after European styles. As such the city is very unlike the old capital, Moscow, which it replaced and its canal system earned it the nickname of the Venice of the north. By the early 19th century St Petersburg had become the cultural heart of Russia, but trouble was not far away. The excesses of imperialism led to several revolts and by 1917 the empire had fallen and, led by Lenin, the Bolsheviks gained control for the people.

Shanae and me on the boat tour
So much for the history. By morning the rain had passed and our plans to undertake what we understand to be the only English-speaking boat tour began to be put into action. It was a jolly ride through a part of the city from the bridge with the four horsemen out to the River Neva and back. The views were most pleasing as we cruised past the Peter and Paul Fortress, where, in 1703, the city was essentially founded, and alongside the Hermitage and Naval Museum. A great way to see many of the significant sights.

St Petersburg is, of course, home to the oldest complete Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament - the Codex Leningradensis (or Leningrad Codex). Written in A.D. 1008, or thereabouts, it is one of five principle Masoretic manuscripts upon which our Old Testament translations are based. It was not possible to visit the city without at least making an attempt to see the object and so after our boat trip I set about my quest.

I had no problem finding the Russian National Library. I had an awful job trying to locate the entrance. Once inside it became evident that without a reading pass it would be impossible to proceed past 'Go' and so one quickly filled out form, one simple interview, and one quickly taken photograph (the lady even asked if I was happy with the pose, as if such things can really matter) later and I was armed with my RNL reading card which was valid until the expiration of my visa - I didn't actually get around to telling them that after my first brief visit I wasn't planning on returning - but I don't think they'll be waiting up. Now things became a little tricky.

Entrance to the Russia National Library
It soon became increasingly evident that this place was in no way set up for the passing traveller. With no signs in any language other than Russian, and with very few of those, I set off to discover the manuscript department. Eventually I found someone who understood my slightly cyrillic pronunciation of 'manuscript' and I was kindly escorted through what transpired to be a labyrinth of corridors, through an area which looked totally deserted and uninhabited for decades, along more corridors and deposited in a room full of dusty bookshelves and desks - alone. The thought of having been abducted by secret service did momentarily enter my mind, very briefly, but my instinct was to make my way to the far end of this room and through a door where I found life.
For the first time in this whole experience I found a chap who spoke English. I explained to him my quest and he informed me that the manuscript in question was indeed in the next room but that I would need several letters of specific recommendation if I was to even contemplate setting my eyes on it. Fair enough, at least I tried. I didn't dare ask to see the remaining fragments of Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript we bought from the very same place almost 80 years ago for a mere £100,000. Nor did I think of offering a similar sum for the manuscript of my quest, but I was allowed to see a facsimile copy and so I spent the next hour or so perusing this until it came time for me to try to escape and meet Shanae as planned for lunch. All in all, though mission not really accomplished, a worth while and educational pursuit.

Peter the Great's not-so-great cabin
Following a quick lunch we crossed over the river to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, where it all began. A pleasant stroll and views, though torrential rain did descend at one point. I had particularly wanted to see the Cabin of Peter the Great who, unlike his descendants, chose not to live in a palace so resided in a 'cabin'. So we sauntered over to have a peep before spending a little time in a nearby souvenir market where the staff were genuinely friendly and keen to chat about all sorts of things.

The train to Moscow
Time began to run short, so after finding a place to eat where one ordered through an on-table screen and consuming a half chicken and chips, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the railway station for the night train to Moscow. The real Trans-Siberian adventure was about to begin - a journey that would take us from the west coast of Russia, across five time zones, three countries and through two continents, all the way towards the east coast of China. There were cultures to explore, people to meet, and vast, vast swathes of natural beauty to behold. Whatever else it might all be, this is my Father's world and he will always be there before me.

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