(Portrait of Agnes Smith Lewis by James Peddie with permission of Westminster College)

Their mother died two weeks after they were born, and they were raised by their father, John Smith, a lawyer who firmly believed in education for his daughters. Their father died when the twins were only 23, leaving them independent – and independently wealthy. In 1868, Margaret and Agnes embarked on a year-long trip to Egypt – the first of a total of nine visits they were to make to the country – going up the Nile, and on via Jaffa to Jerusalem.

After their return, in 1883, Margaret married James Young Gibson, essayist and translator; but she was widowed after only three years of marriage. The sisters then moved to Cambridge, where Agnes married Samuel Savage Lewis, Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Parker Librarian, in 1887. The sisters wrote books and novels, and learned Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac; and after the death of Samuel Savage Lewis in 1891, they devoted themselves to the study of Biblical manuscripts.

In 1892 they visited Egypt again, and at St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai they famously discovered the Sinaitic palimpsest – the oldest known copy of the Gospels. In 1893 they returned to photograph, transcribe, and translate the manuscript, with three other Cambridge scholars, RL Bensly, Francis Burkitt, and James Rendel Harris.

(Portrait of Margaret Dunlop Gibson by James Peddie with permission of Westminster College)

Following this pioneering research, the sisters also found – on a visit to Cairo in 1896 – leaves from an early 11-12th century Hebrew manuscript of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach or Ben Sira). Using the leaves the sisters had found, Solomon Schechter discovered the lost Cairo Genizah - an area in a synagogue for storing worn-out books and papers - and in 1897 the sisters joined Schechter in working to collect the material found there. With the permission of the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Schechter took it back to Cambridge, and it is now housed in the Genizah Research Unit at the University Library.

In recognition of their achievements, and at a time when Cambridge University did not award degrees to women, Mrs Lewis was awarded an honorary doctorate from Halle in 1899, and both sisters were given honorary doctorates by the University of St Andrew’s, Heidelberg, and Trinity College, Dublin.

The sisters were also committed to ensuring that learning was passed on, and the motto above the door in their home in Cambridge was ‘lampada tradam’ – ‘I will pass on the torch’. On their death, their manuscripts were given to Westminster College; and the material they brought back from the Genizah has recently been reunited with Solomon Schechter’s collection at the University Library, for study by the global community of scholars.

As Presbyterians, another expression of the sisters’ commitment to learning was their generosity to Westminster College, then the training college for the Presbyterian Church of England. In 1896 the College moved from London to its current site in Cambridge, onto land Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson purchased from St John’s College and gave to the Church. The sisters gave generously to the building appeal, laid the foundation stone for the College in 1897, and endowed the Lewis-Gibson scholarship, which still runs. Westminster College opened in 1899, and still trains people for ministry today.

A book about the sisters by Professor Janet Soskice was published in 2009 Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels.

You can view the remarkable travel photographs of the sisters on Cambridge University Library's Digital Library website by clicking here.

A blue plaque to commemorate the twin sisters was unveiled by Professor Soskice at a ceremony at Westminster College on 1 June 2019. The plaque was kindly sponsored by Westminster College.