NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Authorities in northern Cyprus believe they have found an ancient version of the Bible written in Syriac, a dialect of the native language of Jesus.
The manuscript was found in a police raid on suspected antiquity smugglers. Turkish Cypriot police testified in a court hearing they believe the manuscript could be about 2,000 years old.
The manuscript carries excerpts of the Bible written in gold lettering on vellum and loosely strung together, photos provided to Reuters showed. One page carries a drawing of a tree, and another eight lines of Syriac script.
Experts were however divided over the provenance of the manuscript, and whether it was an original, which would render it priceless, or a fake.
Experts said the use of gold lettering on the manuscript was likely to date it later than 2,000 years.
"I'd suspect that it is most likely to be less than 1,000 years old," leading expert Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, University of Cambridge told Reuters.
Turkish Cypriot authorities seized the relic last week and nine individuals are in custody pending further investigations. More individuals are being sought in connection with the find, they said.
Further investigations turned up a prayer statue and a stone carving of Jesus believed to be from a church in the Turkish held north, as well as dynamite.
The police have charged the detainees with smuggling antiquities, illegal excavations and the possession of explosives.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic - the native language of Jesus - once spoken across much of the Middle East and Central Asia. It is used wherever there are Syrian Christians and still survives in the Syrian Orthodox Church in India.
Aramaic is still used in religious rituals of Maronite Christians in Cyprus.
"One very likely source (of the manuscript) could be the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey, where there is still a Syriac speaking community," Charlotte Roueche, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London told Reuters.
Stories regarding the antiquity of manuscripts is commonplace. One case would be the Yonan Codex, carbon dated to the 12th century which people tried to pass off as earlier.
After further scrutiny of photographs of the book, manuscripts specialist at the University of Cambridge library and Fellow of Wolfson College JF Coakley suggested that the book could have been written a good deal later.
"The Syriac writing seems to be in the East Syriac script with vowel points, and you do not find such manuscripts before about the 15th century.
"On the basis of the one photo...if I'm not mistaken some words at least seem to be in modern Syriac, a language that was not written down until the mid-19th century," he told Reuters.
(Editing by Michele Kambas and Paul Casciato)