Courtesy of the Nag Hammadi Archive of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity

Muhammad Ali at the site of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices with James M. Robinson, who heads the team that published and translated the texts.

Farmers of the Upper Nile annually fertilize their fields in December. In 1945, as they did every other year, Muhammad Ali and his brother Khalifa, of the al-Samma clan, went out with their camels below the cliffs near Nag Hammadi to gather precious nitrates for fertilizer. They stumbled on an old sealed pottery jug. Muhammad initially feared that a jinn, or evil spirit, resided inside. He later thought the vessel might contain some great treasure. What he found, however, were leather-bound volumes, which he finally decided were worthless. The books then passed through many hands—a Coptic priest’s, an itinerant history teacher’s, a Cypriot antiquities dealer’s, a one-eyed bandit’s—until the scholarly world gradually heard of what an Egyptian farmer had stumbled upon that December day in 1945.