Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Mystery of Mont Sainte-Odile

An ancient monastery has stood in the low mountains of Alsace, France, for 1,200 years. It is celebrated for its beauty and is a must-visit stop on every scenic tour. It is encircled by a wall, known as the "Pagan Wall", composed of 300,000 blocks up to three meters tall, itself dating back to the 7th century AD. It was also the site of the crash of Air Inter Flight 148 in 1992, which killed 87.

But its history also contains an intriguing episode of daring-do. For, just after the turn of the century, books began to disappear from the Mont Sainte-Odile library. Over a two-year period, over one thousand books vanished, many of them priceless relics dating back to the 15th century, some with wooden covers and weighing several kilograms.

Now, this was no small theft. The monastery is secluded, perched atop rocky peaks, surrounded by a wall, and furthermore is inhabited by the priests. Yet over the years, as a new book disappeared every day or so, they could not find the elusive thief. Locks were changed, steel doors were reinforced, and yet the thefts continued, the phantom thief never leaving a trace except for one single rose he left one night just to taunt them. It wasn't until the historic monastery turned to modern technology that the thief was finally caught.

In June of 2003, a hidden video camera tripped up one Stanislas Gosse, aged 33, from the nearby town, who had been squirreling the books away in his home attic. He had discovered a secret route into the monastery from studying old maps at a public archive. A cupboard in the library let into a secret chamber, and a narrow stairway leading to access via climbing the wall.

His motive?

"It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more."