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The Monks Who Are Fighting ISIS
Feature|Feb 6, 2018

The Monks Who Are Fighting ISIS

Father Columba Stewart Is An American Benedictine Monk Fighting To Protect Ancient Relics From Destruction
Matteo Fagotto

At midmorning, as the sun shines high on the whitewashed stone houses of the world’s holiest city, a tall, lean figure dressed in a black religious habit slips through the narrow alleys of the souq, confidently navigating them as if he’s lived here forever. “This place has always had a special significance for me,” explains this 60-year-old American Benedictine monk, stopping in front of an iron door surmounted by a stone arch. “I always try to carve out some free time when I come here.”

As he enters the gate of Saint Mark’s Syrian Orthodox monastery, Father Columba Stewart is greeted warmly by a group of monks sitting around a white plastic table. After some small talk and a few sips of cardamom coffee, a frail, bearded man leads him up a few ramps of stairs through a white-panelled door surmounted by a cross, and into a dusty room. Placed in wooden cabinets are rows of priceless manuscripts dating back to the 6th–7th century AD, some of them containing texts by Holy fathers of Christianity such as Saint Cyril, who presided over the Ephesus Universal Synod in 431. Columba carefully opens one of them, lingering over the elegant calligraphy of its yellowed pages. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, his eyes gleaming in admiration.

Written in Syriac, the language of the oldest Christian communities of the Middle East, they are just a small portion of the more than 50,000 Christian and Muslim manuscripts Columba and his co-workers have managed to save in the past 14 years. This resolute, soft-spoken man is the head of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), a non-profit organisation based at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and he is dedicated to the digital preservation of endangered manuscripts around the world. HMML has been active in the field since 1965, and nowadays it hosts the world’s largest collection of images of manuscripts, made of more than 140,000 samples saved on microfilm and in digital format.

Since his appointment at the helm of the organisation in 2003, Columba has been scouring the world, from India and the Middle East to the Balkans and Ethiopia, to uncover and digitise precious Christian, Islamic, philosophical and scientific manuscripts threatened by weather, theft, wars or religious fanatics. As ISIS and other radical groups have been ravaging Africa and the Middle East, destroying ancient temples and countless antiquities in recent years, Columba has countered them by working with Christian and Muslim communities in hotspots such as Iraq, Syria and Mali, training local teams to photograph centuries-old books in order to preserve knowledge for future generations. “Given what’s happened in the last years since the rise of ISIS, it’s very clear that these things are really endangered,” explains Columba, enjoying a fruit juice during a pause in his busy schedule. “It’s imperative to make sure these manuscripts are safe.” 

Image: Father Columba Stewart With Fellow Benedictine Monks In Jerusalem | Matilde Gattoni

Image: Father Columba Stewart With Fellow Benedictine Monks In Jerusalem | Matilde Gattoni

The monk’s goal is to create the most comprehensive collection of digitised manuscript material in the world, giving free online access to largely unknown and unique collections. While the program’s main beneficiaries will be scholars, Columba hopes it will eventually foster a better understanding between Christians and Muslims in an era when the relationship between the two civilisations is so strained. “Even if relations were not easy in the past, if we learn from places where they once lived together, we might learn how to live together again,” explains Columba. “If we don’t find deeper affinities, we’ll always be stuck on our superficial differences. We will remain afraid and suspicious of one another.”

Apart from its decades-old work throughout Europe, under Columba’s direction the HMML has expanded its activities to India, recently photographing 10,000 palm-leaf manuscripts, and Ethiopia, where it digitised the Garima Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving Ethiopian manuscripts. The organisation has also expanded into the Middle East, working in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jerusalem, to digitise thousands of manuscripts of all confessions, from Coptic, Maronite and Armenian, to Greek Catholic and Latin. In 2013, the organisation took the landmark decision of starting to digitise Islamic material as well. The 900 manuscripts of the Budeiri Library in Jerusalem were the first such project and have since been followed by several others. 

Nowhere is the inextricable history of Christianity and Islam more visible than in Jerusalem, where Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived side by side for centuries. Here, the HMML has been digitising four Islamic and Christian collections since 2011. During his yearly visit here, Columba keeps track of the ongoing projects and tries to embark on new ones, meeting with stern Orthodox Syrian monks, influential and urbane Armenian patriarchs and cosmopolitan Palestinian families, in a captivating mosaic of traditions and cultures. 

The monk’s involvement with manuscripts started almost accidentally. In the spring of 2003, Columba was asked to join an HMML preparatory field trip to Lebanon due to his monastic connections and his then “limited but nonetheless real experience of the region”, as he likes to say. Columba soon developed a deep fascination for the job. “I don’t have a lot of time to actually use the manuscripts, as my work is mostly finding them and making it possible to collect them,” he says. “But I like learning new things, getting in touch with new cultures and making new personal connections.”

Yet, trying to preserve the world’s culture from destruction can be a painstakingly slow and sometimes frustrating job, where digitalisation is only the last stage. Getting in touch with the various religious orders, cultural organisations or families who hold manuscript collections and gaining their trust can take years of travelling, countless meetings and a lot of diplomacy, with no guarantee of a positive outcome. Many of the communities Columba approaches have been scarred by years of wars and persecution, and are understandably wary of outsiders. For them, granting a foreigner access to their cultural treasures is a huge deal. “Some of them lost their original place, their properties, their people,” explains Columba. “Sometimes all they have are the manuscripts; a living link with their past.”

Image: Father Columba Stewart Inspecting An Ancient Manuscript | Matilde Gattoni

Image: Father Columba Stewart Inspecting An Ancient Manuscript | Matilde Gattoni

The Syriac Christians Columba is meeting today are among those who suffered most. Since the start of the Syria and Iraq wars, many of them have been persecuted and forced to flee to Europe, or have scattered in small groups around the region. As their manuscripts are one of the last testimonies of their cultural identity, when the American monk approached Saint Mark’s in 2011, the monks thought this could be the last chance to save their history. Given the precarious situation of the community, the Syriac projects in Jerusalem, Syria and Iraq are among those Columba is most proud of. “These books were left by our Holy Fathers,” explains Shimon Çan, the 65-year-old librarian, calligrapher and amanuensis of the monastery, who has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the project. “It is our duty to open these treasures to the world and to let our youngsters understand the wisdom, knowledge and spiritual value they exude.” 

Since the rise of ISIS, 2000 out of the 6000 manuscripts the HMML managed to digitise between 2009 and 2014 in Iraq have been lost, probably destroyed by men of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Other manuscripts digitised in the Syrian city of Aleppo might have gone missing, too. “I try not to think about that, because if I do I get really upset,” the monk continues. “But it would be more painful if I heard of something that was destroyed that we didn’t photograph, because that would be totally lost.” When the Malian city of Timbuktu was taken over by Islamists associated with al-Qaeda in 2012, its unique libraries containing more than 300,000 Islamic religious texts and scientific works could have suffered the same fate. Thanks to the presence of mind of their custodians, these precious and largely unstudied manuscripts were smuggled to the capital Bamako, where they are currently being digitised by the HMML in safe houses. 

Carried out in studios equipped with strobe lights and an HD digital camera remotely connected to a PC, digitisations are conducted by technicians trained by representatives of the HMML. Once the photography is completed, files are regrouped in a single folder and saved on a hard disk, which is then mailed or carried to the HMML headquarters in Minnesota by trusted intermediaries. Upon arrival, folders are scanned with antivirus; their data archived and uploaded to an online dedicated platform. Local teams are able to digitise an average of 500–600 manuscripts per year, for an annual running cost of less than 20,000 USD per project. Funded mainly through long-term grants, the HMML takes care of all the expenses, from the purchase and shipping of the equipment to the wages.

Although not difficult in itself, digitising requires care and patience in order to maintain consistency throughout the whole process. In Jerusalem, the operation is handled by 51-year-old Shaima Budeiri, a friendly but determined woman who studied manuscript preservation in Dubai, and spent the past years photographing thousands of pages, including those of her family’s private collection. “I feel very proud of what I’m doing,” she says, showing a beautiful manuscript decorated with gold, belonging to the Budeiri Library. To avoid damaging the already delicate pages, Shaima wears gloves and a white coat, and operates behind closed windows to shield manuscripts from sunlight. “I like this job because this collection belongs to my ancestors.”

Yet, despite the reputation the HMML has built for itself in the past years, many communities remain sceptical about opening up to Westerners, given the tens of thousands of manuscripts looted during the colonial period and now displaced in various libraries around Europe. That’s when Columba’s experience as a monk comes into play. “Everybody knows about the Benedictines, manuscripts and learning. This is part of our identity, a brand which is somehow universal,” he explains. “Being a monk puts me in a very different category. People understand I am not representing a big business or an imperialist cultural agency.” The HMML modus operandi of training local people is also very important, as the latter keep total physical control of the manuscripts. “We never touch the manuscripts,” explains Columba. “They are the ones doing the work and getting paid for it. They feel proud because they can say ‘We did this.’ Which is true.” 

Image: Protection Of These Ancient Manuscripts Is An Incredibly Important Job | Matilde Gattoni

Image: Protection Of These Ancient Manuscripts Is An Incredibly Important Job | Matilde Gattoni

While making digital surrogates of manuscripts can be fairly easy, preserving the originals from physical deterioration is another matter. As old pages are vulnerable to mold, worms and insects, manuscripts have to be wrapped and stored in acid-free papers and cartons, preferably in a climatised environment protected from excessive humidity. But not all the owners have the means or the will to look after their ancient books. In some cases, manuscripts are kept in plastic bags or simply left decaying. Once they are seriously damaged, restoring them is a long and costly process. “We recently spent 70,000 USD to restore around 100 manuscripts,” laments 70-year-old Khader Salameh, the librarian of the Khalidi Library, whose collection of 1200 Islamic, Ottoman and Persian manuscripts is currently being digitised by HMML. “I have worked in this field since 1977. At the beginning, people thought these codices were rubbish. To date, there is no university teaching library science or museology in the Arab world. This is a problem,” says Khader. The man’s passion for the job betrays his worries about the state of the collection, whose works span from medicine to astronomy and from Qur’anic exegesis to philosophy and poetry. Its oldest manuscript, a text on early Islamic history, dates back to the 10th century. “Although most of the manuscripts are connected with the Islamic religion, they also help you to understand the culture of the society at the time they were written,” continues the librarian. “These works do not belong only to Arabs, Muslims or Palestinians; they are a heritage for everyone in the world.”

As the sun sets on the domes and minarets of the Old City, so does another day in the life of Father Columba. Since his early morning routine of meditation and praying, the monk has been caught in a sequel of conferences, meetings and courtesy visits, which have left him exhausted. Having to deal continuously with thorny issues and endangered communities can be emotionally draining, and this energetic, resilient man is starting to feel the toll of this consuming job. “I’m 60 and I won’t be doing this when I’m 70,” he assures, with a seraphic smile. 

With the world in no shortage of wars, big challenges still lie ahead. Columba has identified the Balkans and Egypt as two potential hotspots for future crisis and would like to increase digitising efforts there. “It’s getting harder for all of us; the world is not happy right now,” he admits. “But I don’t want to waste energy saying ‘if only’. I try to move on.”

Although his retirement is not yet in sight, a glimpse of undisguised pride permeates Columba’s voice when he speaks about the legacy he will leave. “For the sake of the library and the monastery, I hope that people will have some understanding of what we’ve been able to accomplish, because I think it’s fairly remarkable,” he concludes, with a smile as pure as his soul. “In a hundred years from now, if there will be a note somewhere naming the people who were doing this, that would be nice.”