Father Columba Stewart on saving ancient religious texts from theft, wear and war

A Benedictine monk’s perseverance in his quest to digitally preserve Muslim and Christian manuscripts from the ravages of time and war may also help to unite the faiths.

Father Columba Stewart examines an artefact in Jerusalem on a visit to arrange the digitization of ancient Muslim and Christian manuscripts, for the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. HMML has preserved more than 50,000 manuscripts in the past 13 years. Matilde Gattoni for The National

At mid-morning, as the sun shines high on the whitewashed stone houses of the Old 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 had lived here forever. “This place has always had a special significance for me” explains this 59-year-old American Benedictine monk while 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 the St 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 few sips of cardamom coffee, a frail, bearded man leads him up few ramps of stairs and through a white-panelled door and into a dusty room, where hundreds of little-known treasures are stored.

Placed in wooden cabinets are rows of priceless manuscripts, some written by holy fathers of Christianity and dating back to the 6th or 7th century AD. Columba carefully opens one of them, lingering over the elegant calligraphy of its yellowed pages. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, his eyes gleaming.

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 13 years.

This resolute, soft-spoken man is the head of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), a non-profit organisation based in Collegeville, Minnesota, and dedicated to the digital preservation of endangered manuscripts around the world.

Situated at the Benedictine Saint John’s Abbey and University, HMML has been active in the field since 1965 and nowadays hosts the world’s largest collection of images of manuscripts, made of 140,000 samples saved on microfilm and digital format.

Since his appointment to the helm of the organisation in 2003, Columba has been scouring the world to uncover and digitize religious, philosophical and scientific manuscripts threatened by degradation, theft, war or even religious fanaticism.

As ISIL and other radical groups have been destroying ancient temples and countless antiquities in recent years, Columba has worked 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 their knowledge for future generations. The monk’s ultimate goal is to create the most comprehensive collection of digitized manuscript material in the world, giving free online access to largerly unknown and unique collections.

While the programme’s main beneficiaries will be scholars, Columba hopes it will eventually foster a better understanding between Christians and Muslims in an era in which relations have been strained. “Even if relations were not always easy in the past, if we learn from places where they lived together, we might learn how to live together,” explains Columba. “If we don’t find deeper affinities we will always be stuck on our superficial differences. We will remain afraid and suspicious of each other.”

Under Columba’s direction, the HMML has been particularly active in the Middle East, working in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jerusalem to digitize thousands of manuscripts of all confessions, from Coptic to Maronite and Armenian, from Greek Catholic to Latin. In 2013, the organisation took the landmark decision of starting to digitize 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 common 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 digitizing four Islamic and Christian collections since 2011.

During his annual visit, Columba keeps track of the ongoing projects and tries to embark on new ones, meeting with stern Orthodox Syrian monks, rich and flamboyant Armenian patriarchs and cosmopolitan Palestinian families, in a captivating mosaic of traditions and cultures.

Yet, trying to preserve the world’s culture from destruction can be a painstakingly slow and sometimes frustrating process. Getting in touch with religious orders, cultural organisations or private families who hold manuscript collections, and then gaining their trust, can take years of travelling, countless meetings and skilled diplomacy, with no guarantee of a positive outcome. Many of the communities Columba approaches have been scarred by years of war and persecution, and are understandably wary of outsiders. For them, granting a foreigner access to their cultural treasures is a big step.

“Some of them lost their original place, their properties, their people,” Columba explains. “Sometimes all they’ve got are the manuscripts, it’s the living link with their past.”

Since the rise of ISIL, 2,000 out of the 6,000 manucripts the HMML managed to digitize between 2009 and 2014 in Iraq have been lost, probably destroyed by the terrorist group. Other manuscripts digitized in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which is currently undergoing heavy bombing, may well have suffered the same fate.

“I try not to think about that, otherwise I would get really upset,” says the monk. “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 extremists 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, those precious and largerly unstudied manucripts were smuggled to the capital Bamako, where they are currently being digitized by HMML in safe houses. The militants went on to damage Muslim sites in Timbuktu.

Created in studios equipped with strobe lights and an HD digital camera remotely connected to a computer, digitizations are generally conducted by technicians trained by HMML representatives. Once the photographs are completed, files are regrouped in a single folder and saved on a hard disk, which is then mailed or carried to HMML headquarters in Minnesota by trusted intermediaries. Upon arrival, folders are scanned with antivirus software, the data archived and then uploaded on an online dedicated platform.

Local teams are able to digitize 500 to 600 manuscripts on average each year, for an annual running cost of less than US$20,000 (Dh73,452) 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.

Yet, despite the reputation the organisation has gained in the past years, many communities remain sceptical of westerners, given the tens of thousands of manucripts looted during the colonial period and now displayed in 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. “We never touch the manuscripts,” says 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.”

As the sun sets on the domes and minarets of the Old City, so does another day in the life of this remarkable man. Since his early morning routine of meditation and praying, the monk has been busy with conferences, meetings and goodwill visits that have left him exhausted. Even this energetic man is starting to feel the toll of this all-consuming job. “I am almost 60 and I won’t be doing this when I will be 70,” he assures me with a smile.

Although his retirement is not yet in sight, a glimpse of undisguised pride permeates his 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. “In 100 years from now, if there will be a note somewhere naming the people who were doing this, that would be nice.”

Matteo Fagotto is a freelance journalist focusing on worldwide social and human rights issues.