At St. John's, a quest to save ancient texts

Examining a Bible
The Rev. Columba Stewart, the Rev. Nageeb Michaeel and Walid Mourad examined a printed Bible at the Dominican Priory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, home of the Centre Numerique des Manuscrits Orientaux.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

The Rev. Columba Stewart pulls up an image on a large computer screen in his office at St. John's Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. It's from the archive of a Chaldean Catholic church in Iraq, from a hand-written book of worship hundreds of years old.

Scholars were able to save this text. Stewart can only guess at how many documents have been destroyed in the wars and internecine battles scarring the Middle East.

"It happens so quickly and it happens with such devastating force, and this is simply a phenomenon of the mechanization of warfare — and the level of destruction is so much greater," he said of the lightning fast speed of modern warfare now threatening ancient documents.

Scholars in Iraq and at St. John's University in Collegeville are working together to save documents, many of them Christian in origin, that define Middle Eastern culture. The team searches out old documents, cleans them and stores a digital image on a small hard drive that makes its way from Erbil, the Kurdish capital, to Collegeville.

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Rescued books
Books rescued from Mosul at the Dominican Priory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, before the events of August 2014.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

Stewart's goal is to use digital technology to give anyone in the world access with the click of a mouse to more than 40,000 of the library's manuscripts.

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Born and raised in Houston, Texas, the 57-year-old Benedictine monk is a graduate of Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities who directs St. John's manuscript library.

Some call it a "library of libraries." St. John's monks began collecting and archiving rare manuscripts 50 years ago. The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library has partnerships with hundreds of libraries to sustain its image collections. It makes photographs of all images as a kind of safety net for the endangered documents of threatened communities.

The work has taken teams to Turkey, Ethiopia, Mali, India and Iraq.

His colleague, the Rev. Nageeb Michaeel, was born and raised in Iraq. Trained as a petroleum engineer, Michaeel decided to become a Dominican monk. The library's collaboration with him began in 2009.

Stewart and Michaeel swap emails almost every day and talk by phone frequently. Michaeel's team was forced to leave Mosul in an area of Iraq controlled by ISIS after the Islamic fighters took control of that city.

The scholars joined thousands of refugees who have descended on the northern Kurdish capitol of Erbil. The security of Erbil may be solidified somewhat by the deal announced this week between Kurds and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to share the region's oil revenue.

Examining manuscripts
When manuscripts arrive for digitization, preliminary examinations assess the condition of the items and their ability to withstand digitization.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

During a recent conversation, Stewart said he could hear the sadness in his colleague's voice over the region's flood of refugees — "leaving everything behind, the elderly and the sick, stumbling through the desert to get to Erbil to safety."

Christians in Iraq are a minority, but their roots in the region are deep. These days, Christians and some Muslims are under attack in Iraq by Islamic State fighters.

"They represent this kind of cultural patrimony," says Stewart, adding that fighters are willing to destroy the work of Christians and Muslims alike that's deemed unworthy. "They are equal opportunity destroyers of culture."

Stewart, though, is more inclined to note successes. This includes items from the Baghdad history museum that were buried in 2003 to protect them from the war, and then recovered in 2013.

Another success was the recovery of manuscripts from the Dominican Priory in Mosul, a city now held by the Islamic State. There were dictionaries and descriptions of the region's Christian and non-Christian ethnic groups, including clothing they wore.

Photographing manuscripts
The Rev. Nageeb Michaeel and Walid Mourad looked on as Catherine Yono photographed the pages of a manuscript.
Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

Every document is unique. Older documents often reflect the Middle East's multi-ethnic environment.

"There was awareness that they shared a common faith even if they had differences over details of it," Stewart said. "These manuscripts often tell the story of precisely that kind of cultural overlap."

The library's images of manuscripts include works on astronomy, medicine and religion.

Some have notes in the margins, noting a particularly bad or good harvest, "or a note about this is the year that Mongols came and destroyed all the monasteries," he said.

The value of saving old documents can be seen in the work of Islamic intellectuals from centuries ago, he added. They translated the works of great thinkers who would influence the course of western culture.

That includes "a very lively Arabic translation tradition of Aristotle," Stewart said. "Aristotle is the foundation for the work of Thomas Aquinas. So the recovery of that tradition through the medium of transmission through Islamic culture is a central part of making us who we are today."