Priests Race to Preserve Ancient Manuscripts From Destruction By ISIS

By Lauretta Brown | October 22, 2014 | 12:41pm EDT


Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, professor of theology and curator of research collections at St. John's School of Theology-Seminary in Collegeville, MN. (St. John's )

( – In a plot reminiscent of the Monuments Men, a small group of Benedictine and Dominican priests are engaged in a last-ditch attempt to save ancient manuscripts in Iraq from being destroyed by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) in Collegeville, MN, told about the museum’s urgent attempts to preserve manuscripts containing “the deeper history of centuries… in some of the more isolated regions” of Iraq where the people “continued to actually copy books by hand until very, very recently.”

“A lot of the historic Christian cultural centers in places like Mosul and then these Christian towns in Northern Iraq are now behind ISIS lines,” Fr. Stewart lamented.

“We don’t know what’s happened to those manuscripts. There are reports about destruction of churches and shrines, both Muslim and Christian, [so] one can presume that things are at great risk and things may have been destroyed.”

St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have brought Christianity to what is now modern-day Iraq some 2,000 years ago, and Christians have inhabited the area ever since.

HMML was founded by the monks of St. John’s Abbey in 1965 after Pope Pius XII expressed his concern over the fate of “the classical and medieval handwritten cultural heritage of western civilization -- every text and book written before the invention of printing” in the wake of World War II.

Since then, HMML has worked to photographically preserve ancient documents, with “a particular emphasis on manuscripts in endangered or remote locations.”

In 2009, HMML began work in Iraq in partnership with Iraqi Dominican priest Fr. Najeeb Michael and his Centre Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux (Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts) which was founded with the support of Fr. Najeeb’s Dominican community in Mosul.

Fr. Stewart spoke to about the dangers ISIS has posed to their preservation work. In Syria, he said, his teams “basically wrapped up by 2012 because it was just impossible” and “we had done all that we could have access to in Aleppo and homes in Damascus.”

Fr. Stewart called Fr. Najeeb’s work in Iraq “more urgent than ever now,” describing the team’s flight from Mosul to the Christian town of Qaraqosh in 2008 due to the threat of kidnappings.

Then, “when ISIS moved past Mosul further east to Northern Iraq, they got pushed out of Qaraqosh as well,” he said. “They managed to evacuate a lot of manuscripts, but they lost their studio equipment and stuff like that, so they’re relocated now in Irbil.”

Fr. Najeeb Michael, OP, founder of the Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts in Mosul, Iraq.  (YouTube)

“We’re trying to help them get their manuscript digitizing work back up and running because it’s just more urgent than ever now,” Fr. Stewart told

“I would say the majority of known Christian manuscript collections in Mosul and Northern Iraq have been digitized. We’re aware of one or two important ones that have not been digitized, but there’s several thousand manuscripts that were and that’s the good news. We just don’t know what’s happened to the originals,” he added.

Fr. Stewart also spoke about the historical significance of these documents. “People will often say what’s in these manuscripts that you photograph? And I say what’s in them is anything people ever thought was worth writing down.

“A lot of them are religious because these are traditional cultures and that’s to be expected. So they’re Bible, liturgy, theological texts, but a number of them are historical, [and] some [are] scientific, some [are] about languages and grammar. So it’s really a mix of things and the oldest are [from the] 7th and 8th century.

“Many of these texts were things that were not printed until fairly recently...particularly in some of the more isolated regions, they continued to actually copy books by hand until very, very recently,” he added.

“It’s our only access to their history, to the history of these particular communities,” he emphasized. “You can infer things from archeology or buildings and you have world history for recent generations, but for the deeper history of centuries, it’s all contained in these manuscript materials.

“These are communities that have been kind of evaporating from pressure because they’re minority groups,” Fr. Stewart said. “A lot of them have immigrated already now they’ve been pushed out of their villages where they’ve lived since the 4th century, 5th century.

"So these are really ancient peoples, now displaced, [who] don’t know if they’re ever going to go back.”

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