As Islamic State militants wage a relentless campaign against the cultural treasures of the Arab world, a single Benedictine monk is organizing efforts to preserve ancient manuscripts from destruction.
Father Columba Stewart, OSB, has organized the preservation of ancient texts in the Middle East for 13 years. He tells The Atlantic his work has taken on a new urgency with the rise of ISIS, whose reign of terror over vast swaths of Syria and Iraq has seen the destruction of museums, temples, and monographs, relics, they claim, of a decadent past.
“The destruction of culture has become an instrument of terror, in a global strategy to undermine societies, propagate intolerance and erase memories,” wrote Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nation’s cultural agency. “This cultural cleansing is a war crime that is now used as a tactic of war, to tear humanity from the history it shares.”
“Given what’s happened in the last years since the rise of ISIS, it’s very clear that things are really endangered,” Stewart told The Atlantic. “It’s imperative to make sure that these manuscripts are safe, because we don’t know what will happen to them.”
Stewart is a priest of the Order of Saint Benedict, an order of Catholic monks who live in monasteries and keep the Rule of St. Benedict, a system governing their individual and communal life laid down in the 6th century. Stewart’s work is the latest iteration of a Catholic tradition over a millennia old. The Benedictines organized the preservation of Latin and Greek texts in monastic communities as Europe descended into the dark ages. The rote, repetitive business of manually copying texts preserved the intellectual traditions of antiquity through the convulsions of the dark ages.
“Everybody knows about the Benedictines — manuscripts and learning, this is part of our identity, a brand which is somehow universal,” he told The Atlantic.
Stewart is the director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. The organization has photographed 140,000 texts in their entirety, running over 50 million pages. Many of the texts are digitized and preserved in electronic collections.
As late, Stewart has helped digitize ancient manuscripts held at St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Monastery in the old city of Jerusalem. The monastery’s tradition holds it is the site where Christ held the Last Supper before the crucifixion. Their library holds a number of centuries-old texts.
“These books were left by our Holy Fathers,” Shimon Çan, the librarian at St. Mark’s, told The Atlantic. “It is our duty to open these treasures to the world and let our youngsters understand the wisdom they exude.”
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Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to further clarify the sourcing on the direct quotes included.
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