Hill Museum & Manuscript Library: Working to Preserve the Manuscript Heritage of Syria and Iraq

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By: Columba Stewart, OSB

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota (HMML) began in 1965 as a project to microfilm monastic libraries in Cold War Europe. The Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey were concerned that their European heritage could be destroyed in a nuclear war, and were determined to take precautionary measures. Ever since, preservation of threatened manuscripts has been the driving force for HMML’s work, as the scope of the project expanded beyond Europe to Ethiopia, the Middle East, India, and the Timbuktu manuscripts of Mali.

For the past dozen years HMML has worked extensively with libraries in Syria and Iraq, as part of a broader regional initiative that includes Lebanon, Turkey, the Old City of Jerusalem, and, most recently, Egypt. Like all of HMML’s projects, these involve training local people how to digitize their own manuscript heritage. HMML provides equipment, training, and salaries, and receives a copy of the images for archiving, cataloging, and scholarly access. Much of this work is now supported by a grant from Arcadia, a charitable foundation based in London devoted to preserving endangered culture.


Stewart Ancient Near East Today

Modern wind turbines surround the ruins of the monastery of St. Simeon the Younger near Antakya, Turkey.


HMML started a major digitization effort in Lebanon in 2003, just as the Iraq War was getting underway. A year later, working from its base in Beirut, HMML extended the project to Syria. The principal center was Aleppo, home of many Christian communities of both ancient and modern origin. Between 2004 and 2011, HMML supported local technicians who photographed almost 2000 manuscripts in Syriac, Arabic, Garshuni (Arabic in Syriac script), and Armenian. The libraries included those belonging to the Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, and Syriac Orthodox communities. Corollary projects in Homs and Damascus added another 650 manuscripts.

The manuscripts digitized in Aleppo included harbingers of more recent troubles. The Syriac Orthodox collection features manuscripts brought to Aleppo from Turkey in 1923 when the Christians of Urfa (ancient Edessa) fled persecution. Among their treasures is the only surviving complete copy of the 12th century world history by the Syriac patriarch Michael the Great. Among the many fascinating aspects of his chronicle is an account of the Crusades viewed from the perspective of indigenous Christian communities in the Middle East. This unique manuscript has now been published in facsimile, and an English translation is underway.

This excerpt from the Chronicle of Michael the Great describes the launch of the Third Crusade in the year 1189 (reckoned by Michael as the “Year 1500 of the Greeks,” following the Syriac preference for the calendar based on the founding of the Hellenistic Seleucid Dynasty at Babylon in 311 BCE ). In the middle column, where he typically recorded information about political events, he describes the Crusade as “innumerable crowds of people speaking many languages, who couldn't understand each other.” In the left-hand column Michael reports on events in the Syriac Orthodox Church (of which he was Patriarch at the time), while in the the right-hand column he records other information, including on the next page his report of a full solar eclipse in 1191. Fol. 372r.

This excerpt from the Chronicle of Michael the Great describes the launch of the Third Crusade in the year 1189 (reckoned by Michael as the “Year 1500 of the Greeks,” following the Syriac preference for the calendar based on the founding of the Hellenistic Seleucid Dynasty at Babylon in 311 BCE ). In the middle column, where he typically recorded information about political events, he describes the Crusade as “innumerable crowds of people speaking many languages, who couldn’t understand each other.” In the left-hand column Michael reports on events in the Syriac Orthodox Church (of which he was Patriarch at the time), while in the the right-hand column he records other information, including on the next page his report of a full solar eclipse in 1191. Fol. 372r.

Work continued in Aleppo until April 2012. As the situation deteriorated, it became impossible to maintain the conditions needed for a digitization project. A year later, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop who gave HMML permission to digitize the manuscripts of his community, Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, was kidnapped along with his Greek Orthodox colleague, Archbishop Boulos Yazigi. Neither has been heard from since. The fate of the manuscripts remains unclear, though there are suggestions that various collections have been taken to safety in Syria or elsewhere.

HMML has worked in Iraq since 2009, in partnership with the Centre Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux (CNMO), founded by Fr. Nageeb Michaeel, OP. Fr. Nageeb is a Dominican Friar, belonging to a community established in Mosul in 1750. With HMML’s help, he and his team of young Iraqis have received training, equipment, and financial support to digitize more than 5000 manuscripts during the past six years.



The Dominicans were compelled to leave Mosul in 2008 because of kidnapping threats, and their new home in Qaraqosh was overrun in August 2014 as Islamic State (IS) forces swept east from their stronghold in Mosul. Now reestablished in Erbil, the CNMO continues its work with new equipment sent by HMML to replace what was left behind when they fled Qaraqosh.

Some of the important collections in and around Mosul digitized by the CNMO are now presumed lost, including that of the Syriac Orthodox community and the Syriac Catholic Monastery of Mar Behnam, where IS demolished two important shrines in March 2015. Fr. Nageeb had taken the precaution of evacuating the Dominicans’ own library and archive to Erbil after the fall of Mosul. Their collection contains precious ethnographic and linguistic documents from the Dominican missions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as manuscripts in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni.

It will be impossible for the foreseeable future to know which libraries have been saved, and which were destroyed. Fortunately the digital versions are safe and accessible. They are archived at HMML, with back-ups in several locations. Experts around the world are cataloging the manuscripts, with records being uploaded to HMML’s manuscript catalog, accessible here: http://www.hmml.org/oliver.html. Sample images from cataloged manuscripts are available online, linked to the record in the catalog, and complete manuscripts are available for free viewing upon application (details here: http://www.hmml.org/scholar-services.html). Uncataloged manuscripts are also available upon request.



In a few months, access will improve greatly with the launch of HMML’s online Reading Room, part of the vHMML project. Until then, check out this sample of monastic manuscripts, courtesy of Dr. Columba Stewart OSB and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. Reading Room, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, will provide free access to all of HMML’s 50,000 digitized manuscripts as well as selected scans of the legacy microfilm collections of Latin, Ethiopic, and Armenian manuscripts. Thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Reading Room will incorporate a new version of HMML’s manuscript catalog and offer an integrated search and viewing experience. It will also allow HMML to make minimally or even uncataloged collections readily available, with tools provided for user-contributed metadata.

The vHMML project of which Reading Room is a part will offer resources for the study of manuscripts in Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ge‘ez, and Greek. These will include a School with lessons in paleography (and transcription exercises) for each manuscript culture, albums of thickly described sample leaves from representative manuscripts, a lexicon of terms in various languages, and an array of bibliographical resources. vHMML will launch in September with lessons in Latin and Syriac paleography. The other cultures will be added over the next two years. This work has been supported by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, supplemented by Arcadia. Reading Room and a collaborative workspace, Scriptorium, will be launched early in 2016.



HMML’s work in the Middle East continues in Lebanon, Iraq, the Old City of Jerusalem, and Egypt, with the new frontier in Mali focused on the Islamic manuscripts rescued from Timbuktu. Wherever the need to preserve threatened manuscripts may arise, HMML is ready to help. Readers with knowledge of endangered manuscript collections are encouraged to contact HMML.

Dr. Columba Stewart, OSB is the Executive Director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

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