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21st-Century Scribes

Monks use state-of-the-art equipment to preserve ancient manuscripts

In the early 1970’s, Benedictine monks from Minnesota traveled to the ancient African nation of Ethiopia. They arrived not as zealous missionaries, but as scientists eager to photograph and document fragile manuscripts executed by Christian scribes. The Benedictines had already embarked on similar projects in Europe, but it was fortuitous they came to Ethiopia when they did. In 1974, a Marxist-inspired military coup toppled Ethiopia’s long-reigning monarch. The short-lived Communist era, which lasted until 1991, was marked by multiple upheavals, war, famine and economic chaos. During this turbulent period, many of the 8,000 manuscripts the monks had documented were either stolen or destroyed.

The Benedictines of the Middle Ages are justly famous for their heroic copying and recopying of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts containing the cultural and scientific heritage of classical and early Christian culture. Thanks in large part to these scribes, the foundational texts of Western civilization were preserved for future generations. Today, the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey are continuing this tradition, reaching out to manuscript collections throughout the Christian world and enshrining their microfilm and digital files in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The project began in 1965, when the abbey’s monks began microfilming monastic libraries in Austria, including the famed Armenian collection compiled in Vienna by the Mekhitarist Fathers of the Armenian Catholic Church. The country was on the front lines of the Cold War, and the monks feared any clash between the great powers of the United States and the Soviet Union would imperil the works that had survived the devastation of two world wars. The project soon spread to other parts of Europe – England, Germany, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland – and later to South Africa and Ethiopia.

The slow but steady cataloging of the Ethiopian manuscripts has revealed the oldest known copies of many biblical books and theological texts, as well as important historical information recorded in the margins and fly leaves of manuscripts. With 11 printed catalog volumes completed, this careful study and analysis of each manuscript has dramatically changed the scholarly understanding of Ethiopian Christianity. (And because of his 30 years of immersion in the texts, the Hill Museum’s Ethiopian manuscript curator and former MacArthur fellow, Dr. Getatchew Haile, is recognized as the world’s leading expert on Ethiopian history and literature.)

After 40 years of work, the Hill Museum now boasts the world’s largest collection of manuscript images, with more than 30 million pages. It is also home to the St. John’s Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible commissioned in the West since the invention of the printing press in 1440. Written with quills and traditional inks on large sheets of vellum, the Bible is illuminated with gold, silver and platinum amid bold designs using the best natural pigments.

The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, which is funded by foundations and individual donors, has been able to devise relatively inexpensive and efficient methods for obtaining very high quality photographs of manuscripts. Typically, the monks bring their own equipment – cameras, computers, lights and other tools – to each site. But rather than import technicians, the monks train local Christians to photograph the community’s manuscripts properly. Thus, local awareness is raised and people are taught useful skills that they can use in other projects.

The work is about more than just preserving the past; it also has the potential to keep far-flung Christian communities in touch with their own roots and traditions. In the 1990’s, the staff developed an electronic catalog, available through its web site, By 2004, the images themselves had been uploaded to the site. The museum has developed a project called Vivarium, named after a sixth-century Italian monastery renowned for its collection of Latin and Greek manuscripts. Vivarium allows anyone with internet access to see photograph images as well as the black-and-white microfilm from the museum’s earlier work. Scholars can order copies for research purposes.

The Hill Museum is constantly working to keep up with technological advances and has made a pledge to its partner libraries around the world ensuring that manuscript collections will remain accessible in the future. Monasteries and churches often lack the technical and financial resources to conduct this work themselves.

Over the past few years, the museum has shifted its focus from Europe to the Middle East. For more than a millennium, Christian leaders in the Middle East have shepherded churches living among an Islamic majority. But in recent years, civil strife and economic necessity have encouraged Christian emigration, threatening the survival of these ancient communities. Thus, preserving the historical legacy, language and traditions of these churches is becoming more and more urgent.

“As a Lebanese Christian, I know how strong the forces of division can be,” said Walid Mourad, the museum’s field director for the Middle East. “My hope is that making these manuscripts more widely available will help Christians in the Middle East appreciate their common faith and give them greater hope that there will always be a place for them in this region, where the faith was born.”

With the encouragement of Lebanon’s deputy prime minister, Issam Fares, who is Orthodox, the museum approached the leaders of the major Christian communities of Lebanon. The first project, begun in 2003, was at the Monastery and University of Our Lady of Balamand, near Tripoli. Having seen their most valuable manuscripts disappear during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991), the Orthodox monks of Balamand understood the importance of the Hill Museum’s work and were happy to be the museum’s first partner in the region. Similar projects with the major Catholic and Orthodox communities in Lebanon and Syria soon followed. Currently, the museum has five active projects in Lebanon and three in Syria.

Christian manuscripts from the Middle East display a wide range of languages, scripts and ornamentation that chronicle the rich story of Eastern Christianity.

Syriac, an ancient form of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, is still used by the Maronite and Syriac Catholic and Orthodox churches. Other churches, such as the Antiochene Orthodox and the Melkite Greek Catholic, now use Arabic in their liturgy and have created a rich body of Arabic Christian literature. (Many of the manuscripts from the Syriac tradition are written in Karshuni, which is Arabic written in Syriac script for the exclusive use of Christians.)

Lebanon and Syria are also home to large Armenian communities, formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by refugees of the Ottoman Empire who survived persecution and genocide. With heroic determination, they brought their manuscripts with them. Their collections are now being photographed by the Hill Museum, thereby becoming available to people all over the world.

In the future, the museum will expand its work to Jerusalem, Egypt and the Caucasus, where monasteries in both Armenia and Georgia have significant holdings of ancient manuscripts, Christian and secular. In October, a team will undertake an initial field project in northern Ethiopia.

Last May, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library celebrated the completion of its first project in Lebanon, honoring the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV. The patriarch traveled from Damascus to Minnesota to receive the Pax Christi Award, the highest honor given by St. John’s Abbey and University. During evening prayer and the festive banquet that followed, the patriarch spoke movingly about the need for individuals to see and understand others, Christian or Muslim, for whom they are, irrespective of labels.

The Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey are the heirs of the monks of the Middle Ages. While their tools may be different – cameras instead of quills – their purpose is the same: to do their part in building cultural understanding by preserving the past.

Benedictine Father Columba Stewart is vice president for Programs in Religion and Culture at St. John’s University and the executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.

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