Library preserves Syrian manuscripts

Written by Frank Lee
Adam McCollum, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library lead cataloger of Eastern Christian Manuscripts, views an example of a manuscript similar to those recently collected in Syria. / Dave Schwarz,

COLLEGEVILLE — It was a race against time halfway around the world that started not far from St. Cloud.

Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s University completed a manuscript preservation project in the Middle East shortly before the violence worsened in Syria.
“This was our last current project in Syria, and we had done actually a series of projects — about six of them in Syria — in different locations,” said the Rev. Columba Stewart, executive director of the Collegeville-based library

The Rev. Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began cracking down on anti-government demonstrators about a year ago, resulting in car bombings and more than 1,000 people killed, according to some reports.
However, HMML-trained technicians in Aleppo, Syria, were able to complete the digitization of 225 Armenian manuscripts belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Diocese of Aleppo — one of the largest Armenian collections in Syria.
“We began the work before the current turmoil in Syria, and this particular project was finished just as the situation started to get bad in Aleppo, which had been quiet until fairly recently,” Stewart said during a call Tuesday from Bethlehem.
“I went to Syria a couple of times a year — every year — between 2003 and 2011, and we thought it would be one of the last places where this kind of turmoil would occur.”
Aleppo’s Armenian community is ancient, dating from the days when Aleppo was a prominent trading center on the Silk Road. In the early 20th century, Armenian refugees fleeing genocide in Turkey found sanctuary with their compatriots in Aleppo.
“We also work on Islamic projects, so our interests transcend particular denominations or religious groups because all of this handwritten manuscript heritage is really the heritage of all humankind,” Stewart said.
HMML has now completed a series of projects in Aleppo that have included important collections belonging to the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Greek-Catholic communities, for a total of 2,150 digitally preserved manuscripts.
“Many of these manuscripts represent communities persecuted, scattered and even destroyed in the tribulations of the last few centuries,” he said.

“Their survival, and the care given them by the churches of the Middle East, is a testament to the profound meaning manuscripts have in the cultural memory of traditional communities.”
HMML also has digitized hundreds of manuscripts in Homs, center of the current uprising in Syria, and in the capital, Damascus.
Church shelled
“There was recently a video on YouTube showing the church where we photographed manuscripts being shelled by the Syrian army, but fortunately they had moved the manuscripts, we found out later,” he said.
“It just shows why it’s important to photograph these things while we can, just in case something was to happen to them. … These manuscripts are fragile and they are in very endangered places.”
HMML began working in Lebanon in 2003, in Syria and Turkey in 2005, and in Iraq in 2009 to preserve the manuscripts, according to Stewart.
“We sign a contract with the community, which keeps all publication and commercial rights with the owners of the manuscripts, but we’re allowed to share the photographs with scholars who will study and write about the text, translate the text and so on,” he said.
Adam McCollum is the lead cataloger of Eastern Christian manuscripts at HMML and will be responsible for getting the Armenian collection cataloged once it is at the HMML.
“Once the library has entered into a partnership with people who have collections of manuscripts, a studio is set up there with a digital camera, and entire manuscript collections are photographed and put onto hard drives and mailed back to us,” McCollum said.
For all of these projects, HMML provided the equipment, training and salary to local photographic technicians, as well as ongoing technical support.
“We have a guy who works for us who is based in Beirut who does the actual training of the people, and then they do the work themselves,” Stewart said.
Digital copy
The high-quality digital images from the collection are now being processed at HMML’s field office in Beirut, Lebanon, and will soon be sent to Minnesota for archiving and inclusion in HMML’s online database, OLIVER
“We worked in Europe for many years, we worked in Ethiopia for many years, but in 2003, we started working with Christian communities in the Middle East, beginning with Lebanon, who were feeling the pressures of the general situation where they are a minority culture,” Stewart said.

OLIVER provides “scholars, students and the general public” free access to its manuscript collections. Scholars who wish to consult complete manuscripts may apply to HMML for copies after agreeing to conditions that reserve all copyright and commercial interests to the original owners of the manuscript collections.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can everywhere in the Middle East,” he said. “The situation, of course, has only gotten worse and worse over that time, which has made the work even more pressing. … We’re very afraid that manuscripts will simply disappear.”
One digital copy of the Armenian collection will stay with Bishop Shahan Sarkissian and the Armenian Orthodox Diocese of Aleppo. HMML will keep an additional digital copy of the collection in a highly secure location.
“The general populace in these places is still pretty safe — at least at this point — but we have no idea what’s going to happen in the future,” he said of HMML’s continuing work in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, as well as in Ethiopia, southwest India and Malta.