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By Peter Novecosky, OSB

Abbot Peter Novokosky

Saving our cultural heritage

The destruction of ancient artifacts in Syria and Iraq is very distressing news. The area has some of our civilization’s most ancient sites — sites treasured by all civilized people. The Islamic State, unfortunately, sees this heritage differently.

In the past week, IS militants have demolished the ancient temple of Baalshamin in the Syrian city of Palmyra after laying explosives around it. IS also beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had dedicated his life to overseeing the ruins of Palmyra, one of the Middle East’s most spectacular archaeological sites. They hung his bloodied body from a pole in the town’s main square.

A few days earlier, the militants bulldozed the 1,500-year-old St. Eliane Monastery, near Qaryatain in central Syria. It housed a fifth century tomb and served as a major pilgrimage site. In the past year IS fighters have destroyed mosques, churches, ancient statues and archaeological sites, causing extensive damage to the ancient cities of Nimrud, Hatra and Dura Europos in Iraq.

IS extremists in Syria and Iraq are engaged in the “most brutal, systematic” destruction of world heritage since the Second World War, the head of the UN cultural agency said Aug. 21. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova told The Associated Press that recent attacks have stoked fears that IS is accelerating its campaign to demolish and loot heritage sites.

The destruction is reminiscent of the burning of books in Nazi Germany in 1933. On May 10 of that year students from the Wilhelm Humboldt University, all members of right-wing student organizations, transported books from their university library and from other collections to the Franz Joseph Platz. There they tossed thousands of books into a huge bonfire. The frenzy, interrupted by the incantation of Nazi songs and a speech by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, went on for hours and was repeated in other cities.

It is also reminiscent of the destruction of pagan books and statues in the fifth century, as Christianity gained ascendancy in Europe.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, it was often monasteries that preserved the books of pagan Greek and Latin authors. They built libraries and were more tolerant of the cultural heritage of the past, whether Christian or not.

That tradition continues today.

While studying at St. John’s Abbey and University in the 1960s, I recall the establishment then of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML). Initially, it was founded to microfilm books in European monastic libraries as a response to the loss of manuscripts and books during two world wars. HMML expanded its focus in 2003 to include manuscripts from other Eastern Christian traditions and ancient Islamic manuscripts. The new technology of digitization and the Internet has expanded both the quality and availability of its manuscripts for scholars.

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’s mission is to identify, digitally photograph, catalogue and archive endangered manuscripts belonging to threatened communities around the world, according to its newsletter. Having formed partnerships with over 560 libraries and archives, HMML has photographically preserved over 140,000 manuscript books from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India.That includes 40,000,000 handwritten pages.

It is now expanding into Libanon, Iraq, Jerusalem, Egypt, Mali and Malta.

The recent destruction of ancient artifacts and books by IS makes the work of HMML all the more relevant and important today. Since 2009, HMML and its partners have digitized over 5,000 manuscripts in Iraq. From 2004 - 2012, HMML digitized almost 3,000 manuscripts in Syria until conditions made further work impossible.  

“No one knows when and if the situation in Syria and Iraq will improve,” said Rev. Columba Stewart, OSB, executive director of the HMML. “We are all grateful that HMML was able to begin work several years before these most recent conflicts.”

More information about their invaluable projects is available at