From Here to Timbuktu: A globe-trotting monk with the Benedictine “survival gene” seeks out treasured manuscripts
How Father Columba Stewart ’79, a Benedictine monk from Minnesota, came to be hiding in a Timbuktu hotel during a jihadist attack last summer is a story that begins in the fifth century.
But the short answer is: he had flown to the medieval center of learning (and site of a United Nations peacekeeping mission since 2013), to start a new archival project—digitizing tens of thousands of documents in the Imam Ben Essayouti Library. The collection holds “everything from commentaries on the Qur’an to letters, scraps of poetry, land deeds, just the whole written culture,” says Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University, about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Christian monks have helped safeguard cultural patrimony for more than a millennium. As followers of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-540), Stewart says, Benedictines ultimately became “leaders in the copying and transmission of texts.” In the last 15 years, he has taken that tradition to some of the world’s most volatile regions—Syria, Iraq, Israel, and parts of the Balkans—as well as India, Ukraine, and Russia, to help conserve documents threatened not only by religious wars and geopolitics, but also by poverty, natural disasters, and climate change. “We’ve already done a lot of the Christian material,” says Stewart, who holds an Oxford doctorate in theology. “If we want to grow, the question becomes, ‘If we think the preservation of general culture is valuable, then the growing edge of that for us is Islamic materials, not to mention East Asian stuff. Heritage is heritage. And the intellectual argument is, ‘Why not get all the material, of all the sides?’”