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The manuscripts saved by a monk

Saving ancient manuscripts
Saving manuscripts from war zones 02:04

City by city, page by page, Father Columba Stewart is preserving history. The Benedictine monk has spent more than a decade traveling to some of the world's most dangerous regions to find and preserve ancient manuscripts before they are destroyed. The centuries-old works — historical manuscripts and antique religious books — are at risk for a few reasons. Sometimes it's moisture eroding the hand-written pages; sometimes it's a calculated attack to erase a cultural heritage.

As Lesley Stahl reports this week on 60 Minutes, the rise of ISIS — and their deliberate destruction of artifacts in the regions they hold — has made his work even more urgent.

Father Columba partners with locals to photograph and digitize the documents. In Iraq, he has partnered with Father Najeeb Michaeel to rescue works, including some that originated in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and the center of some of the most intense battles in the fight against ISIS.

Though they are both men of the cloth, not all the manuscripts they preserve are religious.

"Some of them are purely history so those are ones that tell us about political events, and kings, and battles, and famines, and all of these other things," Father Columba tells Stahl in the video excerpted above. "So it's not simply history of religion; it's history of every aspect of life."

Father Columba Stewart (in black) and Father Najeeb Michaeel (in white) show Lesley Stahl some of the documents they've reserved in what they call the "holy of holies," a room in a secret location in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq CBS News

Here are some of those documents Father Columba and Father Najeeb preserved from Iraq, along with the estimated year they were created:

Mosul, Iraq. 18th century


Gospel lectionary. A depiction of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The yellow dye is thought to have been made from egg yolk, and the red dye made from pomegranate.

Zakho, Iraq. 6th century


A fragment of the New Testament written in Aramaic on sheepskin parchment.

Mosul, Iraq. 1652


Gospels. In this image, the upper circle discusses the genealogy of Jesus, while the lower circle lays out the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew (on the right) and Luke (on the left).

Mosul, Iraq. 1786


Gospel lectionary. This page shows a cross consisting of interlace patterns with four smaller interlace crosses. Written around each of the smaller crosses is a formula to ward away evil.

Mosul, Iraq. 18th-19th century


A written work on astrology. This page shows a diagram of the four quarters of the earth, with each cardinal direction corresponding to one of the four humors, an element of nature, a season of the year, and a stage of human development.

Father Columba keeps a digital archive of the documents he finds at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Here are some other endangered documents he has collected from around the world:

Egypt. Around 4th century


A small fragment of a religious text in Coptic on papyrus. The Coptic language is the last survival of the ancient language of the pharaohs, written in an adaptation of the Greek alphabet that includes a few additional letters.

Place of origin unknown. 18th century


Two leaves from the Quran in Arabic. These leaves are from the 19th Surah of the Quran, which mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Enhil, Turkey. 1853


Gospel lectionary. This page shows the four evangelists: Matthew (lower right), Mark (lower left), Luke (upper right), and John (upper left). Each of the evangelists is accompanied by a symbolic being: the winged angel for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the bull for Luke, and the eagle for John. Each evangelist is writing the beginning of his own Gospel, which is legible if you zoom in on the books they are holding.

Mardin, Turkey. 17th-18th century


An alchemistic recipe in Arabic for making gold (on left). The recipe for gold calls for unusual ingredients: sulfur, cow's milk, and donkey urine.

Lebanon. 18th-19th century


This page details the six days of creation. The diagram shows the seven orbits of celestial bodies around the Earth. The outermost body is the planet Saturn, the sun is in the middle body, and the moon is in the one closest to the Earth.

Timbuktu, Mali. Possibly 19th century


This text relates the story of a Jewish man who converted to Islam in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Tripoli, Lebanon. 17th century


This is a book containing prayers to be said during the various prayer times of the day. It shows extensive damage from worms.

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