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Story Publication logo July 19, 2022

Guardians of Memory: The Quest To Save Ancient Manuscripts

Collage graphic: photograph of Father Columba Stewart/ map of Mali/ photo of Tomb of Askia in Gao, Mali

Reporting for Harper’s, Fred Bahnson will follow Fr. Stewart into the dusty mosques of the Sahel...


Illustrations by Brian Hubble. Source image: Manuscript courtesy Bibliothèque Mamma Haïdara de Manuscrits et la Documentation. 2022.

Last August I found myself aboard a United Nations plane high above the Sahel, the vast semiarid region stretching across West Africa, whose swells of sand and rock look from the air like an inland sea. Beside me was Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk. Columba is in his mid-sixties, with a closely trimmed head and wire-rimmed glasses. Back at Saint John’s Abbey, the monastery in Minnesota where he has lived for the past forty years, he wears the traditional black habit of his order, but for this trip he sported a preppier look — a beige Eddie Bauer travel shirt, olive slacks, and a pair of worn leather boat shoes without socks.

Columba took his name from the sixth-century Irish saint who founded one of the first monastic communities on the British Isles. Since entering the order in 1981, he has devoted his life to preserving ancient religious manuscripts around the world, especially those threatened by war. Since 2003 he has served as the director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s. His work has taken him to Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and more than a dozen other conflict zones in a race to digitize endangered manuscripts. For the past several years he has focused his efforts on Mali. Our flight was headed to Gao, the former capital of the Songhai Empire and a center of West African Islamic culture. The Kountas, a well-known Muslim family in the North African Sunni tradition, had contacted HMML about an extensive collection — everything from Qur’ans and theological commentaries to legal documents and recipes for traditional medicines — that they wanted to protect. We planned to meet with them, work our way upriver by plane and car to visit library representatives in Djenné and Ségou, then return by week’s end to Bamako, the capital.

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Soon after I decided to join Columba on the trip, two Spanish documentarians were killed south of Gao in eastern Burkina Faso. That same month, in April 2021, the French journalist Olivier Dubois flew from Bamako to Gao to interview a local militant jihadi. A month later, after failing to return to Bamako as scheduled, Dubois appeared in a video confirming his abduction. (As of this writing, he is still being held captive.) Columba himself had spent several hours pinned down by terrorists in a Timbuktu hotel in 2017, but he assured me that the situation in Gao was now relatively stable. The U.N. wouldn’t have signed off on the trip if our lives were in danger, he explained. Two days before leaving, however, I called Anna Badkhen, a former war correspondent with experience in Mali, and received a very different assessment. “You’re going to Gao?” she said. “I wouldn’t go to Gao.” I explained that we would be staying at the large United Nations camp just outside the city, and that we would be under their protection. “That presents a different kind of risk,” Badkhen told me. “The U.N. is a target.”

I’m not a war correspondent; I’m a risk-averse writer with a wife, three sons, and no strong desire to visit a conflict zone. As I learned more about the troubles in the Sahel, I seriously considered scrapping the trip. Yet something compelled me to go. I’d long been intrigued by the Christian monastic tradition, which began in Africa. In the third and fourth centuries, men and women left the Roman Empire and took up residence in the Sahara, where they pursued lives of prayer in search of a deeper connection to God. As a Benedictine monk, Columba was an inheritor of that tradition, and one of its most respected modern interpreters. Earlier that year I had spent several days with him at Saint John’s, where I learned about his work rescuing ancient manuscripts, what he calls “the Indiana Jones stuff.” Like his fourth-century ancestors, Columba seemed to embody the monastic ideal: setting off into the unknown, abandoning one’s own will and trusting God. I was inspired by his faith. At the same time, I found him to be of sober judgment. He wouldn’t be going to Mali, I reasoned, if the danger were too great. I imagined following him into clay-walled mosques, sipping mint tea with Sufi scholars, and engaging in long conversations about the contemplative life.

But I was also compelled by more personal reasons. When I was ten, my parents decided to go to West Africa as medical missionaries. They signed on with the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist denomination, and moved to southern Nigeria with my younger brother. I was sent to Mountain View, a hostel for missionary kids located a thousand miles southeast of Gao on the montane grasslands of the Jos Plateau. Those three years of separation were among the most difficult of my life. I thought a return to West Africa as an adult, on my own terms, would be a way to reckon with my memories.

I looked out the window at the Niger River below, incongruous against the sere backdrop, an abundance of water flowing through a dry land. On its bank lay Gao, a city of dun, flat-roofed buildings that seemed to rise out of the land itself. We began our descent.

The Gao airport was bombed in 2016, and only a shell of the former building remains: holes in the roof, missing windows and doors, shards of porcelain strewn across the bathrooms. Most of the debris was cleared by the U.N., but much of the airport remains in disrepair. It was around ninety degrees when we landed, but it felt much hotter, and I sought shade alongside Sophie Sarin, HMML’s project director for Mali, while Columba, an aviation enthusiast, snapped photos of the C-130 and the Antonov An-74, which he called “a badass Russian jet.”

A short drive in a hired Land Cruiser brought us to the main guard station at the U.N. camp’s entrance. The camp was surrounded by a wall of Hesco bastions—large bags filled with sand—stacked two levels high and topped with razor wire. Soldiers in turrets with mounted machine guns silently tracked our movements. This was no scrappy outpost; it was a Baghdad-style Green Zone built to protect up to forty-five hundred residents.

We were led to a small air-conditioned room inside one of the shipping containers that served as camp buildings, where three security officials sat at desks. They wore pistols on their belts and surgical masks under their chins. Against the desks leaned flak jackets. After a few minutes, an imposingly stocky security officer with a shaved head and gray goatee came in. When Sophie presented a letter from the Gao governor requesting our accommodations, it was clear that something was wrong.

The governor had sent his request to the camp, Sophie explained in French, but the security officer insisted that they had received no such notice. After a brisk exchange, we came to understand that the housing administrator had never let the security office know we were coming. A discussion ensued about where or how we should be housed and whether we would be let into town. “Gao is not a safe place,” one of the officers said. “Abduction is a big situation here. You must be escorted if you leave the camp.”

As the conversation between Sophie and the officer grew heated, Columba sat and waited quietly, seemingly unperturbed. I remembered how, four months earlier in the church at Saint John’s, his monastic brothers had chanted the Psalms. A spaciousness had seemed to open between the words, as if the monks were bending time, willfully slowing life down, if only to better hear the silence.

The first word in the Rule of Saint Benedict is delivered as a command: “obsculta,” which means “listen.” In 2019, Columba delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities’ prestigious Jefferson Lecture. “The discipline of listening is now an endangered art,” Columba told his audience. “Equally endangered are the stores of wisdom contained in the manuscripts of the world, targeted by those fearful of difference or threatened by imaginations broader than their own. Those old books become caught in the indiscriminate destruction of war and left behind by the displacement of their owners.”

Columba opened the lecture with a story about the twelfth-century Benedictine abbot Peter the Venerable. In 1142, Peter traveled over the Pyrenees to Toledo, a city that had only recently been reclaimed by Christians after four centuries of Muslim rule. Upon his arrival, the abbot commissioned Arabic scholars to translate all the major Islamic texts, including the Qur’an, into Latin. As Columba reflected on this important encounter between Christianity and Islam, he described how Peter “embraced the humanistic principle that to understand people of another culture, with different beliefs, we must listen to them in their own voice, learning their language, reading and understanding their texts.” Columba was wearing his habit that day, but he acknowledged that “the Benedictine tradition of preserving human thought for the contemporary world requires a more versatile wardrobe, one adapted to the desert of Timbuktu, the combat environment of Mosul, or the secular environment of the modern academy.” Or, he could now add, a U.N. compound outside Gao.

In the conclusion to an essay called “Musings of a (post-) Modern Monastic Historian,” he describes “a new monastic moment” in which monastics have a special calling outside the cloister. Reflecting on global conflict and ecological breakdown, he asks who will keep things going if current social and economic structures begin to falter. “If this suggestion seems jarringly pessimistic or even apocalyptic,” he writes, "remember that we monks and nuns have been there before. Should our natural role as guardians of memory and sustainers of community once more become essential for the survival of Christian—or any—culture, we should be ready."

That last part is no rhetorical flourish. The urge to guard one’s own cultural or religious memory is a universal human impulse, and Columba spent many years preserving early Christian manuscripts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. But this didn’t explain why he’d spent the past decade risking his life to preserve the texts of other religions. In Nepal, he’d helped to save Buddhist and Hindu texts. In Ethiopia, Yemen, and Mali, he’d rescued Islamic manuscripts. In each case, the work of digitizing meant building trust with local religious leaders, many of whom lived in dangerous, remote locales like Gao. If there is such a thing as monastic diplomacy, its modus operandi would be watchfulness, patience, and a reluctance to ascribe blame.

After a few calls, the security officer reached a higher-up who determined that we could stay. He sent us off to secure our rooms. In the searing midday heat we walked through a warren of streets, stadium-size fields, and shipping containers. The guest rooms were single-unit dwellings complete with a bed, desk, bathroom, and kitchenette. A bomb shelter stood within a twenty-second sprint of each one. I quickly memorized the route.

Source images: Photograph of Father Columba Stewart, courtesy Vincent Ricardel for Humanities; map of Mali, courtesy the United Nations; the Tomb of Askia in Gao, Mali © Frans Lemmens/Alamy. 2022.

We met for lunch in the Ecolog, a poorly lit cafeteria with a low ceiling that served a selection of bland carbs, watery kidney beans, limp iceberg lettuce, and some briny items from a can. As we ate, a local representative briefed Sophie and Columba on the situation. The Kounta family was eager to meet them, he said, but it was important to understand that there was some distrust to overcome. If people around the world could see their manuscripts online, the Kountas feared, then they wouldn’t come to see them in person, depriving Gao of tourism. HMML could help, Columba explained. In addition to supplying all the camera equipment, they would pay one or several of the Kounta family members to digitize the collection. He also mentioned the communal library in Djenné, which HMML had supported, where families pooled their manuscripts in one central location. Perhaps something similar could be done in Gao.

My attention wandered to one of Ecolog’s two large flat-screen televisions. A U.N. media channel was broadcasting footage of a platoon on patrol. A soldier strode into a village while his comrades fanned out with machine guns. The camera panned ahead to the patrol leader, who dropped down on one knee and raised his fist.

By now it was midafternoon and time for our security briefing. In another shipping container office, a security officer showed us a list of threats: armed conflict (substantial); crime (substantial); civil unrest (high); terrorism (extreme). The overall security level in Gao on a scale of one to five was five. Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State operated in the region, as well as an assortment of regional terrorist groups.

Walking back to our rooms, Columba seemed upbeat. “Compared to the security briefings in Timbuktu,” he said, “that one wasn’t so bad.” I nodded, but I felt rattled. To calm myself, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the gym, a darkened grotto of weight machines, mirrors, and tattooed soldiers pumping iron. Afterward I joined my comrades for an evening whiskey in Columba’s shipping container, where we discussed the security situation. Sophie and Columba needed to fly out on Wednesday to visit partners elsewhere in Mali, meaning that the next day, Tuesday, was their only shot at meeting the Kounta family. There was still no indication from the U.N. about whether we had clearance to leave, much less about a security detail.

In Bamako several days before, Columba had invited me and Sophie to join him for Mass. Columba had passed me his prayer book and asked me to read Psalm 78. The lines echoed the Exodus story, how the Lord saved the Israelites in the desert by sending them quail and manna from heaven. Though the passage portrayed God’s provision in a time of hunger, those words now carried a note of foreboding. I remembered a particular line: “He rained flesh upon them like dust.”

Our cocktail conversation turned toward logistics, but as Columba and Sophie discussed the following day’s trip, I thought only of flesh raining down like dust.

That night I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The strong scent of urine wafted into my shipping container from the adjoining latrine. I was having serious doubts about whether to join Columba on his mission. I thought of my old room in the Nigerian missionary compound where, as a ten-year-old boy, I had lain awake many nights.

Soon after I’d arrived, the harmattan season began. A northeasterly winter trade wind, the harmattan carries dust from the Sahara down through the Sahel, picking up Mali’s sands and carrying them south to Nigeria and eventually out into the Gulf of Guinea. Those first months at Mountain View, harmattan dust was everywhere. I remember watching it settle on the grapefruit trees that grew behind the hostel. I swept the dust from my tiny desk, shook it off my clothes, inhaled it through my nostrils.

I also remembered Mountain View’s wall, which surrounded the compound and was constructed of brick and mud, with broken glass embedded at the top. There was just one gate manned by two guards. Though a more improvised affair than the U.N. camp’s Hesco barriers and razor wire, Mountain View’s wall was built with similar intent—to keep out the local populace—and like the U.N. camp, the Calvinist compound was a stronghold, built to protect the missionaries from the very people they claimed to be there to help. We were bused a mile away each morning to Hillcrest School, which was surrounded by another wall, then bused back each afternoon. Every few months we were taken to the local market in Jos or, rarely, to a nearby lake for exercise—but my West African childhood was mostly spent shuttling from one secure fortress to the next.

I became a hermit child, struggling in uneasy proximity to others while bounded by a vast loneliness. Mountain View was called a hostel, but functionally it was an orphanage, a two-hots-and-a-cot scheme where missionaries could leave their children while on assignment. We were told to be grateful and never to complain, for our parents were doing the Lord’s work. We cried ourselves to sleep at night, unable to voice the thing we needed most: the home that we had lost.

Each evening, I would manage what little escape I could by climbing the hill behind Mountain View and sitting beneath the water tower, where I would look out over the harmattan haze of the Jos Plateau. It is there that I first remember praying. In the beginning my prayers were simple pleas—let this be over, bring my family back—but occasionally my petitions ceased. In the sudden hollowness of my throat, I felt something in the silence draw near. A sudden warmth in my lower back, a feeling of something good and true that hummed just beneath the surface of things, some bottomless and unaccountable mercy that rose to hold my grief.

In adulthood, I discovered monastic spirituality, and found those early desert monks speaking directly to my younger self. “When you fall down before God in prayer,” the seventh-century monk St. Isaac of Syria wrote, “become in your thought like an ant, like the creeping things of the earth, like a leech, like a tiny, lisping child.” St. Isaac and others sought to transcend the cage of the self and its wounds, to take desolation and turn it into freedom, into a profound sense of belonging to something vast and whole. Monastics chose voluntary confinement in pursuit of inner spaciousness, and in doing so they found freedom.

I wanted that freedom. This was partly why I’d followed Columba, someone who, in choosing a life of boundaries, had opened himself up to the world. Putting my body at risk of capture or dismemberment wasn’t the kind of vulnerability I sought, but if I refused to join Columba the next day, I worried, then I would miss the elusive insight whose promise had brought me here in the first place.

In the morning, I stepped out into air warm and humid from recent rain. It was not yet dawn and already the camp was abuzz. Diesel generators hummed. A jet lifted off, then an attack helicopter. Out on the main road, convoys of military vehicles rumbled toward the gate, heading out on patrol. The Machine was waking up.

After a run along the camp’s perimeter, I met Columba and Sophie at the Ecolog, where I choked down a breakfast of stale pancakes. Sophie was concerned. Her phone wasn’t working (terrorists had recently destroyed a key cell tower), she couldn’t reach the representative from the governor’s office, and there was no word of whether we’d have a security detail. Perhaps, I thought, I wouldn’t have to make a decision after all. “If nothing else comes of this trip,” Columba said, “we’ll have learned that Gao is logistically impossible.”

We were eventually taken to the office of the security chief of the operations response unit. I was losing track of the number of security offices we’d visited. Columba recounted HMML’s plan to meet with the Kounta family, and the security chief, Lionel Castanier, explained that it was impossible. Visiting the Kounta family library was out of the question. He would, however, permit travel to the governor’s compound about four kilometers from the camp. “I will send you with my guys in an armored vehicle,” Castanier said, “a quick trip in and out”—he slid his right palm across his left—“before the terrorists have time to prepare anything.” He paused. “There’s one thing. Before you leave camp, you need to give me the phone number of a family member in the U.S.”

Castanier handed the pen and paper to Columba, who wrote down a name before passing it to Sophie. She jotted something and handed the paper to me.

We had no internet or cellular service, but I had a strong urge to call my wife and sons to tell them how much I loved them. Columba had dedicated his life to this. I had not. I had committed myself to marriage and fatherhood. I thought of my three sons, tried to picture each of their faces when they heard that I had died, imagined the years stretching ahead of them as young men growing up without a father. For three years I had lost my family because they had committed themselves to a good that they considered greater than my own well-being. They eventually returned to claim me, but what if I failed to do the same?

I gave the paper to the security officer without writing anything down. Columba was sympathetic as we walked back to our shipping containers. He had no family obligations, he told me, so he could take risks more easily. “I’m a free agent,” he said.

At 1:30 pm, Columba and Sophie met two U.N. soldiers, got into an armored car, and left for the governor’s office in Gao. Before they departed, I promised to buy cheese and crackers to accompany our evening whiskey.

I spent the afternoon agitated and restless, watching the Olympics under the fluorescent lights of the Ecolog. On one screen, a Swedish pole vaulter soared up and over the bar, beating the American and claiming gold. On the other screen, the U.N. channel, Secretary-General António Guterres stood in a garden somewhere in Mali, or Geneva, or maybe a film set in Los Angeles—it was impossible to tell. Alone, apparently deep in thought, he observed a pole adorned with flowers. On it, inscribed in different languages, was the word “peace.”

I recalled the conversation I’d had the previous day with Johnny Eriksson, a Swedish military officer. “We won’t save Mali,” he said. The best they could do was to buy some time. As for the UN’s strategy, he had no illusions. “We’re like crusaders,” he said. “We build a fortress, then we go out on a mission, and come back into the fortress. This is not the way to build peace.”

By relinquishing personal autonomy, even personal safety, Columba seemed to have found the very freedom he had given up, magnified. “I’m a free agent,” he had said—and that was true not for lack of family, but because he had given himself completely to God. He had renounced his life, which meant that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him.

As for my own faith, I wondered whether until now I had been on a trial run. To believe that there is a life beyond life is to believe in a God whose existence demands a bold response. Belief is not assent to a set of value propositions. It is a life to be lived. For much of my adulthood I’d been content to play it safe, floating in the tepid bathwater of an American Christianity that demanded very little of me. It was a comfortable faith, full of easy assurances, the kind that John of Patmos singled out in the Book of Revelation as worse than no faith at all. “Would that you were cold or hot!” God tells the church in Laodicea. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”

The first time I met Columba, he told me about his love of open-water swimming. It was mid-April in Minnesota, and as we toured the abbey grounds we drove past Lake Sagatagan. The day was rainy and cold, the lake’s dark waters particularly uninviting. The swimming world is divided, Columba later told me, between open-water swimmers and those who swim only in pools. “They have to see the bottom,” he said of pool swimmers. “They need to know what’s beneath them.” Columba is not a pool swimmer. For him, not knowing is the whole point. “It’s not so much the womb aspect of being in open water, you know, returning to the amniotic fluid or something like that,” he said, “it’s more the participation in the vastness.”

By staying behind, I told myself, I had chosen safety not just on my own behalf but on that of my wife and sons. I had little doubt in my moral calculus. But part of me wondered whether I could ever shake this sense of regret. It wasn’t so much that I was missing out on Columba’s mission, as exciting as it might have been. It was more like envy. Columba could take the risks he did because he had gone all in on God. He and other monastics I’d met over the years were at peace with themselves because they knew there was more to life than themselves.

He was out there now, an open-water swimmer making his way across religious and cultural divides, while I sat brooding in the light of the Ecolog. As I admitted my regret, I thought back again to my years as a missionary kid.

Evagrius the Solitary, a fourth-century monk who lived in the Egyptian desert and whose granular observations of the inner life are as astute as any depth psychologist’s, wrote convincingly of “the demons,” which we moderns can read as negative emotions like anger, fear, abandonment, and resentment. “When you pray,” Evagrius advised, “keep close watch on your memory, so that it does not distract you with recollections of your past.” We can stay trapped in the past, Evagrius knew, turning over an endless litany of accusations. “Those who store up grievances and rancor in themselves,” he wrote, “are like people who draw water and pour it into a cask full of holes.” In my reckoning with childhood wounds, I realized how many grievances I’d been storing up—against the Calvinists, against Mountain View’s house parents, against my own parents.

Those years injured my soul, but they’d also given me a gift. Through my childhood experience of solitary prayer and my adult discovery of monastic spirituality, I had found a path that led to a wider expanse. The monastic project showed me how to turn loneliness into solitude. The early monks’ great discovery was that we are each a monos: the walls of the self are the burden of every human. They also discovered that the vulnerability of solitary prayer makes those walls more porous, leading us out of ourselves and into communion with our neighbors. Solitude begets solidarity.

Columba and Sophie returned just a few hours later. They’d had a successful meeting with the Kountas, who owned more than a thousand manuscripts. There were still questions to be answered—about whether the digitizing would be done at the Kounta library or the governor’s compound, about how many cameras were needed and where hard drives should be stored—but the Kountas were eager to collaborate. Over cocktails, Columba showed me photos on his phone. He and Sophie stood beside four men dressed in flowing robes and headscarves, a brilliant mix of blues, whites, and bronze.

It took us three days to get out of Gao. Because of bad weather in Bamako, all flights were grounded. Each time we went to the airport we were told that there were no flights, and then repeated the extended process of getting the clearance to return to camp. Each morning I jogged along the camp’s perimeter. After eating some bad fish one evening in the Ecolog, I got food poisoning.

When we were finally aboard the Beechcraft 1900D, I looked down on the Sahel and recalled something that Columba had told me about his own prayer life, how certain landscapes opened him up, especially vast spaces like the ocean, the prairie, and the desert. When I had asked him to describe his prayer, he said, “I sort of go into a dark quiet,” what monks call the apophatic style of prayer, a wordless apprehension of God. “That’s also where I find emotion,” he said. “It’s about attention, about gratitude, mortality. It’s all mixed up.”

Midway through the flight, we passed Mount Hombori, and Columba pointed out the Hand of Fatima, a cluster of rock spires rising up from the earth. I thought about the difficulty of his work in Mali, how on a much smaller scale I had undertaken my own work, and how for a brief moment our searches had overlapped. Ours had been a recovery mission. We had each made contact with something fragile and precious and in danger of being lost: the fragments of a culture, the fragments of a life.


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