Walter M. Miller Jr.'s 1960 novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" imagined a world hundreds of years in the future in which an order of Catholic monks devotes itself to recovering the fragments of human literary culture left after nuclear war. As we read about the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu, home of some of the most important libraries of the Muslim world, track the progress of war and ethnic violence across the Middle East, and contemplate a nuclear-armed Iran, Miller's novel seems eerily prophetic.

Manuscripts -- handwritten books and ancient archival records -- are especially vulnerable in such conflicts. Unlike printed books, each manuscript is unique and irreplaceable. Once lost, there is no way to recover what it contained. Each manuscript has a story about who created it, who read it, who cared for it. Each of those people leaves a mark: the text itself, written by hand; the scribe's note of when and where it was copied; the reader's notes; the stamps or seals of the libraries or individuals who cared for it.

The Syrian city of Aleppo was traditionally considered a place of refuge. Jews from Spain came there after the expulsions of 1492, building a new synagogue adjoining that of the ancient community. In 1923, the entire Christian population of the Turkish city of Urfa (ancient Edessa) fled to Aleppo. Having survived massacres of Armenian and other Christians, they arrived with little more than the key to their abandoned church and hundreds of manuscript books.

This tradition did not endure. Almost all of the Jews of Aleppo had left by the end of the 20th century, their position made impossible by the wars between Syria and Israel. They managed to save their most precious biblical manuscript, the Aleppo Codex. The Christians of Aleppo wonder if they are next, having seen the enormous displacement of Christians in neighboring Iraq since the 2003 invasion. What to do about their manuscripts?

In the same decade as Miller's novel, a Benedictine monastery far from Monte Cassino began to photograph manuscripts on the front lines of the Cold War. Based at St. John's Abbey and the University in Minnesota, the microfilming project spread from monastic collections in Austria to embrace secular and religious libraries across Europe, then moving on to Ethiopia. Although Europe became unexpectedly safer, the rest of the world did not. Many manuscripts microfilmed in Ethiopia have since disappeared, some of them vanishing into private collections in the West.

I entered the monastery in Collegeville in 1981, and since 2003 have been directing the manuscript preservation project. We have been largely focused on the Middle East, Turkey and India, helping threatened communities to digitize their manuscript heritage just in case. Among the treasures now safely in digital form are all of the surviving Armenian and Syriac manuscripts held by churches in Turkey, some as old as the seventh and eighth centuries.

In Aleppo, an Iraqi refugee from Mosul photographed the manuscripts brought from Urfa/Edessa in 1923, and local teams were trained to photograph Syriac, Arabic and Armenian manuscripts in the city that is now facing destruction. Among the manuscripts from Urfa is the only complete copy of a 12th-century account of the Crusades as witnessed by the Christians of the Middle East.

In Iraq, we have worked with a team of young Christians, many of them refugees, who have tracked down thousands of important manuscripts and made them available digitally to researchers throughout the world. Recent projects in Jerusalem have digitized some of the extraordinary manuscript collections held by Christian and Muslim communities in the Old City, one of the most sensitive and volatile locations on the planet.

As successful as these efforts have been, much remains to be done. When our work in Syria began several years ago, the country appeared to be stable. In the past few weeks, two churches where we worked in Homs have been shelled, one of them largely destroyed. The offices of a cathedral in Aleppo whose library we digitized have been ransacked, and the archbishop has fled to Lebanon. The point is that we simply don't know where the next war or eruption of ethnic conflict may occur.

The late Ray Bradbury imagined a dystopia in which all books had been destroyed lest they encourage human beings to think for themselves. Bradbury titled his novel "Fahrenheit 451," the temperature at which paper burns. It takes surprisingly little to start that fire.


The Rev. Columba Stewart, OSB, is executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's University.