Iraqi monk’s tale of saving ancient manuscripts from ISIS

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The digital centre preserves Islamic manuscripts and has copies of commentaries on the Quran from the 12th century.
Iraqi Dominican monk, Father Najeeb Michaeel, looks at an ancient manuscript. (Richard Wilding)
Unique collection. Iraqi Dominican monk, Father Najeeb Michaeel, looks at an ancient manuscript. (Richard Wilding)

LONDON – Dressed in white robes and beaming an ever-optimistic smile, an Iraqi Dominican monk told how ancient manuscripts he saved from the Islamic State (ISIS) were being restored and digitalised by refugees in Erbil, Iraq.

Father Najeeb Michaeel’s lecture-and-slide presentation was organised by a London-based charity, Gulan, which promotes Kurdish culture. An exhibition of photographs by Richard Wilding, Gulan’s creative director, showing Michaeel and the rescued Dominican library in Mosul was presented in conjunction with the lecture.

The library housed a unique collection of ancient manuscripts dating to the ninth century and printed books from 1515. In addition to Christian texts, there were works on geography, history and mathematics, as well as Muslim, Yezidi and Jewish literature. Some of the manuscripts on animal skin are more than 1,000 years old.

After 2003, the Dominican monastery was threatened by extremist groups in Mosul — threats included letters containing bullets and a broken cross — Michaeel said. This prompted him in 2007 to move the entire library to the nearby Christian town of Qaraqosh.

After taking control of Mosul in 2014, ISIS advanced on Qaraqosh, and Michaeel moved the library contents again, this time to a secret location in Iraqi Kurdistan. He said he made four return trips, loading the most important books and manuscripts in the boot of his car.

On his final trip, he left Qaraqosh in two cars at 12.15am, a couple of hours before ISIS arrived. The monastery in Qaraqosh was destroyed and the books left behind were burned.

Michaeel gave some of the manuscripts to people with vehicles who were leaving Mosul. “I did not know them but they put the manuscripts into the boots of their cars,” he recalled. “Some manuscripts from the 12th and 13th centuries were transported in wheelbarrows. The British Museum would crucify me if they saw this,” he joked.

During Saddam Hussein’s time, some manuscripts were hidden underground but were damaged by mould. “We are trying to restore them page by page,” he said. “Sometimes families who had old manuscripts in their possession for generations were not aware of their value and burned them in the oven to bake bread.”

The rescued books and manuscripts are being restored and catalogued by Michaeel’s Digital Centre for Eastern Manuscripts in Erbil. More than 8,000 manuscripts from 105 collections from Iraq, Turkey and Iran have been digitised. Another 10,000 manuscripts and thousands of printed books are still to be digitised.

The monk said he was disappointed that NGOs and international organisations have not assisted in the preservation of the manuscripts. “UNESCO only provided some conservation materials to help protect the books from mites,” he said.

In addition to setting up the Digital Centre for Eastern Manuscripts, Michaeel converted a half-built building in Erbil into a centre for refugees. The digital centre provides training for refugees in manuscript conservation and they are paid for their work.

“We don’t accept volunteers,” Michaeel said. “We want professional people and we are helping displaced people to become professional and make a living.”

He said he was eager to share Iraq’s Christian heritage with the world. “The best way to fight ISIS is through the promotion of culture — the brightness which the darkness of ISIS is trying to destroy,” Michaeel said. The digital centre also preserves Islamic manuscripts and has copies of commentaries on the Quran from the 12th century.

Downplaying the possibility of relocating the digital operation to Mosul in the near future, Michaeel said: “Trust has gone and the Christians are reluctant to return. The whole city has been destroyed and the government is not doing anything to help the refugees.”

In addition to conserving the manuscripts, Michaeel has written a book: “Saviour of Books and People.” His academic work focused on comparing the Quran with the Bible’s Old and New Testament.

The Dominican Order, a teaching order, was established in Mosul in the 1700s, originally with brothers from Italy and France. They amassed a library of thousands of ancient manuscripts and set up a printing press in 1857. It was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1914.

Michaeel said he was very happy to celebrate this Christmas in Mosul in St Paul’s Church with three bishops, ten priests, approximately 70 Christians and more than 100 Muslims. One of his slides was of the burned monastery in Qaraqosh where red roses were blooming in the garden.

“We will restore it,” he said confidently. “Not tomorrow, but we will restore it.”