NPR: Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq’s Christian History

In an unfinished building in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, displaced Christian children sing a little song about returning to their village. “We’re going back,” they sing, “to our houses, our land, our church.”

Father Najeeb Michaeel, a Iraqi Dominican friar, has been trying to further preserve Iraq's Christian texts by digitizing the ones he has been able to save.
Father Najeeb Michaeel, a Iraqi Dominican friar, has been trying to further preserve Iraq’s Christian texts by digitizing the ones he has been able to save.

Right now, they’re living in an open concrete structure. The self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, took over their home village of Qaraqosh, and the Christians fled in fear, on foot.

They finish their song and applause breaks out from two unlikely figures. One is a beaming Iraqi in white robes, Father Najeeb Michaeel. The other is Father Columba Stewart, a tall, spare and pale Texan with black-rimmed glasses and black vestments. Both are monks.

Michaeel explains that the church and various NGOs have provided shelter, heaters, pots, pans and food. But Stewart’s main reason for coming from his monastery in Minnesota is a parallel rescue project, located in a secret house nearby.

Alice Fordham/NPR

Michaeel is afraid to reveal the precise location, but in a cool, sunlit room there is a mass of books.

“It’s a big collection of our archive, and the manuscripts there and the old books,” he says proudly.

Father Michaeel has stashed a substantial part of what remains of the Christian libraries of Iraq.

There have been Dominican monks in the city of Mosul since about 1750. They amassed a library of thousands of ancient manuscripts and say they brought the printing press to Iraq in the early 1800s. Rattling around in a box, Michaeel brings out Aramaic typeset.

As an Islamist insurgency roiled Mosul in 2008, monks smuggled their library out, bit by bit, to the Christian village of Qaraqosh. Last summer, when ISIS was inching closer, Michaeel took action. He prepared everything and put the collection in a big truck at 5 a.m.

“We passed three checkpoints without any problem, and I think the Virgin Mary [had] a hand to protect us,” he says.

Michaeel had to leave the library of more than 50,000 regular books. He knows other orders of monks have lost all their libraries, and he believes monasteries and churches have been looted and used as prisons or torture chambers by the extremists. But the manuscripts and antiquities in his care, he brought here.

“The father or mother try to save the first thing — the children,” he says. “So these books [are] my children.”

In Qaraqosh, he had been working on a digitizing project, headed by Stewart’s Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota. Father Michaeel had gathered manuscripts from all around Iraq and was photographing them so scholars worldwide could read them.

Stewart studies manuscripts in Syriac, a variant of the Aramaic language that dates back to the time of Jesus.

The monks explain there’s actually two dialects: western Syriac and eastern Syriac. Michaeel sings the “Our Father” prayer in both to demonstrate the differences. Father Columba studies the way prayers shift across dialects and needs the manuscripts to do it. He’s brought new equipment so the work can go on.

Every night in Erbil, in drafty, half-built structures, the displaced families huddle, sing the old prayers together and hope they’ll go home.

In private, the monks say they think this upheaval will drive the last of Iraq’s Christians out. They’re trying to document as much of the heritage as they can before all this disappears.

Read the Transcript 

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The group that called itself the Islamic State has forced Christians in northwestern Iraq to flee. And as they leave their homes behind, an ancient heritage is at risk. As NPR’s Alice Fordham reports, some Christians decided there was one thing they could save – their library.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, I meet two monks. Father Najeeb Mikhael is a beaming Iraqi in white robes. In black vestments is Father Colomba Stewart – a Texan, tall, spare and pale. They are on a rescue mission.

FATHER NAJEEB MIKHAEL: There’s a big collection of our archive and manuscripts there. And there are old books.

FORDHAM: Mikhael has taken me to a house where he’s stashed a substantial part of what remains of the Christian libraries of Iraq.

FORDHAM: OK. So tell me what I’m seeing. Wow.

MIKHAEL: This is a New Testament – altogether Saint Mark, Matthew and Luke and Jean here. And as you see, in many colors also here.

FORDHAM: So it’s an illuminated Gospels.

MIKHAEL: Exactly.

FORDHAM: There have been Dominican monks in the city of Mosul since about 1750. They amassed a library of thousands of ancient manuscripts, and say they brought the printing press to Iraq in the early 1800’s.

MIKHAEL: And we start printing in six to seven different languages, as Arabic, Chaldean, Syriac, Turkish also Latin, French.

FORDHAM: As an Islamist insurgency roiled Mosul in 2008, they smuggled their library out bit by bit to the Christian village of Qaraqosh. And last summer when ISIS was inching closer, Mikhael took action.

MIKHAEL: I prepare everything, and take a very big truck and put all this collection. At 5 a.m., I came with a truck. We passed the three checkpoints without any problem. I think Virgin Mary have her hand to protect us. (Laughter).

FORDHAM: In fact, in Qaraqosh, he’d been working on a digitizing project headed by Stewart’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library based in Minnesota. He’d gathered manuscripts from all around Iraq and was photographing them. Stewart studies Syriac, a variant of the Aramaic language from the time of Jesus. He shows me a sheaf of yellowed handwritten pages that have lost their binding.

FATHER COLOMBA STEWART: I’m not sure exactly what this is because we’re missing the first part, but it looks like a liturgical manuscript. (Reading in a foreign language).

FORDHAM: They explain there’s actually two dialects – Western Syriac and Eastern Syriac. The Iraqi monk, Mikhael, sings the old prayer, the “Our Father,” to demonstrate.

MIKHAEL: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: That’s the Western version.

MIKHAEL: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: And that’s the Eastern one. Stewart needs the manuscripts to study the way prayers shift across dialects.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

FORDHAM: Every night, many displaced Christian families living in an unfinished building in Erbil sing the old prayers together, and hope they’ll go home. In private, the monks say they think this upheaval will drive the last of Iraq’s Christians out. They’re trying to document the heritage before all this disappears. Alice Fordham, NPR News.