Minnesota researchers to put online Mideast archival ‘treasure’

Friday 13/11/2015
Reverend Columba Stewart, director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.

Washington - In the scramble to protect the heritage of the Middle East, researchers at a small Catholic college in Minnesota aim to put online an archive of about 50,000 manuscripts, digitised over the last decade in Iraq, Syria, Tur­key, Egypt and Jerusalem.
The manuscripts include theo­logical, liturgical, biblical and grammatical texts with many his­toric anecdotes, as well as a price­less collection of notes and com­ments from those who handled and read them over the centuries. Most, but not all, of the manuscripts are Christian.
The Reverend Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and one of the main organisers of the digitisation effort, talked about what he de­scribed as an archival “treasure”, of which a preliminary catalogue will become accessible online by April 2016.
The project is housed at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Colle­geville, Minnesota.
Stewart said that although much of the material may not be original and is available from other sources, the digitised archive offers a rare look into the culture and mindset of the time.
“Most manuscripts are familiar things, copies of texts we have else­where. But in addition to the text, every manuscript has notes and comments about who owned it and who commissioned it,” he said by telephone from his office in Minne­sota. “Maybe a note about a histori­cal event or something about their church or their family. Basically, it’s whatever people thought about writing down and it is by no means solely religious.”
One “extraordinary archive” details daily life in Mesopotamia throughout the 18th and 19th cen­turies, explains Stewart. It is the work of missionaries of the Domin­ican Order who left Italy for Mosul in the mid-18th century. Known for their scholarship, the mission­aries were avid archaeologists and learned Arabic and studied Islam and the Quran to familiarise them­selves with the culture in which they were proselytising.
“They were learned people and they worked from a position of re­spect even though they were inter­ested in converting people. They were very sophisticated,” Stewart said.
“They wrote down what they found and took photographs and drew sketches.”
The archive is housed in Erbil and will become available online as part of the project.
The digitisation of manuscripts in Iraq began shortly after the US invasion in 2003 and continued un­til the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). Stewart said there are manuscripts that have not been digitised and are in danger of destruction, namely in a monastery near Alqosh in Iraq.
A similar digitisation effort in Syria stopped in 2012 when the security situation began to dete­riorate in the country. Most of the digitised Syrian manuscripts were from Aleppo, with others from Homs and Damascus.
One of the manuscripts in Aleppo originated in Sanliurfa in Turkey and was taken to Syria during a Christian exodus. Stewart said it is particularly significant because it is the only known complete copy in Syria of a world history written in the 12th century by Syrian Patriarch Michael the Great.
“He tells the story of what it was like to be a local Christian at the time of the Crusades. The foreign­ers come and invade and the people who were punished most severely were the local Christians,” said Stewart, adding that the situation was not too different from today.
“What’s really pointed about this example is that the bishop in Alep­po who gave us permission and wrote the foreword was kidnapped in April 2013,” said Stewart, refer­ring to Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibra­him, who disappeared along with the local Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi. Both are still miss­ing.
There are ongoing efforts to dig­itise more manuscripts in Turkey, Egypt and those belonging to Mus­lim families in Jerusalem.
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East since the Iraq war, worsened by the rise of ISIS, has been catastrophic and many Chris­tians expect they never will return to the only home they had ever known. The valley of Nineveh in Iraq perhaps best captures the ca­lamity. Once home to nearly 2 mil­lion Iraqis belonging to various reli­gious communities, half have been displaced from their ancient home because of the ISIS occupation.
“There is great uncertainty in Syria and Iraq with Christians who‘ve always lived in the same place and they don’t know if they’ll ever go back. They’re cut from the root and scattered and will become Westernised,” Stewart said. “So in a way, the manuscripts remain the only witness to a once thriving in­digenous culture.”