Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Refuge for Iraq’s manuscripts

The arrival of a group of rare Iraqi manuscripts in Paris has drawn attention to the sometimes unsung casualties of the crisis in the north of the country, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Visitors to the normally sleepy French national archives housed in a pair of 18th-century townhouses in the heart of Paris have been able to enjoy an exhibition of rare Iraqi manuscripts since 20 May thanks to loans from the library of the Dominican mission in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul together with objects from French national collections.

However, perhaps few visitors to the exhibition, entitled Mésopotamie, carrefour des cultures, grandes heures des manuscrits irakiens and commemorating 800 years since the foundation of the Dominican order and more than 250 years of its work in Mosul, will be aware of the dramatic story of how the manuscripts came to be in Paris and the tragic destruction of the mission at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) group that now occupies Mosul.

Over recent months this group has committed atrocities in areas of Iraq and Syria under its control, massacring opponents and destroying the cultural heritage of the region. The destruction of the Dominican mission in Mosul, founded in 1750 by Italian members of the order, is part of this pattern of destruction and has temporarily halted the mission’s work in the region.

As Dominican friar Najeeb Michael explained to the French newspaper Le Monde when the exhibition opened, IS forces seized Mosul and with it the Dominican mission in June 2014, swiftly transforming the church and buildings into a prison. However, before this happened the Dominicans had evacuated most of the mission library’s collection of rare manuscripts and other materials. As IS began searching surrounding towns and villages, they evacuated tens of thousands of books to the safety of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Over a ten-day period we transported tens of thousands of books to Kurdistan,” Michael told Le Monde. “The night of 6-7 August 2014 was our final departure when we loaded everything that was left into two cars and drove to Erbil 70 km away in Kurdistan. I left with two other friars, and all along the road to Erbil was a stream of refugees, women and children among them, all fleeing to Kurdistan. When we got to the border only people on foot were allowed to cross, and I could see the black flags of Daech [IS] to the right of us. The Kurdish forces fired above our heads, and we, men, women, and children, our arms full of manuscripts, ran for our lives under the bullets” into Kurdistan.

“We and the manuscripts shared the same fate. We would either live together or die together,” Michael said.

THE MOSUL MISSION: The Mosul mission was set up in 1750, but as the exhibition reveals the Dominicans played an important role in the region centuries before a permanent mission was established. As long ago as 1245 the Dominican André de Longjumeau was sent by Pope Innocent IV to negotiate with the Mongols at Tabriz, today in northern Iran, and to meet Nestorian Christian prelates.

In 1290, the Dominican Riccoldo da Monte di Croce, a native of Florence, traveled to Baghdad and Mosul in order to consult with Muslim religious authorities, later producing a Latin commentary on the Qur’an. Such contacts continued throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, the exhibition says, with Dominican friars, dedicated by the rules of their order to peripatetic preaching, often serving as ambassadors between European countries and those in the Middle East.

It is interesting to learn that Dominican friars acted both as European ambassadors to Middle Eastern governments and as Middle Eastern ambassadors to European ones, with two Dominicans, Friar Francis and Jean de Sultanieh, acting as ambassadors from the Mongol emperor Tamerlan (Timur), “Tamburlaine the Great” in the famous play by English Renaissance dramatist Christopher Marlowe, to the court of French king Charles V1 (1368 –1422).

According to the exhibition, a new dynamism among European religious orders during the Counter Reformation led to the installation of an order of Capuchin friars in Mosul in 1636, but it was only in 1750 that the Dominicans set up their permanent mission in the city, swiftly establishing a library and religious and other activities. Despite what the exhibition calls “sometimes delicate” relations with the authorities in Mosul, until 1918 part of the Ottoman Empire along with the rest of what is now Iraq, the mission continued until the arrival of French representatives in the region in the 1850s.

The monastery was rebuilt in the 1860s, its bell-tower being financed by a campaign led by the French empress Eugènie, and schools, a hospital, and a print works were set up. According to the exhibition, by 1873 the mission was responsible for 27 schools, including six for girls, in the Mosul region, and the books and other materials used in them were printed on the mission’s presses.

At the same time, the Dominican mission continued to collect manuscripts and printed books in various languages for its library, continuing a long-standing European interest in such materials. “The new interest in the Eastern Christian Churches on the part of the papacy led to the establishment of the Dominican mission in Mosul in 1750 along with the circulation of eastern manuscripts between Mesopotamia and Rome,” the exhibition explains.

While these Eastern Churches are not directly represented in the exhibition, the accompanying material says that Mesopotamia was originally evangelised by two disciples of Thomas the Apostle, Addai and Mari, sent to the region from Edessa. The Mesopotamian Church became independent in the 5th century, and figures from the early Church in Mesopotamia include St Ephrem (Ephrem the Syrian, died 373), a writer and theologian, and Narsai of Nisibis (died 507), a Nestorian. Early photographs of the Mar Matti (St Matthew) and Mar Behnam Monasteries are included in the exhibition.

Works in Arabic, Syriac (Aramaic), and Soureth, the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic still widely spoken in the region today, found their way into the Dominican mission library, these being written in Estrangela, Serta, and Garshuni. Estrangela is the classical form of written Syriac, Serta is used to write West Syriac and is used by Maronite Christians in Lebanon, and Garshuni refers to Arabic texts written in Syriac characters. The Dominican friars printed works in these languages at their print works and produced grammars that are still standard works today.

THE IRAQI MANUSCRIPTS: The exhibition contains ancient maps, engravings and photographs relating to this history and the Dominican mission’s educational and other activities in Mosul, including many fascinating 19th-century photographs.

However, pride of place is given to the selection of manuscripts rescued from Islamic State and brought to Paris by Friar Michael. These are presented in facsimile versions as the originals cannot be moved, and they are complemented by additional items from French collections, including the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Together, they form a historical panorama of the linguistic and religious diversity of this part of Iraq.

According to the interview with Friar Michael in Le Monde, they represent a small part of the mission’s manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries now evacuated for safe-keeping in Erbil. Some of the manuscripts could not be saved in time and had fallen into the hands of Islamic State, he said. The rest were being digitised by the Centre numérique des manuscrits orientaux (CNMO), formerly in Mosul and now in Erbil.

When the Weekly visited just after the exhibition opened some of the manuscripts planned for display were still being restored and the catalogue had not yet been published. However, among the most striking items was a late 12th or early 13th century manuscript copy of the Qur’an brought back by Monte di Croce from his travels in the Middle East and bearing his copious marginal annotations in Latin, a manuscript copy of a commentary by Averroes (Ibn Rushd) on a work by Avicenna (Ibn Sina) on medicine that has apparently never been published, and Christian works in Arabic, Syriac and Soureth.

Among the printed works on display is a 16th-century psalter in which the text is arranged in four columns on each page, in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Soureth, and copies of the 19th and early 20th-century textbooks produced by the Dominicans in Arabic, Syriac, Latin and French and used in their network of schools. It seems that the Mosul print works was also capable of very high-quality printing, testified to by copies of a seven-volume breviary in Syriac produced between 1886 and 1896.

Mésopotamie, carrefour des cultures, grandes heures des manuscrits irakiens, Archives nationales, Paris, until 24 August.

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