Iraq: Historical Oriental Manuscripts Preserved

June 14, 2022
Archbishop Michael Najeeb, O.P.

The Digital Center of Oriental Manuscripts (CNMO), in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, houses thousands of documents and works of inestimable value, saved from destruction or looting by jihadists.

“These are the magnificent pieces that make up the great mosaic of Iraq,” says Archbishop Michaeel Najeeb, O.P., presenting the illuminations of a Syriac manuscript from the Middle Ages. These manuscripts thus retrace the entire history of the Christians of this ancient cradle of Christianity in Mesopotamia.

The cultural and historical treasures kept at the Oriental Manuscript Digitization Center (OMDC), in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Arbil, are of various Christian traditions, and also Muslim and Yezidi. Unique pieces date back to the 12th and 15th centuries, including “Sidra,” a book of liturgical prayers in Aramaic, written around the 14th and 15th centuries.

A Carolingian parchment from the 10th century is included in the catalogue. The documents were previously kept in Qaraqosh, a Christian village 40 minutes by car east of Mosul. Fr. Najeeb left, taking the last manuscripts in his vehicle, a few hours before Daesh (IS) took over the town, on the night of August 6-7, 2014.

The population fleeing the jihadists was put to use for the transfer. Everything was found intact upon arrival. This episode and Archbishop Najeeb's fight were recounted in the book Saving Books and Men (Grasset, 2017).

850 old manuscripts, archives, correspondence dating back several centuries, photographs, and more than 50,000 books have been saved in this way. But are the Ankawa manuscripts definitively safe? If the dry climate of Iraq makes it possible to preserve them from humidity, however the Iraqis are accustomed to not taking into account the stability of situations, especially political ones.

The OMDC has therefore set up a process to digitize its collection. More than 8,000 manuscripts from 112 different collections have already been digitized, thanks to a partnership – since 2009 – with the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (HMML) of the Minnesota Benedictines who carry out colossal work in the preservation of archives around the world.

In addition, aid obtained from international organizations, such as UNESCO or USAID, has enabled the OMDC to recently acquire more sophisticated digitization equipment, which speeds up and simplifies the process.

Fr. Michaeel Najeeb, archivist at the Dominican convent in Mosul, founded the Oriental Manuscript Digitization Center in 1990, and traveled throughout northern Iraq and neighboring countries to find documents there. He managed to save priceless pieces from destruction by owners often unaware of their value.

During their occupation of the region, from 2014 to 2017, the jihadists destroyed or sold thousands of cultural and historical works. After 2017, Fr. Najeeb bought back hundreds of books looted from churches by Daesh, sometimes sold on the sidewalks. The documents, excluding those from the Dominican and Benedictine collections, were returned to their legitimate owners after being digitized.

The Oriental Manuscript Digitization Centre was forced to move to Qaraqosh for the first time in 2007, due to growing hostility towards Christians in Mosul. Providence seems to have been at work during his second emergency trip to Ankawa on the night of August 6-7, 2014. Three months earlier, the Dominicans had bought the building where the manuscripts finally found refuge.

A restoration workshop was also installed. A team of specialists was recruited by the Dominicans mainly from among Christian refugees who arrived in Arbil in 2014. These people were professionals who had lost their jobs after the exodus.

Archbishop Michael Najeeb is driven by conviction: “With these projects, it is possible to enlighten future generations on the beauty of Iraq's diversity. This light brought by the memory and the knowledge of our roots is necessary to fight against the darkness of Daech,” he affirms.