Father Nageeb in the safe house where he has stored a collection of ancient manuscripts. Photo: Author
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Thousands of ancient Christian manuscripts are being kept safe at an undisclosed location in Kurdistan after being spirited out of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh plain in August, just hours before the town was seized by Islamic State fighters.
Father Nageeb Michaeel, a Dominican priest who master-minded the operation to salvage the unique collection, did not want to say where the collection was being held for fear of attack by ISIS sympathisers. But he allowed Rudaw to see it.
The collection is being kept in an air-conditioned room and it includes manuscripts and documents dating from the 13th century. They represent a sizeable part of Iraq’s cultural heritage, he said.
ISIS captured Mosul in June before striking out across the surrounding Nineveh plain, forcing at least 130,000 Christians to flee into Iraqi Kurdistan. Many other minorities such as Yazidis, Shia Muslims and Turkmen were also forced to flee during the hot summer.
Father Nageeb himself walked 40 kilometres with around 30,000 people from Qaraqosh on the night of August 6 to reach Erbil, where he has since spent most of his time caring for his congregation and helping them to find food and shelter.
He was the director of the Digital Centre for Eastern Manuscripts at the Mar Behnam Syriac Catholic Monastery in Qaraquosh, which is now behind the ISIS frontlines. The centre of the town is said to have been partially destroyed or burned down.
“If I hadn’t transported and kept the manuscripts, they would have been destroyed like so many churches and monasteries in Mosul and the Nineveh plain,” said Father Nageeb, who has received numerous death threats from militant Islamists over the past decade.
“Daesh has no respect for intellectuals,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “In Mosul, they killed many doctors and professors who were Muslim.”
He is from Mosul and his mother tongue is Aramaic, like many of Christian congregants from Qaraqosh. Originally, he planned to work in the oil industry but he changed his mind and decided to join the Dominican order and was ordained in 1987.
The Dominicans have a long history in northern Iraq and have been called the first “cultural anthropologists” in the region. They studied the people and customs and kept extensive records of their findings and correspondence over several centuries as well as preserving the ancient documents they found.
Since the 1980s, Father Nageeb has built a collection of some 750 manuscripts from the Dominican community. He has also digitised numerous documents lent to him by manuscript owners, monasteries and churches. Digitised copies were given to the owners and to specialist archives.
After Mosul fell to ISIS on June 10, Father Nageeb did not wait, but immediately started to pack the manuscripts and arrange for their safekeeping. “I had a very bad feeling, I knew something was going to happen, and I had to get the manuscripts out of there,” he said.
He recounted the day and night of August 6 and the mass exodus out of Qaraqosh.
In the morning, a bomb killed two children and a woman, who became the first “martyrs” in the town, he said. “People started to panic and to leave but I wanted to stay,” he said.
By the evening, he was getting telephone calls from friends urging him to leave. He packed up a pick-up truck that was taking two fellow priests and townspeople to Erbil with what was left of the collection of manuscripts and other valuable documents.
He then walked through the night with the thousands of others who did not have any transport. “It was terrible. There were women and children with no food and water,” he said.
They reached a checkpoint outside of Erbil manned by the Peshmerga, which allowed the people through but not their vehicles.
Father Columba Stewart, director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St John's Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota, has been helping Father Nageeb since 2009 with his preservation work through technical support, equipment and training.
“We are also helping Father Nageeb reopen his centre, which would mean salaries for his workers, who need it more than ever since they had to leave everything behind in Qaraqosh,” Father Columba told Rudaw. “I would say that Father Nageeb has become a close friend and he is also one of my personal heroes.”
The priest is also a hero to many Christians. On a visit to a “tent city” that housed many displaced people in Ankawa, a predominantly Christian part of Erbil, people rushed up to Father Nageeb to shake his hand, to have their babies kissed by him, and to give him an update on their personal circumstances as they adjust to life with no belongings or livelihood.
The Christian population of Iraq had fallen to around 300,000 from some 1.5 million before the US-led invasion in 2003. Many people describe the latest massacres and atrocities committed by ISIS as a genocide and the Christian community is once again shrinking.
“I hope people either help them to find housing and real work in this new land or they should facilitate their departure,” said Father Nageeb. “We are in a tunnel and cannot see the light.”