By Your Middle East
Bullets whistled overhead, a black Islamic State flag flapping in
the distance, but all Friar Najeeb Michaeel could think of as he fled
the jihadists was how to save hundreds of ancient Iraqi manuscripts in
"You are going to get us killed with your archives," Michaeel's
assistant Watheq Qassab grumbled as he struggled to carry six boxes of
the documents dated between the 13th and 19th century across the border
from Iraq into Kurdistan in August last year.
The Roman Catholic Dominican Order arrived in Iraq in the 13th
century, and set up a permanent church in the second city of Mosul in
Michaeel first smuggled his precious library out of Mosul to Qaraqosh
-- Iraq's largest Christian town -- during an Islamist insurgency in
2008 which saw thousands of Christians flee the city.
Last year, the friar again felt the tide turning as the Islamic State
group seized town after town, destroying priceless artefacts and
documents in museums and libraries in their rampage across Iraq and
As IS on Thursday seized the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria,
raising fears of further destruction, Michaeel told AFP in Paris how he
became obsessed with saving the remnants of Iraq's 2,000-year-old
"It was imperative that these manuscripts, conserved in the Dominican
library in Mosul and then in Qaraqosh, escape the systematic
destruction of the non-Muslim cultural heritage," Michaeel told AFP.
'I thought we were going to die'-
So, when IS seized Iraq's second city of Mosul in June, a short distance from Qaraqosh, Michaeel again took action.
"We loaded a large part of the manuscripts in a truck and drove them
to Arbil, in Kurdistan, which is 70 kilometres (40 miles) away," he told
And when the jihadists descended on Qaraqosh on August 7, forcing the
last Dominican friars to flee, he stashed the remaining manuscripts in
boxes in his car.
"We were engulfed in the massive exodus of Christians and Yazidis who
were fleeing to Arbil", the Kurdish capital, said Michaeel.
"We could see the black flag of Daesh (IS) from a distance. We were
protected by armed peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) but they wouldn't let
our car cross the border.
"So I started to take the boxes of manuscripts out of the car and hand them to passers by," he said.
Watheq Qassab, an Iraqi working for the Dominican order, helped him.
"Bullets were whistling above our heads and I thought we were going to die," he told AFP.
"Children were crying, women too. I was carrying six boxes, it was heavy, I couldn't run."
Luckily, a car was waiting for them on the Kurdish side of the
border, and all the boxes arrived safe and sound and are now hidden in
Michaeel's collection includes historical and philosophical texts,
documents on both Christian and Muslim spirituality, music and
literature written in Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic and Armenian.
They bear testament to the long Christian tradition in former
Mesopotamia -- seen as the cradle of Western civilisation -- which
survived even as most of the region between the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers converted to Islam in the 7th century.
Tens of thousands of Christians have been forced to flee what Pope
Francis called the "intolerable brutality" being inflicted on them and
other minorities in Iraq and Syria by IS group militants.
'Bridge between civilisations' -
Historian Francoise Briquel-Chatonnet, a researcher at the French
National Centre for Scientific Research, said there were about 50
manuscripts written in the ancient Christian language of Syriac, dated
"before the arrival of Islam in the same region."
"Most are conserved in the British Library in London. The oldest dates back to 411."
Michaeel's collection is not that old, but "they are a sort of bridge
between civilisations, they bear witness to the past and say a lot
about the present," said the friar, adding he sees them as his
In Qaraqosh, Michaeel and his staff have been working for years to
collect and digitise the ancient manuscripts, photographing them and
storing them on a hard drive.
"Since 1990 we have digitised 8,000 manuscripts from the region. Half
of the originals no longer exist as they have been destroyed by the
Islamic State," he said.
Copies of seven of these documents are currently being displayed at
the National Archives in Paris at an exhibition entitled: "Mesopotamia, a
crossroads of cultures."