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Image by Birmingham Museums Trust


Our first project:

On our way, the refugee camps dominated the Nineveh Plain, while other areas were still covered with landmines. It is impossible to describe the sight of a completely burnt and destroyed city of 55,000 people. ISIS soldiers, along with their families who they had brought with them as settlers, had inhabited the town for two years, and had burned and blown up everything before retreating because of their impending defeat. A shredded city lay before us, the traces of devastation, exploded car bombs, the remnants of fighting and the signs of ISIS occupation were omnipresent.

Almost all the churches in the city, new or old, had been burnt down, but since churches offer a lot of space, some had been saved and used as small war factories to produce bombs, weapons, and missiles for the ISIS fighting 'machine'.

One of the main destinations was the 4th century Nakortaya Monastery. This monastery was known to preserve 350 ancient Syriac manuscripts among other sacred traesures. The monastery had been severely damaged and the hope of finding intact manuscripts seemed slim. Fortunately, the 350 manuscripts had been previously digitised by Fr Najeeb, but we did not know if all of them were lost or if monks had managed to hide some of them before fleeing.

It was devastating to see that there were only a few scraps scattered around the courtyard of the monastery, and Fr Najeeb quickly identified some of them as parts of those very old manuscripts that he had digitised. They were still wet, possibly from the previous day's rain, because they were lying outside in the open. We took these precious fragments to safety, to the CNMO (Centre numérique des manuscrits Orientaux/Oriental Manuscripts Digital Centre) , where they will have to be cleaned, disinfected and restored. Therein lies another task for the CNMO, which will undoubtedly face more such rescue operations, adding to the urgency of the support needed.

A few kilometres outside Qaraqosh we visited the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Benham, one of the most important monasteries in this area. It was built in 325 C.E. and rebuilt and renovated several times since. It was used as a headquarters by ISIS fighters for two years and had been recaptured only a few days before our visit.

According to circulating information, it had been heavily guarded by ISIS, but also abused as a slave market. A few weeks earlier, we had learned that 40 women of Christian and other denominations had been brought here and sold. A fierce battle took place in this place to retake the monastery, many soldiers and 50 IS fighters died.

We had come here especially because of 500 very old manuscripts, some of them from the 9th. and 10th.centuries,. None of them had yet surfaced. Once again we were confronted with scenes of destruction and piles of burnt books. These books, however, were printed works of recent date.

A week later, it became known that the old books we were looking for had been walled up by the monks in a secret room in time and saved in this. In the meantime, they had safely arrived in Erbil.


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