Meet the Dominican friar racing to save Iraq's ancient history from ISIS

Father Najeeb Michaeel, op

Wearing white gloves and using a dull knife, Father Najeeb Michaeel carefully flips through pages of yellowed, tattered manuscripts -- some of which are over a thousand years old.

"I want to show you something very rare. It's a little treasure."

From his office in Erbil, Michaeel shows us a 17th century Bible written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It's one of the thousands of antiquities he and his team have managed to keep out of the hands of ISIS.

Since ISIS came to prominence in 2014, it has targeted the country's cultural heritage. Michaeel, a Dominican priest, is on a mission to preserve it.

As director of the Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts, Michaeel painstakingly digitized thousands of documents to ensure they remain available to future generations.

In August 2014, Michaeel was working in Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city. Knowing the militants would loot and destroy the city's antiquities should they find them, Michaeel formulated a plan.

Ten days before ISIS invaded the city, he stashed as many rare books, artifacts and art into his truck as he could find. He then fled for Erbil.

In shocking images seen around the world, many of the region's greatest archaeological treasures have been reduced to rubble. Propaganda videos released by ISIS show militants taking bulldozers and sledgehammers to the ancient ruins of Hatra, Khorsabad, Nimrud, and Nineveh.

Just like the Taliban destroyed 1,700-year-old Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, ISIS has looted and destroyed sites in Iraq and Syria belonging to religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.


The United Nations’ cultural and educational agency, UNESCO, has described the destruction of landmarks in Iraq and Syria as a “war crime.”

The group justifies the destruction by claiming pre-Islamic art and religious shrines -- whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish -- is idolatrous. And yet, ISIS has sold many of the artifacts to black market buyers to finance its operations.

In November 2016, Michaeel returned to Qaraqosh with his team to collect what ISIS left behind.

 “We cried about this kind of image what we saw there. It's horrible. It's some kind of genocide," Michaeel said.

Many of the documents in Michaeel's collection are written in ancient languages including Aramaic, Latin and Ottoman Turkish. They date back centuries, if not more. The oldest is at least 1,100 years old.

Michaeel's collection isn't limited to Christian texts. There are works on ancient astrology, geography and history, as well as manuscripts belonging to other religions including Yazidis and Muslims.

Michaeel asked that we not share his exact location. He's afraid ISIS could loot the precious collection that remains.

by Elizabeth Hagedorn

Videography by Yad Deen. Qaraqosh photos and video courtesy of Watheq Ghanem Majeed.


(15 May 2017)