University of Toronto Professor Amir Harrak (top left) has spent his life studying Aramaic-speaking Iraq and Syria. The rich expression of Christianity in Mesopotamia, including this inscribed ceremonial cross of St. John’s Church in Qaraqosh (top centre), the mid-13th century Gate of Two Baptisms at Mar Behnam south of Mosul (right) and a 1653 genealogy of Jesus (above) are all threatened by the Islamic State Photos by Michael Swan and courtesy Amir Harrak

Scholar decries ‘plague’ wiping out history

By 
  • September 21, 2014

As Amir Harrak watched the news this summer, the Toronto scholar saw a history, culture and language that he devoted his life to understanding being turned to dust. Churches, monasteries, mosques blown up, libraries full of ancient manuscripts burned and the people who still speak and live according to the language of Jesus and his Apostles dispersed. The news out of Iraq could not have been worse.

Harrak’s 94-year-old mother and his sister had to abandon the family home in Mosul. The convert-or-die choice they were given was no choice at all.

“There is no question these people are really faithful,” the University of Toronto professor told The Catholic Register. “It is the faith and it is also the culture. Christianity is a frame of mind, it’s a way of living, it’s a system of daily life — religion and a way of life. If you take Christianity from them, you’re not just taking Christianity.”

Over decades of scholarship in the related languages of Syriac and Aramaic, Harrak has assembled an enormous photographic trove of ancient inscriptions carved into church walls and manuscripts from the monasteries of Iraq. His archive dates as far back as the 6th century. He has devoted his life to understanding the religious and cultural significance of the inscriptions and manuscripts — all the ways they relate to people’s lives and to history.

Soon, photographic archives may be all that’s left of these ancient records. The Da’esh, as the Islamic State calls itself, is blowing up churches and mosques where the inscriptions Harrak studies are housed.

“It’s fascinating as sculpture, but then also as literature,” he says of the buildings. “I worked with these stones, you know, for four years. These stones are part of my soul. I sat there, first deciphering and copying these inscriptions. And they are monumental. I had to use ladders and so on, measuring the thickness.”

Harrak compares Da’esh to an ancient plague.

One of the chronicles Harrak catalogued and studied was the journal of a 6th century Syriac bishop who walked from Palestine to a meeting at the Roman court in Constantinople. As he trudged through Syria and Anatolia (modern Turkey) a great plague went before him and he wrote of coming into empty villages and cities from which the few survivors had fled.

“He even says he fell ill himself and he would go to sleep at night and not know whether he would wake in the morning. I compare Da’esh to this plague,” said Harrak.

The scholar has no idea how much of his subject remains to be studied.

“When Da’esh went in (to Mosul) I heard they burned many manuscripts. My mind went there. What happened to the Mar Toma, St. Thomas’s collection?” he asked. “Two days ago (Sept. 10) somebody sent me an email. Apparently, just before Da’esh went into Mosul a group of scholars from the Netherlands went and scanned the manuscripts. So that’s the good news.”

But the fate of the original priceless manuscripts remains unknown. And that’s only one of the many libraries.

“There are manuscripts belonging to the Chaldean patriarchate. We’re talking about 3,000 manuscripts, and some are truly unique,” he said. “I have no idea what happened to them.”

Mosul’s dry and moderate climate makes it almost the perfect place to store ancient manuscripts. The only threat is war.

“Many times they (manuscripts in the Chaldean Patriarchate library) travelled during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). When the American invasion took place (2003) they were taken to the North. And when the insurgency in the North took place (2011) they were taken back to Baghdad.”

Since then, some manuscripts made their way back to Mosul.

“And then from Mosul, I have no idea. We’re talking about some really unique things,” Harrak said.

But Christian Iraq is not a museum. The loss Harrak feels most is the loss of Aramaic as a living language. Living in Toronto, he sees what happens to diaspora communities. The language will last for a generation or two, but at some point the children will begin to marry outside their community. They will go to school and church and movies and the mall all in English. For 3,000 years Aramaic was the first language every Christian baby learned in Mesopotamia. It wasn’t just the language of liturgy and prayers. It was the language of buying tomatoes and teasing your little sister and poetry and dreams.

Arabic swept in with Islam in the 8th century, but the Christians kept speaking Aramaic and Syriac. In Mosul and on the plain of Nineveh Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side, each preserving their own culture and sharing a basic understanding of family, history and community.

“This is gone now, or going,” said Harrak.

The Jews of Iraq were cleansed out of the country in 1948 as part of the Arab world’s angry reaction to Israel’s founding.

“You know, Judaism has exercised great influence on Syriac Christianity,” Harrak said. “It was, first of all, the same language. Take architecture, for example. The ar-chitecture of a Syriac church is a synagogue.”

Most churches being blown up by the Islamic State were built after 1743, financed by Sultan Mahmud I. The sultan, who was also caliph of the Ottoman Empire, built the churches in gratitude to Christians of the region who held back the Persian forces of Nadir Shah. While those churches themselves may be quite recent (a mere two and-a-half centuries old) they were built within a tradition and linked back to the churches of the 5th and 6th centuries.

“The plain of Nineveh was a refuge. For at least 14 centuries of Islamic rule, Christianity before the Mongol period, basically before 1400, Christianity was everywhere — in Asia, in China,” said Harak. “By the end of the 14th century, Christianity was wiped out in those regions (east of Iraq and southern Iraq). The Christians who did not convert to Islam, they were massacred or whatever. They (Christians) sought refuge in Mosul, in the plain of Nineveh. It had been, for so many centuries, a refuge.”

Christianity’s refuge on the plain of Nineveh has fallen and with it a history, a culture and a language. 

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