Earlier this week, Christians returned to their hometown of Keramlis, a town in the Nineveh plain, three weeks after Iraqi forces recaptured it. But their return was heartbreaking. Their beloved church and their houses were desecrated and demolished.
Two years ago, they and others in the region had to abandon their homeland of nearly two millennia. Their devastating loss prompted a group of scholars at The Catholic University of America to ponder how we might help preserve the record of their lives and their invaluable culture.
Our cross-disciplinary effort spans schools in the university, but has been centered in the Institute of Christian Oriental Research and Theology and Religious Studies to create a digital history project that is engaged in creating an online archive of the life and language of the Christian communities of the Middle East.
Americans know that Islamic State fighters, on order of their commanders, and with spectacular violence, destroyed numerous ancient sites in the lands they occupied in Syria and Iraq: in Syria, the ancient cities of Palmyra, Apamea, Dura-Europus, Mari; in Iraq, Hatra, Nineveh, Mosul Museum and libraries Nimrud, Khorsabad, and the Islamic holy sites Nebi Yunus and the Imam Dur Mausoleum.
Study of these ancient sites since the nineteenth century has made them familiar to many in Europe and North America. Most also know that these are cities – along with those of ancient Egypt — associated with the beginnings of civilization.
Yet ancient Christian sites also fell to ISIS, adding to the toll of places destroyed in the Syrian civil war: Mar Elian in Syria, and Mar Behnam in northern Iraq, both ancient monasteries occupied until their destruction – the first in August, the second in March of 2015.
Both sites dated from the ancient period, both had been sites of worship and religious community; the ancient portions of both buildings have now been obliterated. It is easy to find photographs of these monasteries, both before and after their destruction.
Many Americans also saw ISIS’s hideous executions of people who resisted their rule: images and videos of gruesome scenes of their deaths were circulated on social media. Harder to depict was the slower, grinding destruction of the homes and towns, the human culture of the region – a destruction that has come about since the onset of the wars in Iraq and later Syria, and accelerated with the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
When the latter invaded the Nineveh Plain in the summer of 2014, whole communities fled by cars or on foot; they became displaced in their own country, pushed up to the far northern region of the Kurdish Autonomous Republic, or refugees in a nearby country – Jordan or Turkey.
Like the Yezidis and other non-orthodox Islamic groups in the region, they were enjoined to convert, pay the jizya, or die – but most chose flight, and many are still in camps today.
Many in the West do not realize or forget that Christianity originated as a Middle Eastern community. Its history there is long, starting among the Jews of Judaea and Syria, and having put down roots very early in Syria– there were already Christians in Damascus before the apostle Paul visited in the fifties of the first century; from nearby Antioch missionaries may have taken the religion to Edessa (modern Urfa, Turkey) and others, further south and east to contemporary Erbil and to Mesopotamia.
In other words, while Christians formed communities in Greece and then westward in Rome, there were already church communities in Syria and Iraq.
In those regions – behind the eastern Mediterranean coast – Christians spoke and worshiped largely in a form of the Aramaic language called Syriac. Christians in the Middle East now speak a variety of languages – including Arabic and Turkish.
But many still speak a language derived from that Aramaic of the early first millennium: Neo-Aramaic, spoken by Christians and also by the Jewish residents of Iraq who left in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel. In the Neo-Aramaic language is a rich store of daily expression, of song and of poetry – it is this language in which Christians of northern Iraq conducted their daily lives and handed on their customs.
Our digital history team recognizes that this language and culture is precious – and endangered – along with those who speak it in its native land. With the help of suggestions from colleagues at Catholic University and elsewhere, we organized in the fall of 2014, planning to build connections with members of the Iraqi Christian communities here in the United States and in Erbil, in northern Iraq.
We decided to concentrate on the histories of people now reaching old age, in order to record their memories of life in Iraq, and also of the music, city life, religious life, and other aspects of community organization in the Middle East. We eventually established a website to which we could add digital records indefinitely, distinguished according to community: Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, and so on.
For the last two years, we have worked with members of the Chaldean Catholic community, both in Michigan and in Toronto, and when possible, in other locations. We were fortunate to have gained both private and public funding.
Along with community partners, we have collected over forty interviews – some of them in English, some of them in neo-Aramaic. To these we’ll add scanned documents and photographs, many from community members.
We are a collaborative group of professors, staff and students who have learned to work cooperatively with community leaders – including most importantly Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States and his tireless deacon and assistant – to gather the voices of the exiles of the Christian community.
Some, arriving decades ago, have flourished in the United States; others have come recently, showing the deep strain of the peril of life in their native country. All witness to a vigorous Christian community, nearly twenty centuries old, near the great rivers of Mesopotamia, that is now being uprooted.
Our work, we hope, will contribute to a permanent record and establish a witness of the present Middle Eastern Christian communities for them, and for their children and grandchildren. The beauty of digital history is its collaborative quality: with the community, with each other, and with future readers – it creates a history open to the interpretations of other readers while it preserves the signs of a long and vital communal life.
Robin Darling Young is an associate professor of Church History at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.