A few months ago, I noticed a plethora of posts on social media about the discovery of the hidden library of a former ISIS member who had stolen dozens of Syriac manuscripts from Churches and hidden them in the kitchen of his house in the city of Mosul, Iraq. This discovery and reactions to it can remind us of the importance of the role of social media for tracking and learning about the fate of numerous missing Syriac manuscripts, which were thought to be lost in times of war.
Some of the images of the discovery in Mosul which have been circulating on social media.
This is not the first time that social media has been used to publicise the discovery of Syriac texts following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq. A few years ago, posts on Facebook reported on how the Syriac Catholic monks of the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah could successfully hide their old manuscripts. They hid their manuscripts in metal barrels, placed the barrels in a room, and concealed the room by constructing a new wall. As such, when ISIS attacked the monastery in 2014, they were unable to find the manuscripts. If those at the monastery had been unable to conceal their manuscripts, these precious documents would have been burned, as was the case with other Church libraries in the Syriac villages of Northern Iraq (such as in Bartelle and Qaraqosh), or stolen, as was the case with the recently circulated story.
Some Facebook posts (including those by myself) on destroyed and damaged manuscripts from villages in Northern Iraq.
In the case of the discoveries at the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah videos and photographs were posted by members of the Church community when the monks recovered their hidden manuscripts from the barrels. Another series of Facebook posts in December 2016, informed the world of how manuscripts and artefacts were saved after the defeat of ISIS in Syriac villages, such as Bartelle and Qaraqosh, across Northern Iraq.
A selection of images of posts about recovered Syriac documents from Facebook.
We, therefore, witness again and again the importance of the role of social media (particularly Facebook, which is commonly used in the Middle East) in creating awareness about missing Syriac manuscripts and artefacts. The positive role of social media in publicising information about missing manuscripts is not limited to the dissemination of information originating in the Middle East (where it would be impossible for the majority of us to know what is really going on) to the general public, but also extends to the scholarly world. Social media offers a platform where scholars can pay attention to new findings (such as the recent discovery of Late Antiquity mosaics in the South of Turkey), and share and interact with posts from the Syriac communities whose members continue to interact with Syriac manuscripts in their daily lives. This can also lead us to consider the theme of “refugee-manuscripts” – the manuscripts which arrived in Europe during previous wars as Church members fled as refugees to different countries in the West. We can also witness how manuscripts were presented to monastery libraries, where they could be more adequately protected.
Digitzing “refugee-manuscripts” from Tur Abdin in Germany.
These short insights point to the significant role of the information collected and shared on social media and how these pieces of information could influence scholars and contribute to academic initiatives whilst also encouraging the protection of Syriac cultural heritage and manuscripts. As for the digital humanities, perhaps better attention should be paid to how we can employ these posts in our academic corpuses and how we can gather different sorts of knowledge including that which is shared on social media platforms. Indeed, some scholars of Syriac such as G. Kiraz, D. Taylor, and H. Murre van den Berg are already employing Facebook posts within their research to both gather and share information with the scholarly community.
A Facebook post by George Kiraz on recovered Syriac manuscripts.
Robert Kitchen, “The Reading List. Ascetical Reading in Mar Behnam Monastery (MBM 00364),” in Tracing Written Heritage in a Digital Age, edited by E. A. Ishac, T. Csanády, and T. Zammit Lupi (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, Forthcoming).