Some years ago, I had the incredible privilege of sitting next to one of my heroes at dinner, a scholar named Donny George Youkhanna. If you don’t know the name, you are missing one of the greatest stories of modern culture.
A member of Iraq’s ancient Assyrian Christian community, Donny George, as he was known in North America, was director general of the country’s National Museum of Iraq, and in effect the dominant figure in that country’s archaeological bureaucracy in the Saddam era. During the anarchy following the invasion of 2003, looters poured en masse into the museums, plundering all the precious remains they could. The National Museum alone lost 15,000 artifacts. U.S. forces would not intervene to stop the crimes. They had no orders to do so. And nobody, of course, would run the risk of standing against armed and trigger-happy mobs.
Well, nobody except Donny George, who was used to being shot at to protect museum treasures.
He had faced down armed looters following the 1991 Gulf War, and again in 2003, he swung into action. By all the means at his disposal — pleading, bribing, cajoling, and calling in every favor he knew — he retrieved over half the precious objects. Local mosques were happy to help, as imams responded to his requests to tell thieves to return their booty. Donny George then went global, intervening with courts and governments to prevent the sale of black-market objects in the West. He kept up his campaign until death threats forced him out of Iraq. Worn out, perhaps, by his efforts, he succumbed to a heart attack in 2011, at the age of 60. Do remember his story the next time anyone tells you one person can’t make a difference.
It is estimated that over 100,000 books and manuscripts were destroyed when ISIS ransacked the Mosul Central Library.
In recent years, though, Iraq’s situation has become so desperate as to challenge the efforts of even a legion of Youkhannas.
The problem is one of extremes. Iraq is home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, dating back some 6,000 years, and in the intervening centuries, successive cultures have flourished in its soil. Hence, it has a concentration of ancient remains and treasures scarcely paralleled anywhere in the world. Those antiquities include countless treasures of successive religions, with so many places sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews, not to mention more obscure groups such as Yazidis. If anyone ever was seeking to damage the traces of human civilization, there could be no more target-rich an environment than Iraq.
And now, such groups have emerged in that region, due to the absence of any effective central government or law enforcement. For years, militant groups were content to plunder artifacts for their own profit, without any great iconoclastic intent. During the past decade, though, Iraq has become the base for the Islamic State, which is pledged to rooting up the material remains of all past cultures, including those of Islamic societies. The devastation they have caused has been heart-breaking. Islamic holy sites and Sufi Muslim shrines have suffered grievously.
Westerners hear about the crimes, and duly express sympathy for the destruction of antiquities. But few have any sense of the scale of what they are witnessing, and that is uniquely true of Christians.
To understand the situation, we have to think of a time when the three great languages of Christianity were Greek, Syriac and Coptic, when Latin was still marginal. The Syriac-speaking churches retained their vitality through the Middle Ages, at least into the 13th century, and they supported a network of great monasteries that were bastions of Christian learning and civilization. Although the community was gravely reduced in numbers over time, those churches and monasteries remained until modern times, with all their memories of ancient glory. Donny George’s Assyrian Church is the lineal descendant of that great Church of the East that once sent its missionaries as far afield as China, India and Java.
If we in the West knew more about such a vital part of Christian history, perhaps we would feel more immediately the ruin that is being inflicted on our collective past.
I won’t try to list the acts of destruction and iconoclasm that have occurred just within the past five years. Particularly traumatic was the burning of the Mosul library, with its books and manuscripts. But so many ancient religious houses also have fallen.
To illustrate the loss, let me tell one just story. According to medieval scholars, Behnam was the son of an Assyrian pagan prince called Sennacherib. On a hunting trip, he met a Christian saint called Mar Mattai, and was converted, around the year 350. The furious king ordered the killing of Behnam and his sister Sarah, and both became saints. In penance, the king granted land for the foundation of a Christian religious house, and this at a time when the Zoroastrian faith still dominated the area.
Whatever the truth of the story, a mighty monastery of Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah emerged on the site, and it survived from the late fourth century through the Middle Ages, enduring all the ravages of Mongol barbarians and Persian invaders. Amazingly, the monastery even retained inscriptions left by Christian Mongol pilgrims. The house survived, in fact, until March 19, when it was blown up by orders of the Islamic State. That atrocity took with it more than 1,600 years of Christian history, and destroyed the tomb of Behnam himself. The few remaining monks were expelled, taking with them only the clothes they wore.
On occasion, a handful of heroes can prevent the crucifixion of history. At other times, the onslaught of barbarism is simply too overwhelming.
Philip Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and author of “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.”