A LABORATORY OF DEMOCRACY
Get out your calculators! The population of Iraq according to the CIA Factbook is a little over 24 million. The percentage of female population is a little less than 50 percent, and the ethnic makeup of Iraq is as follows:
5% of 24 million equals 1.2 million. We already know that there are well over one million “Chaldo-Assyrians” in Iraq, and perhaps just a little over half a million Turkmen. For sake of discussion, let’s stick to CIA’s figures and assume that our of every 100 Iraqi, there are 75 Arabs, 15 Kurds, 5 Assyrians, 2 Turkemen, and 3 Others.
Soon the Iraqi citizens will go to the polls and vote for their countries first leadership council. Until then the world is at the mercy of the U.S. planners and their “Made in Washington” slide rulers.
A truly democratic representative council in Iraq must have a minimum of 5 % “Chaldo-Assyrian” representation and a significant proportion of this council should be represented by women. For that matter, Assyrians must take the first step in demonstrating their desire for a genuinely democratic representation and elect at least one Assyrian woman to the Council.
If Iraq is to become what Thomas Jefferson called “the laboratory of democracy” then any current or future elections ought to reflect the broad ethnic and political spectrum of Iraq, keeping in mind the important role that women will play in the reconstruction efforts with this society – both psychologically and in the workforce.
THE ASSYRIAN FROM CONNECTICUT
The sun had already set by the time our plane landed at the J.F.K. Airport in New York. My brothers and I were firmly clutching each others’ hands as our parents briskly walked us from one immigration line to another. This was our first day in America. The daunting experience of seeing so many new faces and hearing equally more angry words was quickly mitigated by finding a familiar face among the crowd.
Abraham “Zaya” George had come to greet us at the airport. Remon, my cousin, and Zaya were married a year earlier in Tehran and were now living in Connecticut where Zaya and his family had settled since early 70’s. Zaya had immigrated to the U.S. in 1969.
While my family’s journey continued on to California, Zaya and his family remained in Connecticut and shored up a slowly-growing Assyrian immigrant community. A majority of Assyrians in Connecticut have been living around the New Britain area since early 1900’s - not too far from where my family resided for a few years.
In the last 10 years or so, Zaya served several leadership posts on Assyrian local and national levels. Several times he was appointed the Eastern Regional Director of the Assyrian American National Federation and elected president of the Assyrian Association in New Britain. He remained committed to improving the welfare of the small Assyrian community in Connecticut and the East Coast region until his passing away last Friday at his home in Farmington, Connecticut. He has been battling cancer for three years. Zaya was 57.
As with most cancer patients, Zaya’s body had slowly transitioned into an emaciated figure wracked with pain. But his spirit was as strong as I remember him on our first encounter. His pain and disease were never a topic of our telephone conversations, rather the future of the Assyrians in America, the circus-like affairs of the Assyrian American National Federation and Zinda Magazine.
Zaya George was a compassionate realist, both as a father, husband, and civic leader. He had an heightened awareness of the issues facing his family in Connecticut and his people in the U.S. His answer to every challenge was the same: Let the young take charge and encourage greater public participation in politics. If only more fathers and the delegates to the Assyrian American National Federation followed Zaya’s advice…
On that cold evening in January of 1979, Zaya’s presence was a source of comfort and reassurance for my family who had traveled to a foreign land during the political upheavals confronting Iran. He accompanied me to my first day at school and helped me and my brothers with our homework. In those days neither of us could speak a word in English. “What is your first name?”, asked me the school principal of Eastern High School in Bristol, Connecticut on my first encounter with any school official in America. I was only 12. I looked at Zaya and asked in Assyrian: “What does the word ‘first’ mean?”
Abraham is survived by his beloved wife, Remon George; son Ladimer George; two daughters and a son-in-law, Monica and Ronald Linstruth, Bianca George; a brother, Isaac Bet George, all of Farmington; two sisters, Marlene Petros of California, Cecelia Givargiznia of Farmington; and several nieces and nephews.
Funeral rites were held on Tuesday at St. Thomas Assyrian Church of the East in New Britain and officiated by the Rev. Gabriel Brakhia.
Donations in Abrahams memory may be made to the Assyrian Aid
Society, 350 Berkeley Park Blvd., Berkeley, CA 94707. To extend
condolences to the George Family, please visit
I took on Zaya’s challenge on my sixteenth birthday and given a little opportunity immersed myself in the affairs of my people at all levels. My ambitious plans continue through this publication and in an advisory capacity.
Zaya, thanks for believing in me and our youth.
You’ll always be missed.
THE ASSYRIAN AMERICAN LEAGUE
The Assyrian American League was established on April 25, 2002 to “promote the political and social well-being of all Assyrians through educational activities and through lobbying activities at the national level.” Congressman Michael Flanagan was engaged by the AAL on April 1, 2002 (Kha B’Neesan) as the Washington, D.C. representative and lobbyist for the AAL. Though independent, the AAL solicits input from all Assyrian organizations who choose to participate.
Congressman Crane, Chairman, Trade Subcommittee, House Standing Committee
on Ways and Means, and former U.S. Presidential Candidate, the honored
guest and keynotespeaker of our inaugural fundraising dinner, stated
wholeheartedly, “I applaud the Assyrian Community for their
active participation in the political process.” He went on
Largely because of the efforts of the Assyrian American League (AAL),
Congress is becoming increasingly aware of the contributions and needs
of the Assyrian-American community.” He concluded by saying
“ Long a friend of democracy and the rights of the individual,
Assyrians have flourished in the United States to become a very important
Assyrian activism has been building an impressive track record among
members of Congress and the State Department. On March 15, 2002, then
Congressman Rod Blagojevich, Illinois Fifth Congressional District,
and current Illinois Governor, wrote to President Bush on behalf of
the Assyrians. Eighteen Members of the U.S. House of Representatives
joined him. The members, including the Assyrian community’s
own Anna Eshoo, California Fourteenth Congressional District, asked
of the President to support constitutional recognition of Assyrians
in Iraq. The Congressmen stated that “The Assyrian Community
has faced systematic terror campaigns in Iraq and Assyrian
This letter had come on the heels of a successful meeting with The
Honorable Henry J. Hyde, Chairman House Standing Committee on International
Relations, Illinois Sixth Congressional District, on November 17,
2001. Mr. Hyde’s committee has been an invaluable ally of the
AAL and Assyrians. Through the work of the AAL’s lobbyist,
Paul V. Kelly, Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, responded
on May 7 to Mr. Hyde’s questions, confirming the long-standing
Arabization campaign within Iraq, including the ban on Assyrian names.
Secretary Kelly wrote “the Kurdish dominated administrations
in Northern Iraq tell us they are both committed to providing all
Iraqis, regardless of ethnic or religious background, equal treatment.”
In addition, “Assyrian schools teach using the Assyrian language.
Assyrian parties are allowed to print Assyrian language newspapers
and broadcast Assyrian language programming on radio and television.
Assyrian villages and churches destroyed by the Iraqi government have
been rebuilt. Assyrian political parties participate in the regional
administrations.” The AAL will work with Congress and the U.S.
State Department to ensure equal treatment of Assyrians by the Kurdish
administrations in North Iraq. To date the Kurdish track record has
We are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously distinct, and
thus must have our rights protected by the majority, which share none
of these three qualifiers with us. However, like them, we are Iraqis
and wish to build an Iraq where all of its citizens, irrespective
of language, ethnicity, and religion, can participate in the building
of a free, multiethnic,
Our activities directly resulted in the now-famous Presidential speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the President of the United States mentioned, for the first time in history, the Assyrians by name. Shortly thereafter, the AAL prevailed upon the President to expand the Iraq Liberation Act to include the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
The AAL has developed, with the help of a professional and intellectual activist ad hoc advisory group, a set of demands. Our single proudest achievement has been the groundswell of support from Assyrians from around the world who email and call us to volunteer to help us in our work. I am humbled by the words of encouragement which come from our intellectuals, students, professionals, and business leaders. We are told that they see for the first time a truly mature and professional approach to solving our nation’s dilemma. We are preparing position papers. We plan a rollout of our platform in Washington, DC in the not-too-distant future. We have hired a tireless and highly
skilled executive director, Mr. Pete Dagher, a former Congressional candidate. After the Chicago office is fully established, we will set our sites on opening the DC office. We plan outreach initiatives with domestic groups whom we feel can lend support, as well as with pertinent Near Eastern countries.
The AAL has made preliminary contacts with various concerned organizations,
in particular, Cultural Survival, an organization dedicated to the
promotion of the rights, voices, and visions of indigenous peoples.
After early interviews with and reports on Assyrians and the AAL,
the organization has remained interested in our plight, regularly
Various American Christian organizations have reached out to the Assyrian American League, including UNI News, a network of 50 Christian radio stations, who carried interviews with the Assyrian American League. ReligionJournal.com, an internet publication, has taken up our issues with timely reporting. Major mainstream, national media organizations, have reached out to the Assyrian American League, soliciting our opinions, positions, and information relating to Iraq.
These have included the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, and Sixty Minutes.
Among our achievements over the past year has been the building of
close working relationships with various important members of the
Administration’s Iraq policy team team. Henry Hyde, Chairman
of the House Committee on International Relations, has been an Advocate.
We are in regular contact with important Congressional staffers on
We are in regular contact with the State Department’s Iraq desk. Many of you may remember that the Assyrian American League hosted a meeting between the State Department and a number of our Assyrian political organizations at our last Federation
Convention in Detroit: Our Assyrian political groups made an important show of unity at that meeting. The Chaldean Federation and the Syriac Universal Alliance representatives present underscored the oneness of our people.
We have met with the President’s Special Envoy to Free Iraqi’s,
Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, and pressed the importance of Assyrian participation
in any meetings regarding Iraq, most importantly, the Ankara meeting,
the last such opposition meeting before Iraq was liberated. Assyrian
representation was to be determined by Assyrians, a point the Kurds
We have made important contacts with influential American Catholics and have conveyed our sense of concern with the fringe, disruptive separatist movement of certain Chaldean Bishops. On another front, we have begun preliminary discussions with individuals involved with the Knights of Malta to build a medical mission hospital in Assyria.
We have met with the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, to press our short and long term interests. We are in agreement that an independent Kurdish state on Assyrian land is unacceptable
Our activities over past year have culminated in the the formulation of a series of principles and demands that the Assyrian American League plans to put to the American Administration. We are planning a “Washington Week,” in conjunction with a major think tank to begin this process and formally introduce it.
1.) a democratic and secular Iraq. Islam cannot be the religion of
State, otherwise nonmuslims are immediately relegated to second class
citizen status. The governing law of a new Iraq cannot be based on
Sharia. Anti-apostasy laws, an important source of the loss of our
people, and their inherited wealth, must be rejected.
3.) constitutional recognition of Assyrians as a distinct ethnicity within Iraq and as the indigenous people of Iraq. We are not Christian Kurds. We are not Arab.
4.) right of return of the Assyrians of Iraq.
With these principles in hand, we are embarking on our most ambitious project to date, the establishment of the Assyrian Congressional Caucus.
Dr. Ronald Michael
ZOWAA TO BE REPRESENTED AT THE INTERIM COUNCIL
(ZNDA: Baghdad) Confirmed reports to Zinda Magazine from Baghdad indicate that on 6 June, between 6:00 & 9:00 in the evening (Baghdad Time), a meeting presided by U.S. top official - Mr. Paul Bremmer- and the major political parties in Iraq was held at the Conference Palace (a former palace of Saddam Hussein).
The Assyrian Democratic Movement was represented at this behind-closed-doors meeting by Secretary General Mr. Yonadam Kanna & Mr. Ishmael Benyamin.
According to information obtained from Baghdad, within 4 to 6 weeks from today a “Political Council of Leadership” will be established in Iraq made up of 25 to 30 individuals, including Mr. Yonadam Kanna of the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
The council would be the interim administration in Iraq and its members would be considered ministers and would oversee all aspects of Iraq's internal affairs.
In accordance with a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council last month, the ultimate authority in Iraq will remain with the U.S.-backed coalition until a new Iraqi government is chosen following nationwide elections. The process could take as long as two years.
The council would also be responsible for working with a separate, much larger group of more than 100 Iraqis that would draft a new Iraqi constitution, setting the stage for a national referendum followed by nationwide elections.
PATRIARCHS ENDORSE ASSYRIAN DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT, COMPOUND NAME
(ZNDA: Damascus) Zinda Magazine has learned that His Holiness Patriarch Mor Ignatios Zakka I Iwas, spiritual leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church, has asked his bishops and clergy in Iraq to grant full support for the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
In a show of unity among all Syriac-speaking churches in Iraq, Mor Iwas declared his endorsement of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in a recent meeting in Damascus between the heads of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the ADM representatives in Iraq.
His Holiness was born in the city of Mosul, Iraq where he completed his education in 1954. Mor Iwas was consecrated a patriarch in September 1980.
Last week, His Holiness Mar Addai II, Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East also commented in a private meeting of his approval of the use of compound name, put forward by the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
Sources close to Zinda Magazine in Baghdad commented this week
that the bishops and clergymen of five Syriac-speaking churches
in Iraq have openly endorsed the use of a compound name to designate
the identity of the Syriac-speaking people of Iraq. The five
Churches are the Ancient Church of the East, Church of the East,
the Syriac Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and
the Syrian Orthodox Church.
FOURTEEN ASSYRIAN FAMILIES RETURN TO HOMETOWNS
Courtesy of the Turkish Daily Times (10 June)
Fourteen 14 Assyrian families, who immigrated from Elbegendi village in the Midyat district of Mardin to settle in Germany and Switzerland, will return to their homes.
The village is preparing to welcome these 14 families, who left their hometowns almost 20 years ago due to terrorism.
The Assyrian families will have 14 villas constructed in their village, each villa will cost between TL 80-170 billion.
Turabdin Metropolitan General Secretary Yusuf Begtas, in his interview to state- run Anatolia news agency, said that the villas will be constructed in conformance to the historical texture of Midyat and the families will meet the expenditure with their own opportunities.
Stating that the telephone and electricity networks would be installed under the ground, Begtas said that some sport facilities will be constructed within the villas.
"Mardin Governor Temel Kocaklar supports this project. GAP Development Management will supply water with the help of a test bore. The families will restore the historic church in the village," added Begtas.
He also said that another 60 families, living in several countries in Europe, wanted to return to their hometowns.
Courtesy of Zenit News Agency (4 June)
(ZNDA: Madrid) Catholics in Iraq are feeling persecuted by Muslim fundamentalists, and Baghdad has turned into a lawless city, says a Spanish missionary.
Father Ángel García, founder of the Catholic organization Messengers of Peace, has just returned from Iraq, where he supervised a contribution of humanitarian aid to that country.
The priest said he witnessed firsthand the sufferings and hardships being endured by the people of Baghdad and Basra.
"Baghdad is a lawless city where there is even greater fear of being assaulted or attacked than of dying from bullets," he said.
"Workers have not been paid their salaries for three months," he added. "Garbage piles up in the streets, temperatures are extreme, and now there is a shortage of gasoline."
The greatest efforts of his organization are focused on hospitals where, because of the lack of electricity, "incubators are useless and infants are put in plastic bags" to maintain their temperature, he said.
Of the Catholics he said: "They are scared, because they see themselves persecuted."
In Basra, where Father García met with the Chaldean-rite bishop, two Christians were killed. The Iraqi clergy is also being persecuted by fundamentalists, he said. "Some have even had their crucifixes trampled on, because there is no security there."
Father García is counting on prayer and the action of political authorities and international organizations during the period of reconstruction.
"We must cry out at the top of our voices for public order and security to be restored," he said. "The time has come to speak out to win the peace in Iraq, because it has been lost."
BAGHDAD MUSEUM TO REOPEN IN JULY, EL NINO TABLETS MISSING
Courtesy of the Jordan Times & ABC News (10 June)
Baghdad's famed antiquities museum, ransacked by looters as Saddam Hussein's rule crumbled, will reopen next month after many of the treasures feared lost forever were found stashed in secret vaults around the city.
Museum research director Donny George said that among the items on show would be the Treasure of Nimrud, a priceless set of gem-studded gold Assyrian jewelry that has been displayed only once, briefly, in the last 3,000 years.
Iraqi curators reported last month that over 50,000 items from the museum's catalogue of 170,000 entries were stolen from Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad since it was looted over six weeks ago.
But recent news from coalition forces in Iraq has contradicted those reports, saying original estimates of what was taken were exaggerated. American investigators said about 3,000 museum pieces were still missing, mostly not of exhibition quality. According to the head of UNESCO, Wolfgang Reuther, no one can accurately determine how much has been stolen.
Among the stolen tablets missing are believed to be the ones that can help climatologists unlock the secrets of El Niño, one of the most mysterious and destructive weather systems.
Researchers believe the tablets, written using a cuneiform text, one of the earliest types of writing, form the world's oldest records of climate change and could give vital clues to understanding El Niño and global warming.
The tablets record the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian empires, which once dominated the land now divided between Iraq, Iran and Syria. They outline the catastrophic collapse of the city of Ur more than 4,000 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died in a disastrous series of flash floods and severe droughts that may have lasted up to 30 years.
Dr Richard Grove, research director at the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex, believes a series of dramatic changes in ocean currents and global winds was responsible for the collapse of the civilisation. His controversial theory suggests that the El Niño he believes contributed to the fall of the Sumerian and Akkadian empires was one of the most severe of the past 5,000 years, and may have vital lessons for climatologists today.
Dr Grove said: "What happened was like a nuclear explosion. The cuneiform tablets of Iraq record in detail the almost complete collapse of pre-industrial agrarian societies due to extreme climate events lasting up to 10 to 20 years and possibly longer."
The tablets, known as the Lamentations of Ur, tell of the city's decline in about 2200BC. Thousands of other clay tablets, many the size of cigarette packets, form an everyday record of tithes paid to temples in the form of grain and livestock. About 80,000 tablets are thought to have survived looting at Baghdad's antiquities museum. But scholars fear thousands more are being plundered around the country.
Some 130,000 tablets are also housed at the British Museum in London. Dr Irving Finkel, of the department of the Near East, said: "We have had alarming reports of tablets being taken out of the ground. The record is very much under threat.
"Nothing is being taken from the Iraqi museum now, but sites
around the country are incredibly vulnerable. There is a very urgent
need for an authority to crack down on that."
IRAQI CHRISTIANS UNCERTAIN ABOUT THEIR FUTURE
Courtesy of Radio Free Europe (9 June); by Valentinas Mite
Iraq's Christians suffered discrimination and manipulation under the former regime. Although a few became high-standing officials in Saddam Hussein's government, the vast majority of the country's Christians could not count on the beneficence of authorities in Baghdad. Now, some Christians say the United States has won the war but is still far from winning the peace -- something that leaves them wary about the future.
Baghdad, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's small but diverse Christian community is divided in its stance on Saddam Hussein. Some remember him as a tyrant and say they are pleased he has been ousted. Others say he was their sole defender in a largely Muslim country.
William Nurvyn is a Catholic from a family with British origins. In his 30s, he belongs to the generation of Iraqis who remember no other leader beyond Saddam Hussein. With a comfortable house and Sylvester Stallone-like muscles, Nurvyn seems largely untouched by the difficulties experienced by so many Iraqis under Hussein's regime and the years of sanctions.
He says his family experienced no harassment during the former regime, and he knows of no Christians who did.
"We were not harassed by anybody, and nobody could harass us because we were backed by Saddam Hussein and he liked the Christians and gave them all freedom," Nurvyn said.
Nurvyn says a number of Christians were included in Hussein's entourage, including, most notably, former Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz. But others say Aziz's success was due not to his religion but to his political skills.
Ara Karabed is a member of the Armenian Orthodox Church. He says that, as a Christian, he felt no pressure from the former regime. But he also says he has no sense that the Christian minority was ever given special treatment, and that Hussein treated many people the same regardless of their religion.
"[Hussein] protected Christian people in some ways, but when [a person] turned against him he did not care if he was a Christian, a Shi'a or a Sunni," Karabed said. "He killed [that person] or did something bad to him or put him in jail. He was bad to all of the people, you know."
Father Yousif Thomas Mirkis is a pastor at Al-Fikr Al-Masih, a Baghdad church run by the Catholic Dominican order. He is also the editor in chief of the Arabic-language magazine "Christian Thought."
He says the roughly one million Christians living in Iraq often felt unsafe and dependent on Hussein's goodwill. "It is wrong to say that Saddam supported Christians," Mirkis says. "But like all dictators he used a small community's fears to manipulate it and act as its defender."
Mirkis says some 200,000 Christians have emigrated from Iraq over the last 20 years. Many of them left after the 1991 Gulf War, when the largely secular Ba'ath Party turned to Islam to fill the ideological vacuum created by Iraq's defeat.
Mirkis says Hussein put forward many laws aimed at converting the country's Christian community: "If a Christian man or his wife becomes Muslim, automatically their children become Muslim. [No matter whether the parent is] a man or a woman, they are obliged to become Muslim and this was the law of the Ba'ath regime.
Muslims were also favored in Christian-majority towns, with Islamic religious instruction provided even in schools with a single Muslim student. Christian students, meanwhile, were often denied religious education or were forced to study the Koran.
Mirkis, who spent six years as a theology student in France, says Iraq's Christian community is small but unusually diverse, comprising Chaldean Catholics, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox and Nestorians (or Assyrians), and others.
The pastor says Iraq's Christians are also traditionally well-educated and claims many go on to enjoy prosperous careers.
"Even if we [make up] about 10 percent of the population [in Baghdad], we are 35 or 40 percent of the total of the engineers and doctors and educated people," he said.
Mirkis says the country's Christians have always thought of themselves as good Iraqi citizens. Many were strongly opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The Vatican's embassy is the only foreign diplomatic building that has not been evacuated, attacked, or looted, and Mirkis says two Baghdad hospitals run by the Dominicans also remain intact. Many people continue to seek refuge from looters by taking shelter in church buildings.
Iraq's Christian community remains strong, Mirkis says. But they are worried about the future.
"American wanted the war against Iraq, but will she win the peace? [America] invaded our country and now everybody recognizes it is a true invasion. They still have not succeeded at establishing peace and confidence among the population," he said.
Many Christians are also concerned that their interests will be lost in the rising power of the country's long-suppressed Shi'a majority. With Muslim religious sentiments on the rise, Mirkis says many Christians are nervous they will become the target of a fresh wave of oppression. He says many Christians are taking a string of recent attacks on alcohol shops -- many of which are Christian-owned -- as a warning.
"Our destiny," Mirkis says, "always depends on the
ideology of those who are in power." It was a phrase he repeated
several times throughout the interview.
PARIS EXHIBIT OF ICONS, MANUSCRIPTS BY 17TH AND 18TH CENTURY SYRIAN AND LEBANESE ARTISTS
Courtesy of the Daily Star (11 June); by Olivia Snaije
For the last seven months Europeans have had the opportunity to discover a hitherto little-known secret about Lebanon and Syria: A stunning group of 80 icons, principally from the 17th and 18th centuries, have been on exhibit first at the Frankfurt Icons Museum in Germany and currently at the Arab World Institute in Paris.
This exhibition, entitled Arab Icons: Christian Art from the Levant, is unusual because it features icons, manuscripts and a number of liturgical objects all from Lebanon and Syria, most of which have never before left their respective monasteries.
After the immensely successful show in Germany, Parisians are now absorbing the intimate atmosphere in the softly lit, rust-colored rooms of the Arab Institute, where a 17th century tempera on wood, St. Michael from Aleppo, shares the space with a beautifully restored icon of the Saints Serge and Bacchus on horseback from the Maloula convent in Syria.
The inspiration for the exhibition came from Sister Agnes-Mariam de la Croix. This entrepreneurial Lebanese nun, who has made it her mission to preserve the region’s icons, met Alexandra Bersch, the curator of the Frankfurt Icons Museum, several years ago and proposed that they organize an exhibit.
The museum agreed to a form of joint venture with monasteries in Lebanon and Syria, financing the restoration of icons in exchange for borrowing the best pieces for the exhibition. The restoration work was carried out in Lebanon in record time. While the Syrian pieces for the most part needed only surface cleaning, many icons from Lebanon had been severely damaged during the war or were extremely dirty from having been kept in storage.
“Our collaboration was also useful to the monasteries because they became aware of the value of their icons and how to take care of them,” said Bersch.
The result of this cooperative effort is the introduction of these Arab icons to a public far more familiar with Byzantine, Greek and Russian icons.
“In the immensity of Byzantine Art, which draws together Greek, Roman, Russian and Ethiopian traditions, the distinctive Arab features are unknown,” said Sister Agnes.
Even in Lebanon it wasn’t until 1969, when an exhibition of local icons was held at the Sursock Museum, that academics began to recognize the existence of a school of iconographers in the Levant. What sets the Arab icons apart is that, although their origins lie in Byzantine Art, the artists developed a particular style that integrated Arabic and Islamic elements into their work.
Icons, for Byzantine Christians, were not just decorative, but also
inspirational and regarded as objects of veneration.
Most of the early Arab icons, referred to as Melkite because Arab artisans of the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches painted them, were made in Aleppo. The city experienced an economic boom in the 17th century that greatly benefited members of the Christian communities, for the most part traders and craftsmen. During the art renaissance that followed, dynasties of painters were born, the most famous of which was the Mussawir family, who carried on the tradition for four generations.
The progression from Byzantine art toward a more local, Arab style is evident in the pieces in the Arab Institute exhibit.
Youssef al-Mussawir was a miniaturist, who illuminated manuscripts and began to paint icons during the first half of the 17th century. His Saint Simeon icon already had inscriptions in Arabic on it and he had included the Ottomans in the painting. His son, Nehmet, known as Al-Muallem (the master), continued in this direction and developed his own style.
A large icon of Saint George shows an explosion of color, in contrast to the more muted tones used in traditional Byzantine art, giving the painting an exuberant feeling. The dragon is jet black, with vermilion wings and Saint George is holding an Arab scimitar instead of a sword.
Youssef’s grandson Hanania and great-grandson, Girgis, incorporated even more Arab characteristics in their paintings, giving darker complexions to not only the saints but Christ and angels as well. They borrowed freely from Islamic art, using intricate decorations seen on Damascus wood panels or brocades; the manner of dress and other objects in the images are clearly regional.
“A lot of gold was used and worked on,” said Bersch.
“They embossed and engraved the gold. You can just imagine the
effect these icons had in a church, with the candlelight shining on
the gold making them come alive.”
“There is an individuality in each of his paintings,” said Sister Agnes. “You can almost pinpoint a specific geographical region in them.” Accordingly, the horses in his icons are Arabian, and his Saint George has Persian traits.
Another feature unique to Melkite icons and also evident in the manuscripts accompanying the exhibit is the juxtaposition of several languages and cultures. The Christians in the Middle East between the 13th and 19th century adopted Arabic as their language and set about translating philosophical and scientific texts in Greek into Syriac and then Arabic. Manuscripts were translated from Armenian and icons were inscribed in Greek and Arabic.
“Each piece is the result of an intermingling of three or four cultures,” Sister Agnes said.
Perhaps the best example of this rich cultural diversity is the very rare, 13th century manuscript recounting the legend of Barlaam and Joasaph. Never shown before, the manuscript, from the monastery of Balamand, Tripoli, is in the process of being painstakingly restored by hand in Arles, France. Several pages are exhibited in Paris alongside the icons. The oldest Arab Christian illuminated manuscript, it is the Christian transcription of the story of Buddha, written in Arabic.
When the preciously restored icons and manuscripts return home, many from the Saint-Sauveur convents in Sarba and in Joun but also from the Maaloula and Saydnaya convents in Syria, or to the Georges Antaki collection, their travels will have been a mission well accomplished. Fifty more icons will be restored beginning this summer and there is talk of opening an icon museum in Joun.
The interest in Melkite icons may be late in coming but it is surely growing.
[Z-info: Christian Art from the Levant runs until 17 August at the Institut du Monde Arabe, 1 Rue des Fosses Saint-Bernard, Place Mohammed V, Paris. It opens 10 am-6 pm Tuesday to Friday, and 10am-7pm Saturdays and Sundays.]
REV KEN JOSEPH IN TURLOCK & SAN JOSE
In the past three months, Rev. Joseph has spent his time helping the Assyrians of Iraq during their liberation by the Coalition of the Willing. Now, he is touring the USA and reporting his observations.
We ask YOU, our fellow Assyrians to come and hear him speak on the STATUS OF ASSYRIANS OF IRAQ PRE- AND POST-WAR
*For more information, please visit ASSYRIANCHRISTIANS.COM
Assyrian Universal Alliance
FATHER’S DAY PICNIC IN PALO ALTO
Wondering what is the best way to celebrate father’s day this year? No doubt every Assyrian father wants to spend his special day surrounded by his family, friends from church, soul food (rice and kabob), chai and nartakhta games.
So don’t spend any more time wondering what to do, start getting ready for our church Father’s Day Picnic:
Sunday, June 15, 2003
Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, California
There will be fun entertainment including music, dancing, and games.
Bring your Nartakhta (Backgammon), and Semavar.
Please RSVP by replying to this email or calling before Thursday 6/12:
Sargon Hermes 510-724-5902
Mar Narsai Parish
TOLERANCE THRIVES AMID SYRIA'S REPRESSION
Courtesy of New York Times (10 June); by
[Z-info: William Dalrymple is author of "From the Holy Mountain: Travels Among the Christians of the Middle East" and "White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India."]
LOST FROM THE BAGHDAD MUSEUM: TRUTH
When, back in mid-April, the news first arrived of the looting at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, words hardly failed anyone. No fewer than 170,000 items had, it was universally reported, been stolen or destroyed, representing a large proportion of Iraq's tangible culture. And it had all happened as some US troops stood by and watched, and others had guarded the oil ministry.
Professors wrote articles. Professor Michalowski of Michigan argued that this was "a tragedy that has no parallel in world history; it is as if the Uffizi, the Louvre, or all the museums of Washington DC had been wiped out in one fell swoop". Professor Zinab Bahrani from Columbia University claimed that, "By April 12 the entire museum had been looted," and added, "Blame must be placed with the Bush administration for a catastrophic destruction of culture unparalleled in modern history." From Edinburgh Professor Trevor Watkins lamented that, "The loss of Iraq's cultural heritage will go down in history - like the burning of the Library at Alexandria - and Britain and the US will be to blame." Others used phrases such as cultural genocide and compared the US in particular to the Mongol invaders of 13th-century Iraq.
Back in Baghdad there was anger. On April 14, Dr Donny George, the museum's director of research, was distraught. The museum had housed the leading collection of the continuous history of mankind, "And it's gone, and it's lost. If Marines had started [protecting the museum] before, none of this would have happened. It's too late. It's no use. It's no use."
A few weeks later - in London to address a meeting at the British Museum - George was interviewed for this newspaper by Neal Ascherson. George, said Ascherson, did not throw blame around, but did remark that most of the looters responsible for the damage were not educated.
On June 1, George was reported in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag as reiterating that witnesses had seen US soldiers enter the museum on April 9, stay inside two hours and leave with some objects. When asked whether he believed that the US military and international art thieves had been acting in concert, George replied that a year earlier, at a meeting in a London restaurant, someone (unnamed) had told him that he couldn't wait till he could go inside the National Museum with US soldiers and give it a good pillage - ie, yes.
So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves. And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.
Not all of it, of course. There was some looting and damage to a small number of galleries and storerooms, and that is grievous enough. But over the past six weeks it has gradually become clear that most of the objects which had been on display in the museum galleries were removed before the war. Some of the most valuable went into bank vaults, where they were discovered last week. Eight thousand more have been found in 179 boxes hidden "in a secret vault". And several of the larger and most remarked items seem to have been spirited away long before the Americans arrived in Baghdad.
George is now quoted as saying that that items lost could represent "a small percentage" of the collection and blamed shoddy reporting for the exaggeration.
"There was a mistake," he said. "Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the showcases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move."
This indictment of world journalism has caused some surprise to those who listened to George and others speak at the British Museum meeting. One art historian, Dr Tom Flynn, now speaks of his "great bewilderment". "Donny George himself had ample opportunity to clarify to the best of [his] knowledge the extent of the looting and the likely number of missing objects," says Flynn. "Is it not a little strange that quite so many journalists went away with the wrong impression, while Mr George made little or not attempt to clarify the context of the figure of 170,000 which he repeated with such regularity and gusto before, during, and after that meeting." To Flynn it is also odd that George didn't seem to know that pieces had been taken into hiding or evacuated. "There is a queasy subtext here if you bother to seek it out," he suggests.
On Sunday night, in a remarkable programme on BBC2, the architectural historian Dan Cruikshank both sought and found. Cruikshank had been to the museum in Baghdad, had inspected the collection, the storerooms, the outbuildings, and had interviewed people who had been present around the time of the looting, including George and some US troops. And Cruikshank was present when, for the first time, US personnel along with Iraqi museum staff broke into the storerooms.
One, which had clearly been used as a sniper point by Ba'ath forces, had also been looted of its best items, although they had been stacked in a far corner. The room had been opened with a key. Another storeroom looked as though the looters had just departed with broken artefacts all over the floor. But this, Cruikshank learned, was the way it had been left by the museum staff. No wonder, he told the viewers - the staff hadn't wanted anyone inside this room. Overall, he concluded, most of the serious looting "was an inside job".
Cruikshank also tackled George directly on events leading up to the looting. The Americans had said that the museum was a substantial point of Iraqi resistance, and this explained their reticence in occupying it. Not true, said George, a few militia-men had fired from the grounds and that was all. This, as Cruikshank heavily implied, was a lie. Not only were there firing positions in the grounds, but at the back of the museum there was a room that seemed to have been used as a military command post. And it was hardly credible that senior staff at the museum would not have known that. Cruikshank's closing thought was to wonder whether the museum's senior staff - all Ba'ath party appointees - could safely be left in post.
Furious, I conclude two things from all this. The first is the credulousness of many western academics and others who cannot conceive that a plausible and intelligent fellow-professional might have been an apparatchiks of a fascist regime and a propagandist for his own past. The second is that - these days - you cannot say anything too bad about the Yanks and not be believed.
ANCIENT ASSYRIAN TREASURES FOUND INTACT IN BAGHDAD
Courtesy of the National Geographic (6 June)
Gold jewelry and other precious items recovered from royal tombs excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, and objects from the royal cemetery at Ur, have been found where they were stashed for safety—in a vault below the Central Bank in Baghdad—before the onset of the Gulf War in 1990.
The 2,800-year-old treasures—which are regarded by some
archaeologists as rare and precious as the objects found in Pharaoh
Tutankhamun's tomb—were in three cases that had been sealed
and secured in the underground vault. The cases were not found
until last week because the basement of the bank was flooded,
possibly deliberately by bank officials as a way to protect the
treasures from looters.
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