Raising the profile of a cultural treasure

A two-year project aims to spread the word about University’s Mingana Collection at home and abroad.

The rise of radical Islamist militant groups such as Islamic State has seen the persecution of many religious minorities in the Middle East. In recent months, tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians have been forced to flee northern Iraq. Ethnic and religious conflicts in the region are nothing new, but this Christian population is being forced out of lands they have occupied for at least two millennia.

Assyrian Christians trace their history back to the early days of Christianity in present-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The withdrawal Assyrian Christians from their homeland was a concern as long ago as 1913, when an ethnic Assyrian theologian, historian and priest named Alphonse Mingana found his way to Britain and Birmingham.

Under the patronage of Sir Edward Cadbury, Mingana made three trips to the Middle East in the 1920s where he collected a vast array of manuscripts and brought them back to Birmingham.

Today, the Mingana Collection is one of the University of Birmingham’s most important cultural assets. Held by the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections (CRL), it is made up of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts and associated artefacts. They were written in more than 20 languages, including Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew and Armenian, dating from 2,000 BC to the early 20th century.

With the continuing decline of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East, the Collection’s importance is growing.

“In the modern period, Christian communities in the Middle East have diminished and there is the present situation in northern Iraq,” comments David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at the University. “Many of the heads of the Assyrian and Chaldean churches are no longer found in their homeland; instead their headquarters are in Europe, the United States or Australia.

“More and more Assyrian Christians are leaving the region, so this whole history is in danger of being lost. When you consider that the communities we are talking about pre-date many of the Christian communities in the West, then we are at risk of losing very important elements of early Christian history. So the Mingana Collection is a repository of knowledge and wisdom that is of increasing importance today.”

Yet for a long time, the Collection has not received the attention it deserves.

“It has been widely unexplored,” says David Parker, the University’s Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE). “There is a lot of material that hasn’t yet been systematically researched.”

Professor Thomas agrees that the Collection is “largely untapped”, adding: “Parts of it have been photographed and are available on microfiche. It’s surprising how often scholars do refer to the manuscripts from the Collection. So it’s by no means neglected, but there is work still to be done on it and it could benefit from a greater awareness.”

This is one of the aims of a new £95,000 project, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, called Spreading the Word, which will help to give the Collection a higher profile, both at home and abroad.

“This two-year outreach project aims to improve the understanding, appreciation and use of the Mingana Collection through investigating and documenting the untold stories behind the manuscripts,” says Josefine Frank, the CRL’s Mingana Collection Development Officer. “The project will also test new strategies to engage a larger, more diverse audience with this significant Collection.”

Of particular are the Syriac manuscripts. The 662 items form the third-largest collection of its kind in Europe after the British Library and the Vatican Library.

“At the time of Mingana’s visits to the Middle East, there was a burgeoning interest amongst Western scholars in the knowledge that was available through the patrimony of the Eastern churches,” explains Prof Thomas. “The Churches of the East used Syriac, a Semitic language descended from the language Jesus spoke. Mingana was very interested in bringing Syriac works to Europe.

“The Syriac manuscripts in the Collection represent hundreds of years of intellectual debates on the nature of religion and Christianity. The texts also bear witness to the complex theological relationships with emerging Islam. New research over the last 40 to 50 years has discovered that a lot of works by early Christian writers reveal an awareness of Islam: to some extent influenced by it and also a reaction to it – such as conversion and martyrdom. So that’s an important element within the Collection that still needs to be further explored.”

The recent radiocarbon dating of Qur’an leaves held with the Mingana Collection to the mid-7th century is also important, not only because of the leaves themselves, but also for what they tell us about the development of Islam.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition, the divine message was collected into an authoritative written form less than 20 years after Muhammad’s death in 632.

“However, non-Islamic scholars have always questioned this,” explains Professor Thomas. “It’s been suggested that the Qur’an might have nothing to do with Muhammad or that it was added to and continued to be written for up to a century after his death. Although the leaves in Birmingham contain only a small portion of the Qur’an, they are certainly traceable to within 20 years of Muhammad’s lifetime. This suggests that the text of the Qur’an in the 7th century was not far from its present form. In other words, the result of the radiocarbon dating supports the traditional Muslim view. This is why they are of such significance.

“All these things are good examples of why the Mingana Collection is such a treasure to have at the University.”