By Penny Butler, PEF Committee Member and volunteer
For the last year or two I have been archiving the photographs of Olga Tufnell. Born in 1905 of comfortably off parents, she moved in well connected upper-middle class circles. She went to finishing school, and then her mother sent her off to help Flinders Petrie in Egypt. Thus began an extraordinary and successful scholarly career, achieved without an academic degree – a role model for women and an example of what you can do if you want to, even if you start off without qualifications.
In 1955 she spent a season at Max Mallowan’s excavation at Nimrud, in company with his wife Agatha Christie, who used to wash the newly excavated ivories in face cream, and many others who became archaeological luminaries. The group amused themselves by going on expeditions in the surrounding countryside, which was very remote and mountainous.
Imagine my amazement when I came upon a batch of snaps of what looked like monasteries high up in the mountains and their priests. The names were vaguely familiar to me and then I realised that some of these places had been destroyed by Islamic State just a few weeks before (Figs. 1-5). These were early Christian or Assyrian Christian establishments (Assyrian because they were situated in ancient Assyria), also called Syriac Orthodox, near modern Mosul and Qaraqosh, founded incredibly early, in the 4th century AD (CE). Just think that Christian proselytizers plodded all the way across modern Syria and modern northern Iraq. Even today the area is pretty isolated and then, as now, they served as sanctuaries from persecution. Up until recently, the monks were taking in people escaping from warfare as well as receiving many tourists and pilgrims. Now the only visitors are Kurdish troops taking a break from fighting.
The monastery destroyed by IS was Mar Behnam. Luckily, Mar Mattai has not suffered the same fate, though others have. In August 2014 the IS forces were moving on Mosul only 20 miles away, but they were stopped by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who now hold the road to the monastery.