In the Philippines, saving ancient history one scan at a time

WHAT REMAINS: The sun sets on buildings that have remained damaged since the Marawi siege more than a year ago on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Much of the archives of the Maranao people were destroyed by Islamist militants.

MANILA – Long ago, a princess was abducted and taken to a faraway island. A dashing prince rescued her and brought her to his home kingdom.

It sounds like the familiar fodder of a fairy tale. For some in the Philippines, however, it's one of the many plots in a centuries-old epic song called the "Darangen," which recounts the myths and feats of the Maranao culture from the southern island of Mindanao.

Now, a modern-day tale has been added to the lore: how a battle against Islamist militants destroyed some of the foundational texts of the Maranao people and how preservationists stepped in to digitize the pages that survived.

The effort is also another chapter in the wider reckoning over the cultural and historical destruction by the Islamic State and affiliated militias around the world – including damage inflicted on ancient sites and collections in Iraq and Syria.

In the Philippines, much of the archives of the Maranao, or the "people of the lake," were destroyed when Islamic State-affiliated insurgents occupied the city of Marawi in 2017 on Mindanao.

Manuscripts' content puts keepers at risk

The Maranao manuscripts – which include family genealogies, religious text, literature and cultural heirlooms such as the "Darangen" epic – represent some of the last remnants of a civilization that was mostly untouched by colonial influence over the centuries. They date between the 17th and early 20th century and are written in the Jawi and Kirim scripts that are now little used.

"The conflicts in the Philippines and Syria are two very different ones, of course," said Deborah Stolk, who oversees the cultural emergency response program for the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, which helped fund the preservation efforts.

The commonality "for all these manuscript owners is: The fact that they are keepers puts them at risk," she said, because the manuscript content has "a more moderate and fluid interpretation of Islam."

The Netherlands-based group helped support the digitization effort after the militants were driven from Marawi in late 2017. The five-month battle left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and resulted in billions in damages.

During the siege, the manuscripts were primarily destroyed from collateral damage. Mosques and Islamic schools – which housed archives and libraries – were left in ruins after occupation by militants and airstrikes by the military.

A Philippines-based heritage preservation initiative, Grupo Kalinangan, so far has digitized thousands of surviving pages of Maranao texts with the help of the Prince Claus Fund.

The manuscripts show that an ancient education system existed both at home and in schools in Maranao culture, said project head Jason Cristobal. The revelation is an important one, as the Muslim minority has faced a history of oppression in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

This elevates Muslims in Mindanao "from the status of being a tribe into a nation with a developing civilization," he said.

A subtle but profound loss

Destruction wrought by the Islamic State has touched some of the most important historical sites in the world.

In 2017, militants partially destroyed a Roman amphitheater in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. UNESCO condemned the action as a war crime and an "immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity." That same year, Islamic State fighters smashed pre-Islamic artifacts in the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.

The Philippines represented a loss that was more subtle, but still profound.

Even before the militants stormed into Marawi, strict Islamic scholars and followers – usually educated in Saudi Arabia – scorned folkloric practices and even encouraged the destruction of the ancient Maranao texts.

"Siege or no siege, the collections – whatever scraps are left of them – (are) rapidly going away," said Nasser Sharief, a manuscript collector and project consultant for Grupo Kalinangan.

'These precious materials ... must be preserved'

Many of the manuscripts have yet to be translated. According to UNESCO, the "Darangen" is composed of 17 cycles and 72,000 lines, with a narrative that covers love, death and politics. Performers of the epic, who typically chant and dance, are now few and far between.

"Because of what happened in the siege, it is quite clear that these precious materials are endangered and must be preserved for future generations," said Linang Cabugatan, director of the Aga Khan Museum at Mindanao State University. "The digitized manuscripts are one of the remaining (embodiments) of the cultural identity of the Maranao."

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