Oldest Iraq monastery destroyed by ISIS; “Our Christian history is being barbarically leveled”

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery stood on the outskirts of Mosul since the 6th century.

On Wednesday the Associated Press published satellite images that confirm the destruction of the oldest monastery in Iraq. The Dair Mar Elia Monastery—or the Monastery of St. Elijah—appears to have been demolished by ISIS militants in August or September of 2014, according to the AP report on the satellite images:

Imagery analyst Stephen Wood, CEO of Allsource Analysis, reviewed the pictures for AP and identified the date of destruction between Aug. 27 and Sept. 28, 2014. Before it was razed, images show a partially restored, 27,000-square-foot religious building. Although the roof was largely missing, it had 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and chapel. One month later, “the stone walls have been literally pulverized,” said Wood.

“Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust,” he said. “There’s nothing to rebuild.”

The monastery had stood for some 1,400 years in the hills outside Mosul. US troops in Iraq had used it as a place of worship, and work had been done to restore the monastery after it sustained damage in the US invasion of Iraq. More from the AP:

In his office in exile in Irbil, Iraq, the Rev. Paul Thabit Habib, 39, stared quietly at before- and after-images of the monastery that once perched on a hillside above his hometown of Mosul. Shaken, he flipped back to his own photos for comparison.

“I can’t describe my sadness,” he said in Arabic. “Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically leveled. We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.” …

Those who knew the monastery wondered about its fate after the extremists swept through in June 2014 and largely cut communications to the area.

Now, St. Elijah’s has joined a growing list of more than 100 demolished religious and historic sites, including mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in Syria and Iraq. The extremists have defaced or ruined ancient monuments in Nineveh, Palmyra and Hatra. Museums and libraries have been looted, books burned, artwork crushed — or trafficked.

“A big part of tangible history has been destroyed,” said Rev. Manuel Yousif Boji. A Chaldean Catholic pastor in Southfield, Michigan, he remembers attending Mass at St. Elijah’s almost 60 years ago while a seminarian in Mosul.

The St. Elijah Monastery in 2005. (Image via Wikipedia)

The monastery, for centuries a holy site for Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics, was built in the sixth century. It was the scene of a massacre in 1743, when 150 monks who refused to convert to Islam were slaughtered by Persian invaders.

In 2008, journalist James Foley—who would himself be executed by ISIS six years later—published an article in Smithsonian about the St. Elijah monastery and efforts that were underway at the time to restore it:

[The monastery] was slammed by the impact of a Russian tank turret that had been fired upon by a U.S. missile as the 101st Airborne charged across the valley against the Republican Guard during the initial invasion in 2003. Then it was used as a garrison by the 101st engineers. Shortly after, a chaplain recognized its importance, and Gen. David Petraeus, then the 101st commander, ordered the monastery to be cleared and for the Screaming Eagle emblem to be wiped off the inner wall of the courtyard.

The eastern wall has concaved where the tank turret lifted into the brick and mortar. Inside the plain walls of the chapel, one shell-shaped niche is decorated with intricate carvings and an Aramaic inscription asks for prayers of the soul of the person interred beneath the walls. Shades of a cobalt blue fresco can be found above the stepped altar. Graffiti penned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers is scrawled in hard-to-reach places throughout. Shards of pottery of an undetermined age litter what might have been a kiln area. Only the stone and mud mortar of the walls themselves seem to remain as strong as the surrounding earth mounds, which may contain unexcavated monk cells or granaries, [cultural heritage advisor Suzanne] Bott says.

The topographical mapping will enable Iraqi archaeologists to peel back the layers of decay on the fortress-like house of worship with the early initials of Christ—the symbols of chi and rho—still carved into its doorway.

Foley’s 2008 article ends on a positive note, stating that the restored monastery will stand “for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it.”


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About Catherine Harmon 573 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.