The United States Army hopes to restore St. Elijah’s Monastery, an ancient site of Christian worship stuck in the middle of a base in northern Iraq (New York Times December 18, 2009) | Photo Tour of St. Elijah’s Monastery in Iraq.
- In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors.
- The site has never been studied or excavated. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.
- The monastery is believed to date from the late 500s, when Elijah, an Assyrian monk, traveled from what is now Turkey. It later became part of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
- The goal, Sergeant Miller explained, is to give St. Elijah’s “another 100 years of life — in whosever regime it is then.”
From a reader and fellow co-blogger at American Catholic recommends some additional articles:
- In Iraq, a Monastery Rediscovered, by James Foley. Smithsonian.com, September 16, 2008
- “Faith Amid The Ruins” Army Times August 27, 2007.
Some of the interesting points:
– Dair Mar Elia was occupied as a monastery for nearly 1200 years before all 150 monks living there at the time were massacred by a Persian leader in 1743 for refusing to convert to Islam. The monastery has been a ruin ever since.
– The local Christian population used to visit yearly on the feast of St. Elia, but this practice has mostly been abandoned since the 70s, when the Republican Guard built a major tank base around the monastery.
– During their 30 year occupation of the site, the Republican Guard used the monastery’s sistern as a latrine and Iraqi soldiers carved graphiti on the walls through the standing buildings.
– The area was the site of a major tank battle in 2003, and the eastern wall of the chapel was damaged at that time by a turret blown off an Iraqi tank (which was positioned right next to the chapel).
– Coalition troops at first had no idea what the buildings were, and so painted over several areas of the monastery with white gloss paint, painted the 101st Airborne crest over the doorway, and most unfortunately, set the latrine waste in the cistern on fire. (Just for a good time? To get rid of the smell? Who knows…)
– Since army chaplains and the army core of engineers have set about restoring the monastery and trying to get it on the Ministry of Archeology and Culture’s list of historic sites, they’ve discovered additional graphiti carved in the monastery walls by crusaders in the 13th century, and also the tombs of the monks, which local Christians had believed to be lost or destroyed.
Whatever one thinks about the US’s mission in Iraq, it’s good to hear about this ancient monastery (long abused and unknown) is receiving some long needed restoration, and may in fact receive it long term through the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. And the Eucharist is once again being celebrated in a chapel which, for many centuries, was left empty, and in recent decades was actively mistreated. The stones once again witness the sacrements for which they were put in place. Those who put those stones in place could little imagine what would follow in the centuries to come. And yet, through it all, the sacramental life of the Church returns, Christ is present on the altar once more.