U. S. troops stand guard over 1,400-year-old monastery

With Iraqi Christians a threatened and dwindling minority, U. S. forces are safeguarding a 1,400- year-old monastery — Iraq’s most ancient — for a time when peace, reconciliation and archeological detective work can occur. 

St. Elijah’s Monastery, with its main fortress-like structure looming atop a barren hillside, sits inside a sprawling U. S. military base. Its bloody history makes clear why the monastery needs protection. In 2003, it was damaged during the U. S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some 250 years earlier, it was nearly levelled by a Persian ruler who ordered its monks slain.

Below the thick-walled compound lies the embattled city of Mosul, dotted with mosques but also churches. The city, Iraq’s third largest, has seen a recent exodus of Christians reportedly sparked by killings and intimidation from Islamic militants.

With Mosul’s persistent violence preventing experts from carrying out restoration and excavation, the monastery has been “adopted” by the U. S. base’s chaplains, who’ve taken some 1,700 soldiers on guided tours through the compound this year.

“It’s a break for the soldiers and gives Iraq, the people, a human face. It helps them understand the history of the country in which they’re fighting so they can respect the people a little more,” Capt. Geoffrey Bailey said after leading 15 soldiers through the site.

Under the U. S. chaplains’ care, the monastery also has been used for an Easter sunrise service and a Catholic Mass. But along with spirituality, war has marked the history of the monastery, founded in the 6th century shortly before the advent of Islam in Iraq and not much later than Christian monasteries first appeared in Europe.

The U. S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division confronted an Iraqi tank unit holding the compound in 2003, and either a U. S. anti-tank missile or an Iraqi tank turret blown off in battle smashed into the eastern wall, leaving a large gash. Bullets pockmarked other walls.

The Iraqis had used the monastery’s ancient cistern, or underground water tank, to dump trash and sewage. When U. S. military engineers moved in, they painted their division’s “Screaming Eagle” emblem above the chapel door and added graffiti — “Chad wuz here,” “I love Debbie” — to that scrawled by Iraqi soldiers. The Americans also covered over ancient murals with white paint.

After a chaplain researched the site, the troops were evicted and the emblem was rubbed off, reportedly under orders from Gen. David Petraeus, then the 101st division’s commander and now head of all U. S. forces in the Middle East and West Asia.

A three-metre-high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire rings the monastery grounds and only chaplains have the keys. Areas believed to contain important relics are roped off.

“Imagine it’s morning and there is total silence. Then the monks emerge from their dark cells, chanting,” Bailey told a recent group of soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, in the largely roofless, rectangular sanctuary
Graphically, he portrays the monastic life that once flourished here — the monks offering food to wayfarers, painstakingly copying down sacred texts in the scriptorium, firing pottery in the kiln and praying within the vaulted chapel, where an altar, carvings and an inscribed prayer for the dead have survived.

With few records about St. Elijah’s in existence, Bailey says much of his narrative is “a big guessing game,” though one founded on a deep interest in monastic history and information collected by U. S. chaplains based here earlier.

What is known is that the monastery, also called Deir Mar Elia, was established by an Assyrian Christian monk and later claimed by the Chaldeans — these are the two main branches of Christianity in Iraq to this day. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, are carved near the entrance.

The monastery was a centre of the regional Christian community until 1743 when the Persian leader Tahmaz Nadir Shah ordered the murder of its inhabitants — as many as 150 people — and largely destroyed the buildings. Although in ruins, the compound remained a pilgrimage site and was partially restored in the early 20th century.

“It will be fascinating when conditions are right and experts come here to uncover the past. Over the centuries this monastery has had many owners. It still has a lot of stories to tell us,” said Bailey, a Baptist from El Paso, Texas