In Iraq, a Monastery Rediscovered

Near Mosul, War Has Helped and Hindered Efforts to Excavate the 1,400-Year-Old Dair Mar Elia Monastery

The monastery from inside the ramparts at twilight. (James Foley)

A soldier scaled the fragile wall of the monastery and struck a pose. His buddies kept shouting up to him to move over some.

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He shifted to the left and stood the stadia rod straight to register his position for the survey laser on the tripod below.

The 94th Corps of Engineers of Fort Leonard Wood, whose members normally sprint to their data points in full body armor and Kevlar helmets, are making a topographical map of the ancient Assyrian monastery that until recently had been occupied by the Iraqi Republican Guard and then by the 101st Airborne Division in the once verdant river valley near Mosul.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery is finally getting some of the expert attention that the 1,400-year-old sacred structure deserves. These days it is fenced in and a chaplain regularly guides soldiers at Forward Operating Base Marez on tours of the ruins. The topographical mapping is part of a long-term effort to help Iraqis become more aware of the site and their own cultural preservation.

"We hope to make heritage accessible to people again," explains Suzanne Bott, cultural heritage adviser for the provincial reconstruction team in Mosul. "It seems pretty clear from other postwar reconstruction efforts, people need some semblance of order and identity" returned to them.

The provincial reconstruction team coordinated a trip for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to visit and appraise the key archaeological sites in Ninewa Province, such as Hatra, with its distinctive Hellenic arches, and Nimrud, home of the famous statues of winged bulls.

This past May, Iraqi archaeologists were able to visit the areas for the first time since the start of the war. While sites like the carved walls of Nineveh were in drastic need of protection from the sun and wind, the fact that many areas were largely unexcavated probably protected them from looters, according to Diane Siebrandt, cultural heritage officer for the U.S. State Department in Baghdad. Treasures like the famed gold jewelry of the tombs in Nimrud were transferred from the Mosul museum to a bank vault in Baghdad before the invasion.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery (or the Monastery of St. Elijah) was not so protected. It 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, 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. It was constructed by the Assyrian monks in the late sixth century and later claimed by the Chaldean order. In 1743 the monks were given an ultimatum by Persian invaders and up to 150 were massacred when they refused to abandon their cells.

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