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)

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After World War I, the monastery became a refugee center, according to chaplain and resident historian Geoff Bailey, a captain with the 86th Combat Support hospital. Christians supposedly still came once a year in November to celebrate the feast of St. Elijah (also the name of the monastery's founding monk).

Because it became incorporated into the Iraqi Republic Guard base during the 1970s, professors from the school of archaeology at the University of Mosul had a limited awareness of its existence, but the monks of nearby Al Qosh have an oral and written memory of Dair Mar Elia, says Bott, who recently visited the monks.

Excavation and radio carbon dating would help transform the monastery into a truly understood historical site, but to do that the provincial reconstruction team needs both support from outside archaeological institutions like the renowned University of Mosul, the University of Chicago, which has experience in Ninewa, and more importantly the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. International nongovernmental organizations like UNESCO have also expressed interest in Ninewa since Hatra is listed as a World Heritage Site.

Security is a stumbling block in all cases. The archaeology students from the University of Mosul were invited inside the secure U.S. base to work on the monastery excavation, says Diane Crow, a public diplomacy officer in Mosul. Then, in June, a dean in the College of Agriculture was assassinated. Crow says she's hopeful she can persuade students and professors to come in the fall.

"It's not that people don't want to preserve the sites, it's that right now they're scared. I don't know if someone who's not here right now can understand that or not," Crow says.

In the sense of its ecumenical and tumultuous passage, the St. Elijah Monastery is emblematic of Ninewa Province, still caught in the deadly struggle between insurgents and Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S. 3rd Artillery Regiment, which currently patrol the ancient city.

The first day on patrol with the 3/3rd ACR we passed churches and mosques along the Tigris. The second day we witnessed a car bombing that killed and wounded Iraqis in an attempt to target a senior Iraqi Army commander. Mosul is still as violent as it is beautiful, although attacks against U.S. soldiers have decreased significantly in recent months since the Iraqi-led Operation Lion's Roar.

"There's always the perception that Mosul is falling," says Capt. Justin Harper of Sherman, Texas, who leads a company of soldiers on regular patrols to support the Iraqi Police. "Mosul is not falling. The enemy is trying all the actions it can, but if anything, the government is legitimized in how it can respond."

For the soldiers back on base who get to tour the Dair Mar Elia, it puts a human face on Iraq, Bailey explains. "They see not just a place of enemies. They also see cultural traditions and a place to respect."

"This is how progress is actually measured when it is considered against the backdrop of millennia," Bott says. By the end of the week, the ancient monastery will be transformed into a three-dimensional CAD model for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it.

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