Emma Hart-Harris writes from the Middle East


On 4 June 2014, with a friend, I visited the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, near Alqosh in northern Iraq. The mood was relaxed and jovial. We had come from Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, a town full of tension and worried-looking gangs of men blocking the streets. Before that, we had stayed with Assyrian friends in the town of Ahmadi. They told us that their friends were fleeing from Mosul; and that their relatives in Dahuk were nervous, scared, and wondering what to do. The road to the monastery, following signposts to Mosul, had been solid with cars travelling in the opposite direction. Families with children, all laden with mountains of possessions, were fleeing ISIS for the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan; but we ploughed through the dust on the side of the road until, as we drove alongside Lake Mosul, the road became entirely empty. Three Peshmerga checked the taxi and our passports as we entered Alqosh, and we sped through the almost empty town to the winding road that leads spectacularly up the mountain to the monastery. At the bottom was an open gate, with two deserted guard posts on either side. We spurred the taxi on up the hill, and climbed further up to look inside the abandoned cells that honeycomb the mountainside. Eventually we plucked up the courage to walk to the monastery itself. There we found two Christian Peshmerga, camping happily in the refectory as if they had been sent to a gentle recovery post, far from all the action, and expected nothing other than a visit from tourists. We played with their guns, were shown round the monastery, posed for photos by the monastery bell, and finally settled down to share their lunch: delicious bread, cheese, and fresh tomatoes. Lake Mosul glinted in the distance.

This area – where Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet – is rich in Churches. The Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian, and Chaldean Catholic communities were the most prevalent as I travelled through Iraqi Kurdistan; but there were also the Armenians, as well as the Mandaean and Manchaean sects. The Churches have been forced to unite in the face of ISIS, and have formed united Christian militias like as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, who keep up strong political alliances with the Turkmen and Yazidi militias, and co-operate with the Kurdish Peshmerga, often coming under their command. More pertinently, the Christian groups of the area have offered sanctuary and shelter to each other, with one family often taking in four more. My Syriac friends in Ahmadi had been cooking pacha, a type of Assyrian haggis, for a feast – at which we were joined by some Chaldean refugees from Mosul. A debate over Nestorianism took up more than half the conversation, with charges of heresy flung gaily across the carpet. “Everyone is moving overseas”, observed my host. “Even a shred of shared heritage seems like an island.”

These shreds of shared heritage, however, are also linked to the places and the buildings in which Christians have lived, and in which their faith has been nurtured. The monastery of Rabban Hormizd is twenty-eight miles from Mosul. It is a Chaldean Catholic monastery founded in about 640 AD, and it has always been at the centre of conflict. Two effusive chronicles speak of the founding of the monastery, written in tetracolour by Rabban Hormizd’s disciple Simon, before the twelfth century. The Histories of Rabban Hormizd the Persian and Rabban Bar Idta tell of Hormizd’s birth into a wealthy Assyrian family in the countryside near Beth Lapat, in Sassanid-ruled Assyria. Purged of miracles, the chronicle narrates that he was on his way to Scetes when he was waylaid by the monks of Bar Idta. They were impressed by his piety, and it was only at the age of sixty-five – after thirty-nine years at the monastery of Bar Idta, and a subsequent seven years at the monastery of Abba Abraham at Risha – that Rabban Hormizd settled down in the village of Alqosh, where very shortly afterwards the villagers were so impressed by his asceticism and devotion that they built him a monastery half way up the range of mountains that encircle the plain of Mosul.  

The hagiography of Rabban Hormizd is built into the fabric of the monastery. Jules Leroy, in Monks and Monasteries of the Near East (Harrap, 1963), claimed that the Syriac reader could make out the whole history of the monastery from the inscriptions around the sanctuary. When Gertrude Bell visited in 1909 she was shown round by the Prior, Kas Elyas, and noted that “the main part of the church is 400 years old but still further into the rock are passages quite dark, leading into a tiny rock cut room with two rings in the roof from which Rabban Hormizd was accustomed to suspend himself.”

Asceticism and mysticism breathed out of every corner of the dark tunnels that we were led down by our Peshmerga guides. Entering the rock, we made our way through a series of tiny tunnels: in one we passed the tombs of the Patriarchs of the Eliya, ranging in date from 1497 to 1804 – an enduring legacy of Rabban Hormizd’s importance in the region. Some of them had been cruelly defaced and were unreadable, while others were in better repair. In the deepest cave the Peshmerga displayed a cross carved into the wall, which they walked towards with their eyes closed: the belief is that if your hands meet the target then the saint himself is present, guiding you.

In those dark caves and in the ancient baptistry, with its small dome on squinches and high barrel vault that gave it a sense of light and space and enduring peacefulness, it was impossible to imagine that a battle for Mosul was starting, an hour’s drive away. “They say here”, wrote Bell in 1909, “that this year the world is aman [peacefully safe].” In 2014 the area was entering a period of the worst brutality it had ever experienced.

Bell was there in a momentary lull, for the monastery has habitually been at the centre of conflict. It boomed as a result of Rabban Hormizd’s fame, but was founded in opposition to Monophysitism; and it was periodically raided by the Monophysites of Mar Matti, an already well-established monastery about 20 miles away. Further schism came in 1552 after Yohannan Sulaqa, a monk from the monastery, travelled to Rome and entered into communion with the Pope, thereby founding the Chaldean Catholic church. On his return he was imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the ruler of Ahmadi, at the request of his former patriarch. Further strife continued in the 18th century – the monastery’s spectacular defensive position did not save it from being so badly looted by the Kurds that it was entirely abandoned in 1743, with the monks going in ones and twos into the desert. It was re-populated in 1808 in spite of strong opposition from the See of Mosul, but in 1828 the priceless Syriac manuscripts in the library were looted by the Pasha of Soran; and in 1838 the Kurds killed more than ten thousand Christians and defaced the monastic icons. Finally, after more looting of manuscripts in 1868 the library moved down to the more strongly-walled monastery on the plain, which had been built in 1859 with assistance from the Vatican. There, in the working monastery of Notre-Dame des Semences, important manuscripts, some copied directly from the ancient texts, remain. Those texts are still a living, breathing record of the churches and culture of the East; but Syriac, even in those areas, is not on any school syllabus. Few people learn Syriac now, and those who are proficient are scattered across the globe.

It is not just the monks of the monasteries around Mosul who are suffering, however. The destruction of cultural heritage has been used by ISIS as its soft power. It is magnificent propaganda: books and buildings are destroyed, to be replaced by new books and new buildings. The terrible ethnic cleansing carried out by ISIS – which is well-documented, and now seems close to being stopped – is, simply put, the most outstanding feature of its campaign. The monastery of Deir Mar Elia, near Mosul, was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq before it was bulldozed; while the town below Mar Mattai on Mount Alfaf was home to the country’s largest Assyrian population before its occupation. But there are also the problems faced by the monks of Rabban Hormizd and the Peshmerga; the bulldozed churches of the Sur region of Diyabakir in Turkey; and the struggles of the Syriac Christians in north-east Syria, who are still often prevented from returning to their homes.

Christianity tries hard to support its persecuted outposts; but there is no disguising the fact that the very real persecution has been swallowed up in a much wider problem – one which has little space for the complexities of a minority religion. The scale of suffering among the Muslims and Arabs, the struggles of the Kurds, and the genocide inflicted on the Yazidis may make it seem partisan to support the sufferings of the Christian minority. We must and can, however, continue to support them – to ensure that their complexities are not forgotten amidst the clumsy game of chess that is the international fight for Mosul.

Emma Hart-Harris is a pseudonym.

The author lives and works in the region.