U.S. troops safeguard Iraq’s ancient 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 archaeological 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. About 250 years earlier, it was nearly leveled 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 an exodus of Christians reportedly sparked by killings and intimidation from Islamic militants.

History marked by war

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 about 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 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 sixth 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.

‘A big guessing game’

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.

“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 monastery was a center 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.

Forging a postwar identity

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.

Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage conducted a preliminary survey earlier this year and a visit by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural arm, is expected soon, said Suzanne Bott, cultural adviser to the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Nineveh Province.

Bott believes restoring historic sites like the monastery may help Iraqis forge a postwar identity free of ethnic and religious hatreds.

“I like to think that they will remember and have respect for a shared past, a shared culture,” Bott said. “I hope that this will allow a greater tolerance for each other, a realization that one religion can’t claim total ownership.”