Saturday, December 19, 2009

An old monastery serves as a window into Iraq's past


Some American soldiers learn a bit about the complexities of Iraq's religious history.
As historic sites in Iraq go, St. Elijah’s has little of the significance of the ruins of the great Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, all endangered by decay and looting. The ruins of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are only a few miles away. So is the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and that of another, Nahum, whose short chapter in the Bible warns Nineveh of its destruction.

“Nineveh is like a walk through the Bible,” said W. Patrick Murphy, the leader of the American provincial reconstruction team here, which is coordinating the restoration, referring to the modern name for the province that includes Mosul.

In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors who might otherwise never leave the base and encounter Iraq’s deeply layered history. Amid the hardship of modern military operations, it once again became a place of prayer.

“We stand in a long line of people who bequeathed the faith to us,” said Maj. Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic chaplain, presiding over Mass in the monastery the other day, attended by three camouflaged soldiers, their rifles leaning in a corner.

Little definitive is known about the history of St. Elijah’s, or Dair Mar Elia. The site has never been studied or excavated, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all of Iraq’s historic sites. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.

The board, which has previously been critical of American activities at ruins, including Babylon, is now reviewing the proposal to restore St. Elijah’s.


Accompanied by an excellent slide show of St. Elijah's Monastery.

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