Travelling through the ‘Stans was like walking through a living history book, but going to Iraqi Kurdistan meant going back in time further still. In terms of religions, there were Zoroastrians, Yadzidis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and even early on in my trip, my wonderful guide Karwan would often point out various Christian or Yadzidi towns or neighbourhoods, something I hadn’t thought much about before visiting this Muslim country. Earlier in the day we went to Mar Mattai (St. Matthew the Hermit) Monastery near Mosul (about 20km away). It’s one of the oldest monasteries in the world (363 CE) and is now part of the Syric Orthodox Church. It is well maintained as it the seat of the bishop, and when we were there services were going on in the church, something I hadn’t expected at all. However, the ruins of the Rabban Hormizd Monastery, where we went to next, was the place that really interested me.
This monastery was built halfway up a mountain range, which was clear before we even got there – the switchback road to the start point, plus all the stairs afterwards. But once at the top, it was clear why they chose this location. It overlooks the Nineveh plain, is 10km from the Tigris river, Mosul lies 40km away, and the mountain range to the north follows the borders of ancient Assyria. It’s generally assumed to have built in the early- to mid-7th century by Rabban Hormizd (rabban is Syric for monk) during the Muslim conquest, but another historian suggests that the foundations of this place may go back further, to the 4th century.
Rabban Hormidz was likely Persian, and while on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he met three monks at Mosul who convinced him to go east to another monastery, where he stayed for 39 years (32 cloistered as a hermit). He then left and stayed in another monastery for six or seven years, before settling in a cave in the mountains near Alqosh. The people who lived nearby offered to build him a monastery right there. In fact, the first thing you notice when you arrive here are all the caves that are carved out in the mountainside. It reminded me somewhat of the caves in the other monastic complex I visited earlier this year, at Meteora, in Greece.
Over the years the monastery was plundered by various armies, and after a particularly brutal attack by the Kurds in the 10th century, the monks finally scattered to other areas. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the invasions by the Mongols and later Timur led to the monastery finally being deserted (for a while anyway). By the 16th century there was a community of monks here once again, but it was at this point in history that saw the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of the East. The head of the Church of the East was known as the Chaldean Patriarch, and the first one to be consecrated was Yohannan Sulaqa, then abbot of the monastery (1553). He also received legitimacy and recognition from the Ottomon Sultan, but was later captured by the Kurds and eventually executed. However, from this time, until the 18th century, it was the burial place for all the Patriarchs of the church (see photos above).
However, more attacks on the monastery, plus earthquakes, followed in the intervening years. By 1743 it was abandoned, but later revived in 1808 by Gabriel Dambo. Between 1838 and 1842 the monastery was attacked, and the monks tortured and imprisoned. According to the Orientalist E.A. Wallis Budge, by 1839 only 39 monks remained, in 1880 there were only 16, and by 1890 just 10 were left. Eventually, in the latter half of the 19th century, a new monastery was built at the foot of the mountain since the old monastery was too prone to attack.
Wandering around here was quite interesting, hearing all the stories and trying to imagine what it was like to live in these cells, with no doors, no heat, and very little to protect you from the elements. Yet the history of monastic life seems very similar in different countries that I’ve been to, from the monks of Meteora to the ones who lived on Skellig Michael in Ireland.
Outside the monastery, near the entrance, is a small cemetery with seven tombs. These belong to seven monks who were martyred close to Syria due one of the many wars that occurred in this region. However, I couldn’t find out why they were separated like this, or not buried inside the complex like other monks were.
This was a really fascinating place to visit, and I’d love to come back in the spring when the hills are all green.
Monuments: None really, but there are a lot of carvings and some paintings inside the monastery. While some tombs remain there, many of the important people (like Rabban Hormidz) were reinterred to the new monastery below.
Grounds: This is literally halfway up a mountain (at about 815m). You can drive most of the way there, but the last 50-100 metres is by stairs. They are well maintained and easy to climb however.
Visitors: There were a handful of visitors here, including some foreign tourists. In total I saw maybe 10 people.
Notes: It’s a bit dark in the tunnels and caves/rooms, but outside will have a lot of high contrast with the sun and the dark caves.
Site: Rabban Hormidz Monastery
Established: 640 CE
Location: About 2km from Alqosh, at 36°44’56.5’’, N 43°06’53.97’’ E
Hours: Unknown, but probably 9-17, or something similar