Magazine article History Today

Deir Mar Musa

Magazine article History Today

Deir Mar Musa

Article excerpt

An ancient monastery in the desert in central Syria, which lay in ruins through the last century, looks set to become one of the country's top attractions. Deir Mar Musa dates back at least 1,500 years. It owes its recent revival to the determination of an Italian Jesuit. Although it is not yet in the travel guides, thousands of people are already beating a path to the door of this stunning late antique desert monastery which boasts the only surviving medieval fresco cycles in Syria.

Situated in the Qalamoun Mountains on the edge of a cliff over a wadi, the Syrian Catholic monastery of Mar Musa or St Moses the Abyssinian is thought to have started life as a Roman watchtower. The area was first inhabited by prehistoric hunters and shepherds attracted by its natural cisterns and pastures for herding goats. It commands a spectacular view over the desert and the routes to the cities of Damascus, Homs and Palmyra, the city of Queen Zenobia which lies just 150 kilometres to the east -- a perfect place for a watchtower.

Legend has it that St Moses was the son of a king of Ethiopia who declined to accept his birthright, preferring to become a Christian monk. He wandered through Egypt into Syria and lived as a hermit in the valley close to where Mar Musa is now situated until he was martyred by Byzantine soldiers. The story goes on that the thumb of his right hand was separated by a miracle and became a holy relic. It is conserved in the Syrian church of the town of Nabk to the west of Mar Musa.

Archaeological evidence shows that the monastery of St Moses existed from the middle of the sixth century. The present monastery church was built in the eleventh century. It can be dated to AD1058 from the Arabic inscriptions on the walls which interestingly begin with the words from the Koran: `In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate'.

The monastery was partly rebuilt and enlarged in the fifteenth century when it became a bishopric but by around 1830 it was abandoned and fell into ruin. The scholar and traveller Richard Burton visited during his period as British Consul in Damascus from 1869 to 1871 and carried away with him a magnificent bronze censer which is now in the British Museum.

Photographs of Deir Mar Musa taken in the 1960s show the surrounding walls still reasonably intact as were the medieval wooden roof of the church, the iconostasis and the wooden canopy or baldaquin over the altar. However, these were subsequently ripped out by shepherds and used for fuel. This was the state of the monastery until the 1980s when a young Jesuit student made his way from Italy to Syria to meditate as the medieval Christian monks would have done in the numerous nearby caves. Father Paolo dali `Oglio's first experience of Mar Musa was at night.

`I climbed in with a flash light. It was ruined inside with gaping holes,' he said. `I found the church. There was no roof and the stars shone in. I shone the torch onto the walls and saw the frescoes. I looked at them -- and they looked back at me.'

It was a religious experience for Father Paolo. Under his leadership and with the help of the Syrian government, the local church and Arab and European volunteers, the monastery was gradually rebuilt, preserving as much of the original building as possible. Ten years ago, Father Paolo moved in and established the present monastic community. There are now eight full-time monks and novices who offer hospitality to anybody who chooses to visit or stay. …

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