Syria’s Mar Mousa: An Ancient Monastery Restored

text by Marilyn Raschka
photographs by Armineh Johannes

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Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that read: Have you visited a monastery today? Well, we have found a monastery well worth visiting.

To reach it, you drive north of Damascus until you see the turn-off for Nebek, a Christian town an hour’s drive from the Syrian capital. From here we would advise you to hire a guide. Only with someone who knows the way will you choose the right forks in the seven-mile footpath that peters out at the crest above the monastery.

With backpack in place you will follow a well-worn path down a desolate mountainside path that clings to the edge of a ravine. Surefootedness is a great advantage. The monastery’s mule, which you may meet en route, sets an excellent example.

This is not a trek for the pampered tourist. There is no way to call ahead and no way to determine what the weather will be. Sunny in Damascus could be stormy and wild “up in them thar hills.”

Forty-five minutes later – and that includes a stop or two to take in the fabulous view – you will have arrived, exhausted and more than likely scorched by the hot desert sun. Yet the monastery is a welcoming place. There is always someone home and the structure looks spectacular no matter what the sky. Like ancient monasteries worldwide, however, its main portal is hardly three feet high – a reminder for the pilgrim to remain humble.

Despite the rigors of this journey, over a thousand pilgrims visit the ancient monastery of Mar Mousa (St. Moses) annually. But no visitor should arrive empty-handed. Cooking oil, bath products, sugar and fresh produce are always welcome – and needed. In exchange, no one leaves empty-handed. The monastic community is used to visitors and there is always a tasty meal in progress with extra plates and chairs set to welcome visitors.

Today, pilgrims, art historians, diplomats and curious (and energetic) tourists sign the guest book at the monastery of Mar Mousa. This was not true many years ago. Then, the guest book would have listed brigands, marauders and shepherds.

A manuscript from Mar Mousa now in the British Museum dates the monastery’s construction to the sixth century. Local tradition says the monastery was founded on the site of the grave of St. Moses the Ethiopian (c. 330 – 405).

According to tradition, Moses, the slave of an Egyptian official, was dismissed from service for immoral conduct and theft.

Once freed, he formed a band of fierce robbers, who ran roughshod throughout Egypt. Fleeing the law after one escapade, he sought refuge with some hermits who overwhelmed the robber with their sanctity and kindness. He asked to remain with the hermits and, after making a confession, he received the sacraments. Encouraged by St. Isidore, he overcame his penchant for violence and sex and, with his band of robbers-turned-monks, he traveled throughout the Near East, spreading the Gospel.

Moses became a well-loved individual, particularly in the East, where the Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Latin and Syrian churches honor his memory.

In 1982, when Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, first came to Syria, the ancient Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mousa was abandoned and in ruins. The monastery church dates from the 11th century; the frescoes that adorn it, from the 11th and 12th centuries.

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Tags: Syria Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Art