ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Syria’s Mar Mousa: An Ancient Monastery Restored

Constructed in the sixth century, the Mar Mousa Monastery undergoes much-needed restoration and reclaims its identity as a holy site of historical significance.

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.

Structurally, the monastery has fared fairly well through its 1400-year history, but the frescoes were much neglected. When Father Paolo arrived, the church had been without a roof for 15 years. Cold shepherds had huddled there, using the church’s roof as firewood, thereby exposing the frescoes to nature’s ravages. In 1982, when an expedition from the American University of Beirut arrived to make a photographic record, much of this medieval Christian art had deteriorated and crumbled off the walls. This visit netted a lock on the front door to deter further misuse of the monastery.

Having seen Mar Mousa, Father Paolo knew that was where he wanted to live, work and pray. In 1984, he organized summer camps for boys and girls who would pray – and work – at the monastery. A group of young Christians from the Church of the Virgin in Nebek took the monastery under its wing. All this attention did however create a bit of backfire. Where there is attention paid, there is money to be made – or so thought a few people who broke into the monastery searching for buried treasure.

The Young Christians of Nebek, helped by the Department of Antiquities in Damascus and the generosity of Italian, French and Swiss benefactors, got the roof replaced. Then, in 1989, a team of experts arrived from Italy to begin the long and difficult process of restoring these frescoes, which experts say are the only complete program of medieval church decoration surviving in greater Syria. Due to lack of funds, however, restoration of these unique works of religious art had to be stopped shortly thereafter.

Those churches that remained in constant use were subject to maintenance and the whims and brushes of new artists using new styles and new techniques. Consequently, the original frescoes were repainted, over-painted or, when frescoes went out of style, obliterated.

Fortunately for the history of art, churches in out-of-the-way places were abandoned. In some cases their frescoes were covered with whitewash, a medium that acts as a preservative. But abandonment also brought neglect. Mar Mousa, literally located between rocks and hard places, suffered from that neglect as well as misuse and vandalism.

Today, the Mar Mousa community is led by Father Paolo, who has a flare for archaeology, languages, preservation and, of late, cheese-making. Definitely no hermit, Father Paolo is the tour guide, spiritual leader and overall mus’uul or the one responsible in the monastery.

“In 1991, Father Jack Mourad and I started living here permanently,” recalls Father Paolo. “Today our community is composed of 10 members: five monks and five novice nuns [all of whom are under 40 years of age]. And we are international: we are Syrian, Italian and Swiss.”

A routine is followed by the community that parallels the routine of centuries ago. Rise and shine is followed by work, communal prayer, liturgy and study. With the number of projects Father Paolo has started, free time is minimal. Visitors are part of the daily life as are volunteers who come to help with the cheese factory or lend advice on Father Paolo’s plans for reforestation.

In that last department, the first to be consulted should be the goats, the chief Middle Eastern predator of trees. With their fleet feet to complement their aristocratic Roman noses and their lop ears flapping in the breeze, they scamper hither and yon undaunted by rock slides or cliffs or the scolding of monks. Ditto for the young ones as the whole herd grazes on what little vegetation exists.

But the goats do their share by providing the monastery with milk; from that comes yogurt and cheese. Without them there would be no reason for the new cheese factory, which was built into an old cave where hermit monks once lived.

“With the cooperation of the Syrian Ministry of Culture, we have created a protected area in the valley where we develop agricultural and forestry experiments,” Father Paolo explains.

“Besides developing local trees, we also plant new fruit and nut trees.” Father Paolo has 500 almond trees in mind.

Artifacts found in the area of the monastery are identified with the help of the Department of Antiquities in Damascus.

It would be too much to ask one beast to carry the full burden of the monastery’s needs, and here a mule’s best friend turns out to be an old standby, a cable car. This one runs 1,300 feet from the mountain across the ravine down to the monastery. Incoming goods and gravity work together as a counterweight to carry the refuse from the monastery up to the top where it is taken off by truck to a dump.

Water collection remains a challenge to the growth and survival of the monastery. If there is one common thread of concern through all the years at Mar Mousa it is the pursuit of water. Ten reservoirs in the valley below served the Roman garrisons who once ruled this area. The monastery’s three reservoirs hold rain water but the long dry season taxes that reserve severely.

“When we first arrived,” Father Paolo reports, “there was no water here. We spent $30,000 to build a well, which later collapsed, so we had to build a second one, 1,200 feet deep. Now we have drinking and irrigation water.”

For Father Paolo, the real challenge is in defining the purpose and pursuits of the monastery and its residents as they face the next millennium. Christian-Muslim dialogue and supporting the Syrian Christian ecumenical movement rank at the top of this man’s objectives. His interest in Islam led him to pursue a doctorate in Qur’anic Studies from Rome’s Gregorian University.

“Our community plans to be ecumenical,” Father Paolo comments.

“We are particularly committed to prayer, hospitality and dialogue with the Islamic world. We hope to be a part of the movement in the Universal Church working toward achieving harmony with the Islamic world.”

For Father Paolo and his monastic community, the ancient frescoes of Mar Mousa are guides to the monastery’s future: they were once fresh and beautiful, long neglected, sadly abused and now they are being restored to their former beauty. To that end, four young Syrians are studying art restoration in Rome.

The monastic community of Mar Mousa is working for the day when this description will someday fit not just the frescoes of the church, but the spiritual relations among Christians and between Christians and Muslims.

A longtime resident of Beirut, Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor. Armineh Johannes also contributed to this article.

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