January 20, 2016

Confirmation Saint Elijah's Monastery (دير مار إيليا), Iraq, Destroyed


Following a request by the Associated Press earlier this month, Digital Globe, a global provider of high-resolution Earth-imagery products and services, provided the news service with imagery which appears to confirm that the monastery known in English as the Saint Elijah Monastery or the Dair Mar Elia, ((دير مار إيليا) has been obliterated by ISIS/ISIL sometime prior to September 28, 2014.  It was the oldest known Christian monastery in Iraq.  

The oldest monastery in Iraq dated back 1400 ago.
 أقدم دير في العراق يعود تاريحه الى ١٤٠٠ سنة
Nearby cities: Mosul, Erbil / Hewler, Kirkûk
Coordinates:   36°17'33"N   43°7'51"E
Image Credit AP/Digital Globe/Google

Located on a hill south of Mosul, local Chaldean leaders place the monastery's age back to the fourth century after Christ.  Other evidence indicates that the original monastery on this site was built around 571 CE during the reign of the Persian King Hurmizd IV.  Assuming that this date is accurate, the monastery predates the founding of Islam by about one hundred years.  

Imagery obtained for comparison by AP before and after compared with earlier amateur videos shot by US military personnel during cultural awareness site visits seem to suggest that the monastery has either been bulldozed completely or detonated to the ground level.

Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said “such deliberate destruction is a war crime and it must not stay unpunished. It also reminds us how terrified by history the extremists are, because understanding the past undermines the pretexts they use to justify these crimes and exposes them as expressions of pure hatred and ignorance.”

But this ultimate final insult by ISIL/ISIS is not the only hardship Saint Elijah Monastery has faced. 

During the 2003 Iraqi conflict, Iraqi tank units damaged rooms and reportedly filled the ancient cistern with trash while using it as a latrine. 

In this first video, apparently made during a US forces visit after taking control of the site, viewers can hear a military guide giving touring soldiers from Forward Operating Base Marez a lecture on the significance of the religious site and why it was later fenced off to protect the site against looters and further degradation.  After that, soldiers were only allowed to visit the site when accompanied by military chaplains or designated military guides.


In this first video the speaker talks about not only the Christian iconography but also the damage the site sustained as a result of a US-Iraqi skirmish with the Iraqi Republican Guard during the initial invasion in 2003.  The officer mentions a U.S. Army anti-tank missile fired by the 101st Airborne at an Iraqi tank unit that was stationed in and around the religious site during the military engagement.  

The tow missile, fired by the US modular light infantry division towards a military target, damaged the ancient chapel's wall when the missile blasted the turret off a T-72 Russian tank.  The impact catapulted the turret into the side of the monastery, buckling the historic site's wall and creating many large cracks and fissures.



Other damages however were not directly related to this armed engagement, but instead were opportunistic offences and carelessness when the 101st were themselves garrisoned at the site.

Soldiers attached to the 101st painted their division's 'Screaming Eagle' logo above the chapel's doorway and also white-washed the stone alter and chapel walls, covering what is believed to have been the remnants of 600-year-old murals.  To add insult to injury, 'Chad wuz here' and 'I love Debbie,' were also found scribbled onto other monastery surfaces along with older graffiti in Arabic and bullet holes. 

Some 250 years earlier, the monastery was nearly flattened by a Persian ruler who also ordered the monks living there to be slain.

Prior to its destruction by ISIS/ISIL the site consisted of 27 rooms and included a mihrab, a temple and a cistern.  Experts from the University of Mosul were scheduled to survey the grounds in 2008 but because of the volatility of the political situation at the time, a team of soldiers from current and former U.S. Army Europe engineer units (the 156th) were tasked to carry out the work as part of a mission in July 2008. The data collected was to be used in Army and civilian maps detailing the area of the monastery, as well as archeological excavations and geographic expeditions.

The 156th also created a three-dimensional model of the site based on their survey data to aid scientists studying the possible purpose of crumbling rooms in the monastery.

Perhaps this model will be of use to scholars going forward. 


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