Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian:
Geography and History: The ancient Syrian monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi) overlooks a harsh valley in the mountains east of the small town of Nabk, 80 km north of Damascus. It is about 1320 meters above sea level.
Prehistoric hunters and shepherds first inhabited the area around the monastery, attracted by the natural cisterns and pastures, ideal for herding goats. Perhaps the Romans or Palmiriens built a watchtower here. Christian hermits later used the cave for meditation and, thus, created the first small monastic center.
According to local tradition, St. Moses the Abyssinian was the son of an Ethiopian king. He refused to accept the crown, honours and marriage. Instead he looked towards the Kingdom of God. He travelled to Egypt and then to the Holy Land. He later lived as a monk in Qara, Syria and then as a hermit in the valley where the monastery is now situated and was martyred by Byzantine soldiers. Tradition says that his family took his body but a miracle separated the thumb of his right hand and it was left as a relic – it is now conserved in the Syrian church of Nabk.
From archaeological and historical evidence, we know that the monastery of St. Moses existed from the middle of the 6th century and belonged to the Syrian Antiochian Rite. The present monastic church was built in the Islamic year 450 (1058 AD), according to Arabic inscriptions on the walls, which begin with the words: “In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate”.
The frescoes in the church date from the 11th and 12th centuries.
In the 15th century the monastery was partially rebuilt and enlarged. The monastery was abandoned in the first half of the 19th century and slowly fell into ruin. Nevertheless, it remained in the ownership of the Syrian Catholic Diocese of Homs, Hama and Nabk. The inhabitants of Nabk continued to visit the monastery with devotion and the local parish struggled to maintain it.
In 1984, restoration work began through a common initiative of the Syrian State, the local Church and a group of Arab and European volunteers. The restoration of the monastery building was completed in 1994 thanks to co-operation between the Italian and Syrian States. This Italian and Syrian school for restoration of frescoes was created at Deir Mar Musa in 1989 and will complete the restoration of the frescoes in the context of Syrian European co-operation.
The Church and Frescoes of Deir Mar Musa: The church of the monastery was built in 1058 AD. It is a square of about 10*10-meters and divided into two sections. The larger section is a nave, with two aisles, illuminated by a high eastern window. The second section is the sanctuary containing the altar and the apse; it is separated from the rest of the church by a stone and wooden chancel screen.
To date, three layers of frescoes have been revealed in the church. The first layer is from the middle of the 11th century AD, the second from the end of the 11th century, and the third from the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th century.
The images of the most recent layer are fairly complete, and comprise of two integrated iconographic cycles. The first – and largest – cycle focuses on the dimension of sacred history. The second, in the sanctuary, represents the Mystery of the eternal and present Instant.
The first image begins with the image of the Annunciation. Gabriel stands on the north side of the east window and the Virgin Mary stands on the south; the Immanuel, the infant Jesus, the sun of Justice, rises above. (This image was destroyed, together with other images in 1983, but has been partially reconstructed out of pieces).
Beneath the window, Jesus Christ wit apostles and evangelists inaugurates the time of the Church, which receives sustenance from the monastery of the Temple, the Holy of Holiest. The nave of the church is decorated with saints: females on the arches and males on the pillars.
The four evangelists are painted above the four central pillars. They look upwards to a heavenly page which they copy with Syriac letters in their Gospels. Six martyred saints, painted as knights, on the highest part of the nave, ride towards the East fighting the good jihad of faith.
The second cycle; that of the actuality of the Mystery; starts from the door of the Temple. The ten virgins of the Gospel of Matthew 25 were painted on the external face of the stone-part of the screen, at the door to the sacred space of the altar. Very little remains of this painting but it has been partially reconstructed to show that fie of the virgins had lights burning in their right hands and five had extinguished lights in their left hands.
Behind the altar stands the Holy Virgin, her Child sitting on the throne of her womb. Around her stand the Fathers of the Church. In the semi-dome of the apse, above the altar, we can still see something of the representation of Christ as Son of Man, on his throne and surrounded by cherubim. Mary, the mother of the Savior, and John the Baptist are painted in the large arc close to the throne, to act as intercessors.
The two cycles, one of history and one of sacrament, are linked together by a representation of the final judgment on the west wall of the nave. The top of the fresco is lost but probably represented Christ in his glory giving Peter the keys to the Kingdom. (Peter is still visible, standing on the right side, with Paul to the left.)
Beneath the west window, is the cross with the symbols of passion of Jesus: nails, ladders, and the crown of thorns. On the top of the throne, painted in the oriental fashion with cushions and carpets, is the white shroud, symbol of his resurrection from the tomb. Sitting to the left and right of the throne are ten apostles and evangelists who act as judges. With Peter and Paul, they complete the number of twelve.
The rest of the representation is divided between the right (Paradise) and left (Hell). In the Paradise, beneath the throne, Adam and Eve pray for all their children. Beside them, the saved people are in the embrace of the Virgin Mary, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Beneath them two angels play the trumpets of judgment, and the Prophets, Moses with Elijah, and, David with Solomon, stand together with the Fathers of the Church. A niche, which probably held the relic of St. Moses, is beneath them. Beside it, an angel of intercession pulls down the plate of good deeds of the scales of divine justice. Close to him, Saint Peter opens the little door of Paradise with a white key. The martyrs St. Stephen and St. James enter first, together with four ancient Syrian monks and three nuns.
On the left, beneath the throne of the apostles, group of bishops suffer the pain of fire and cry bitter tears. Beneath them sinners belonging to many cultures and religions suffer from a heavy rain of fire. Under them, beside a terrible Satan strangling and impious individual, monks and nuns burn in hell. Lower still a small devil, with a red tongue of scandals and lies, pulls the left plate of the balance, the one of bad deeds. Close to him are represented four sinners bound like mummies, with the symbols of their sins tied to their necks. The first worshipped money, the second was violent, the third perhaps was a usurer and the fourth a dishonest trader who cheated with his balance. In the end, a line of naked men and women tied with chain, with snakes entering their bodies through the doors of senses, represent the condemnation of adultery and fornication. At the bottom is a painted base of colored marble, perhaps indicating the final crystallization of the material world.
In the second layer of frescoes, in the northern aisle near the baptistery, rests an image of the baptism of Jesus with and angel serving as a deacon and St. Simeon Stylites sitting atop his column. On the southern wall of the nave, on top of the first pillar, we admire an Elijah from the first layer, ascending in his chariot.
Other frescoes, especially older ones, are likely to be revealed in future restorations. The Syrian General Directorate of Monuments and Museums, together with the Central Institute of Restoration of Rome, will continue to collaborate in future restorations in the growing context of Syrian European co-operation programs.
The Environmental, Agricultural and Social Dimensions: The monastic community of Deir Mar Musa and the inhabitants of the surrounding region lived in a manner which, though rough and difficult, was substantially balanced. The vegetable and animal species have adapted to the presence of humans for many millennia. The presence of humans has changed the environment but not caused drastic upheaval. For example, the traditional methods of gathering and distributing water for agriculture and farming have caused little environmental degradation.
Since the 19th century, however, the balance between humans and the environment has gradually deteriorated, with the resulting problems worsening in the twentieth century. The region has witnessed a string desertification and the beginnings of pollution. A rare exception has been the valleys surrounding the monastery, which have provided a precious refuge for plants and animals. Unfortunately the valleys are also at risk from the impact of this general environmental decline.
A very large increase in population density together with a resumption of agricultural and farming activities as a result of the economic crisis caused by the Gulf War, has renewed the urgency of the environmental question. With so many people and so few resources, this question is no longer a philosophical one, but one which truly affects ordinary individuals at both and economic and social level. We are in need of strategies, didactics and solidarities. Thus, our social community of Deir Mar Musa, composed of monks, nuns, employees and guests, has made this environmental question an integral part of its vision. To have chosen not to – and allowed the environment to continue to decline – would have endangered the very possibility of the monastery existing as a place of spirituality and meditation with a positive social impact. For us, our environment has to be protected and also valued: spiritually, aesthetically, biologically, socially and economically.
At Deir Mar Musa, we are nurturing the following projects:
1. A scientific interest in the characteristics of this natural context;
2. Programs for the reintegration of flora and fauna;
3. The experimental development of sustainable goat farming;
4. The sustainable development of agricultural activities, particularly fruit trees; and
5. The gathering of water sources through various projects, particularly the building of a small dam.
Recently the monastery has collaborated with a number of local and international institutions. We are working towards establishing a protected environmental area in the valley of the monastery, so as to create an oasis of silence and beauty available to everyone. We hope to realize a larger project for the entire region, with local stakeholders’ actively participating, beginning with transforming the waste heap on the road to the monastery into a biodiversity garden.
On a social level, the community of Deir Mar Musa works to develop services which facilitate inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue and harmony. However, continued immigration abroad, particularly of Christian families from towns nearby, puts this dialogue at risk. We feel that the cultural pluralism of this region must be kept and valued. In the past, this area maintained a tradition of common life, and we would like to build on this tradition.
The monastery also helps to restore traditional houses and to build houses for some young families in the local parish. It is difficult at the moment for the young to afford to buy or rent a house in order to marry.
There is an urgent need to discern and to offer positive, strong cultural and moral reasons for local Christians not only to stay, but also to return.
The community of Deir Mar Musa is deeply engaged, together with Muslim and Christian intellectuals from this region, in the important work of making sense of a pluralistic society in which the majority and all minorities are able to not only live together but positively and dynamically interact as well.
Deir Mar Musa, a Monastic Community Devoted to Inter-religious Communion: In 1982, during a period of suffering in this region, a Roman young Jesuit student of Arabic traveled to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa. Here in the mountains east of Nabk, Fr. Paolo remained for a ten-day spiritual retreat. Through contemplation, he discovered three priorities, within the horizon of Islamic-Christian communion.
In 1984, he was ordained a priest in the Syrian rite. On the basis of his three priorities, summer camps of work and prayer were established at the monastery. On the same basis he, together with Deacon Jacques from Aleppo, initiated a monastic community in 1991.
The first priority is the rediscovery of spiritual life as an absolute. Prayer and contemplation are not instruments or a means to an end; they are an end in themselves in full gratuity. The ruined monastery offered a strong witness to the value of spiritual life in this region and, paradoxically, showed the risk of losing this value. It must be emphasized that the ancient oriental monastic life is an essential element of both the Christian local soul, and of the cultural, symbolic and mystical world of Islam. Therefore, the community of Deir Mar Musa must first and foremost create and ambience of silence and prayer for both the personal and social life of its monks, nuns and guests.
The second priority is that of evangelical simplicity, a way of living in harmony and full responsibility with Creation and the society around us. This necessitates a rediscovery of the value of manual work together with that of the body and of material things in an aesthetic of justice and gratuity.
The third priority is that of hospitality. The ancient monks always considered divine in this region. So the monastery must be understood as a place of meeting in which specific identities are deepened and not forgotten. We are not seeking to closet ourselves in cultural ghettos; on the contrary, we seek to give up a culture of separation in order to build, gradually, a culture of communion. This means also that the Christian community of Deir Mar Musa wishes to underline the ecumenical inter-Christian dimension, without losing the significance of the Syrian identity of the monastery and of its Catholic links.
The perspective, then, is that of building a positive Christian-Islamic relationship. This relationship has not always been easy in the past and is still difficult in many places. It, therefore, constitutes in essential aspect of the spiritual vocation of all monks and nuns at Deir Mar Musa. The choice of the Arabic language for the social and liturgical life of the monastic community is deeply tied to this vocation.
This perspective of deepening inter-cultural and inter-religious collaboration has received the help of the European Commission, the Orseri Foundation of Rome, the Solidarity Orient of Brussels and others. A growing library has been established at the monastery featuring classical texts on Christianity and Islam and also works of psychology, sociology, philosophy and anthropology in order to deepen our understanding of an inter-religious human context. A special section is dedicated to Louis Massignon, a major scholar in oriental studies, whose meditation and exemplary life continues to inspire to our monastic community. The monastery is also engaged in organizing workshops and seminars, which will assist the exchange of experiences and ideas. By the same token, the monks and nuns of Deir Mar Musa have recently assumed responsibility for the monastery of Mar Elian in Qaryatein, 50 km north-east of here. Their hopes and dreams are far-reaching and will open lines of communion to numerous arts of the Islamic World. A virtual monastery is being built in cyberspace.
It soon became apparent that we had insufficient space in the monastery. It has been necessary to build some rooms in a traditional manner to house both monks and male guests. These have been built north of the monastery, using a number of ancient caves. An important new building is being constructed with old and recycled materials, south of the monastery; so as to have more space for cultural activities, spiritual retreats and more rooms for nuns and female guests. This will leave the old monastery for communal life and to welcome tourists.
The presence of the Other as other in front of me has been perceived over centuries as an insoluble and stainless face and a source of anguish, tensions and wars. To overcome this as believers we want to scrutinize attentively the mystery of “otherness”. This is in order to prime and develop processes able to create a shared culture based on values such as peace, deep respect and both inter-personal and inter-community interaction. This will facilitate the diffusion and strengthening of important conquests of contemporary global civil society. For example, the significance of the dignity of individual conscience, the enormous impact of the emancipation of women on both anthropological and social levels, the inviolability of human rights as individuals and groups and finally the fertility of cultural pluralism in itself. A monastery in the desert is also all this.