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Conflict in Iraq has reduced yet another historic site to nothing more than piles of stone, with the blow delivered once more by ISIS. According to satellite images recently obtained by the Associated Press, the terrorist group has destroyed the country’s oldest Christian monastery, Dair Mar Elia — also known as St. Elijah’s Monastery — which it deems heretical. Located just four miles south of Mosul, the complex of buildings was built in the 6th century by Assyrian Catholic monks and was largely abandoned from the 18th century onward, until Iraqi and American troops took charge of it during and after the Iraq War.
The AP, which this month had requested geospatial image provider DigitalGlobe to take photographs of the site, released those images today; analysts, comparing them to past photographs, believe that the destruction occurred between August and September of 2014.
Imagery analyst Stephen Wood described the stone walls as “literally pulverized… Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust. They destroyed it completely.”
Founded around 595 CE by the monk Mar Elia, from whom it takes its name, the monastery was later claimed by the Chaldeans and served as a pilgrimage site for Christians, who would visit it during the annual Mar Elia Holiday, which occurs in November. According to the AP, the complex spanned 27,000 square feet (~2,508 sq.m.), comprised of 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and a chapel. Carved on its main entrance were the symbols chi and rho — the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek.
Before it fell last year, Dair Mar Elia had survived several centuries of the forces of nature, but it also bore the scars of war: in 1743, troops commanded by Persian leader Tahmaz Nadir Shah invaded the complex, looting it and slaughtering as many as 150 monks who had made a home within its stone walls because they refused to convert to Islam. After that, it lay unoccupied for centuries, only to witness human conflict again during the Iraq War. It’s proximity to Mosul meant that the monastery served an active role as a military base, and a number of units — initially Iraqi troops before the US took charge — occupied it.
Many accounts of the site actually come from Americans who spent time there: the late journalist James Foley, six years before his execution by ISIS in 2014, wrote of attempts to preserve it and clear it of debris from combat and from graffiti scrawled by both US and Iraqi soldiers. He mentioned that a chaplain regularly led soldiers on tours as a way to expose them to the cultural heritage of the region — to put “a human face on Iraq,” he said. Explosive ordinance disposal technician Joe Costigan, who visited the site in 2008, also wrote an extensive account of the structure, accompanied by photographs that show damaged areas but many rooms still standing. Footage of US troops celebrating Easter in 2009 has also reemerged following the news of the building’s destruction, showing the monastery’s place as a site of worship even in recent years.
“I can’t describe my sadness,” Erbil-based Reverend Paul Thabit Habib told the AP. “Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically leveled. We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.”
The monastery is one more in a tragically growing list of sites damaged or pulverized by ISIS in the name of religion — from the nearby Mosul Museum and Ninevah archaeological site to the 1,800-year-old arch in Palmyra, Syria.
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