Monastery of Deir mar musa
by Fr. Dall'Oglio, Paolo SJ

1 - Geography and History

The ancient Syrian monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi) over-looks a harsh valley in the mountains east of the small town of Nebek, 80 km north of Damascus, and about 1320 metres above sea level.

The area was first inhabited by prehistoric hunters and shepherds because of its natural cisterns and pastures ideal for herding goats. Perhaps the Romans built a watchtower here. Later, Christian hermits used the grottoes for meditation, and thus created the first small monastic centre.

According to local tradition St. Moses the Abyssinian was the son of a king of Ethiopia. He refused to accept the crown, honours, and marriage, and instead he looked towards the kingdom of God. He travelled to Egypt and then to the Holy Land. Afterwards, he lived as a monk in Qara, Syria, and then as a hermit not far from there in the valley of what is today the monastery. There he was martyred by Byzantine soldiers. The story says that his family took his body, but that the thumb of his right hand was separated by a miracle, and was left as a relic, now conserved in the Syrian church of Nebek.

From the archaeological and historical points of view, we know that the monastery of St. Moses existed from the middle of the sixth century, and belonged to the Syrian Antiochian Rite. The present monastery 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 go back to the 11th and 12th centuries. In the fifteenth century the monastery was partly rebuilt and enlarged, but by the first half of the nineteenth century it was completely abandoned, and slowly fell into ruins. Nevertheless, it remained in the ownership of the Syrian Catholic diocese of Homs, Hama, and Nebek. The inhabitants of Nebek continuously visited 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 cooperation between the Italian and Syrian States. An Italian and Syrian school for restoration of frescoes has been created at Deir Mar Musa and will complete the work in the context of Syrian European cooperation.

The new foundation of the monastic community started in 1991.

2 - The Church and Frescoes of Deir Mar Musa.

The church of the monastery was built in 1058 AD. The space is about 10x10 metres squared and is divided into two sections. The larger of these is a nave with two aisles and is illuminated by a high eastern window. The second section is the sanctuary, which contains the altar and the apse and is separated from the rest of the church by a stone and wooden chancel screen.

Thus far, three layers of frescoes have been revealed. The first layer is from the middle of the eleventh century AD, the second is from the end of the eleventh century, and the third is from the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century.

The images of the most recent layer are fairly complete, and comprise two well integrated iconographic cycles. The first and larger cycle focuses on the dimension of sacred history. The second, in the sanctuary, represents the Mystery of the eternal and present Instant.

The first cycle begins with the image of the Annunciation. Gabriel stands on the north side and the Virgin Mary stands on the south side of the east window; the Emmanuel, the infant Jesus, the sun of justice, rises above. (This image was destroyed, together with other images, in 1983 and was later partially reconstructed out of pieces.)

Beneath the window, Jesus Christ with apostles and evangelists inaugurates the time of the Church, which receives sustenance from the Mystery of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. The nave of the church is decorated with saints, women in the arches and men on the pillars.

The four evangelists are painted above the four columns looking upwards to copy a heavenly page with Syriac letters in their Gospels. Six martyr 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, is expressed beginning from the door of the Temple. On the external face of the stone part of the screen, at the door to the sacred space of the altar, the ten virgins of the gospel of Matthew 25 were painted. Very little remains of this painting but we have been able to partially reconstruct the images. Five had lights burning in their right hands. 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 Saviour, 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 in the great representation of the final judgment on the west wall of the nave. The highest part of the fresco is lost and 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, we see the cross with the symbols of the 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, we see the white shroud, symbol of his resurrection from the tomb. Sitting on the left and right, acting as judges, are ten apostles and evangelists. 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 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. In the next level, 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. In the next level lies the niche, which probably held the relic of St. Moses. 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 thrones of the apostles, different groups of bishops suffer the pain of fire and cry bitter tears. Beneath them sinners belonging to different cultures and religions suffer the effects of a heavy rain of fire. Under them, beside a terrible Satan strangling an 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, and perhaps the third was a usurer. The last was a dishonest trader who cheated with his balance. In the end, a line of naked men and women tied with a chain, with snakes entering their bodies through the doors of senses, represent the condemnation of adultery and fornication. At the bottom, a painted base of coloured marble perhaps indicates the final crystallization of the material world.

On the second layer of frescoes, in the northern aisle near the baptistery, rests an image of the baptism of Jesus with an angel serving as a deacon, and with 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 period, ascending in his chariot.

Many other frescoes, especially from the oldest levels, are likely to be discovered in future restorations. The Syrian General Direction 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 cooperation programmes.

3 - The Environmental, Agricultural, and Social Dimensions

The monastic community of Deir Mar Musa and the inhabitants of the surrounding region have always lived in a situation which, though rough and difficult, was also substantially balanced. The vegetable and animal species have adapted to the presence of humans for many millennia. The human presence has introduced some changes to the environment without constituting a drastic upheaval. For example adopting ways to gather and distribute water for agriculture and farming.

Beginning in the 19th century, however, this balance between humans and their environment gradually deteriorated, and the resulting problems have accelerated dramatically into the twentieth century. This region has witnessed a strong desertification and the beginnings of pollution. The valleys surrounding the monastery are a rare exception, and thus they have become a precious refuge for plants and animals. Unfortunately, however, it is becoming more and more evident that they too are in danger of suffering from the impact of this general environmental decline.

A very large increase in population density, together with a return to 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 effects ordinary individuals on both an 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, have made the issue of this environ-mental question an integral part of our vision. Should we have chosen not to intervene and allow the quality of the environment to continue to decline, we would endanger the very possibility of existing as a place of spirituality and meditation with a positive social impact. For us, our environment has to be not only protected but also valued, spiritually, aesthetically, biologically, socially, and economically.

This means, in Deir Mar Musa, that we are nurturing the following projects:
1. a scientific interest in the characteristics of this natural context
2. programmes for the reintegration of flora and fauna,
3. the experimental development of goat farming,
4. the sustainable development of agricultural activities, particularly fruit trees,
5. the gathering of water sources through various projects, particularly the building of a small dam.

In the past few years, these efforts have given rise to a large range of collaborations between the monastery and a number of local and international institutions. We are working towards the establishment of a protected environmental area in the valley of the monastery in order to create an oasis of silence and beauty available to everyone. We hope that a larger project for the entire region will be realised with the active participation of the different local stakeholders, beginning with the transformation of 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 facili-tate inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue and harmony. However, continued immigration to other countries, particularly of christian families from towns nearby, puts this dialogue at risk. We feel that the cultural pluralism of this region must be kept as a value. In the past, this area maintained a tradition of common life, and we would like to build on this base.

The monastery is also helping with the restoration of traditional houses and with house building for some young families in the local parish, this is because it is quite difficult at the moment for the young to afford to buy or rent a house in order to become married.

Generally speaking 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 there is a majority and minorities able not only to live together but also to positively and dynamically interact.

4 - Deir Mar Musa, a Monastic Community Devoted to Inter-religious Communion

It was during a period of suffering in this region when, in 1982, a young jesuit student of Arabic travelled to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa. Here in the mountains east of Nebek, Fr. Paolo remained for a ten day spiritual retreat. During this time, through contemplation, he discovered three priorities, and one horizon.

In 1984, he was ordained a priest in the Syrian rite. On the basis of his three tenets, summer camps of work and prayer were established at the monastery. On the same basis he, together with deacon Jacques Mourad, initiated a monastic community in 1991.

The first of his three priorities is the rediscovery of spiritual life as an absolute. Prayer and contemplation are not instruments or a means to an end, but are an end in themselves in full gratu-ity. From this point of view the ruined Syrian monastery offered a strong witness to the value of spiritual life in this region together with the risk of losing this value. It must be emphasised 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 an ambience of silence and prayer for both the personal and social life of its monks and nuns.

The second priority is that of evangelical simplicity, a way of living in harmony and full responsibility with Creation and the society around us. To accomplish this it is necessary to redis-cover 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. Abrahamitic hospitality was always considered by the ancient monks to be a sacred activity based on a virtue 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 ghettoes but 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 often still difficult in many places, therefore it constitutes an 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 intercultural and inter-religious collaboration has received the help of the European Commission, the Orseri Foundation of Rome, the Solidarité-Orient of Brussels and others. A growing library has been established at the monastery, featuring not only classical texts on Christianity and Islam, but 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 continue to provide inspiration to our monastic community. The monastery is also engaged in organising workshops and seminars, which will facilitate 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, 40km north-east of here. Their hopes and dreams are far-reaching and open lines of communion to numerous parts of the Islamic world. A virtual monastery is being built in cyberspace.

It soon became apparent that we did not have sufficient 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 utilising a number of ancient caves. An important new building is being constructed with old, recycled materials, south of the monastery in order 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 through centuries as an insoluble and stainless fact and a source of anguish, tensions and wars. To overcome this as believers we want to scrutinise 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. We mean 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.