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Monastery of Saint Matthew

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Founded in 363, the Monastery of Saint Matthew -- Der Mar Matti, or Mar Mattai Monastery -- sits atop the mountain known as Mount Alfaf in Aramaic, and Mount Maqlub in Arabic.

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It is said to be the oldest Christian monastery still operating in the whole world. The monastery belongs to the Syriac Orthodox faith.

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The Monastery of Saint Matthew (Mar Mattai) is said to have been established in 363 CE, when Saint Matthew settled on the mountain with a few other monks and was appointed the first abbot of the fledgling monastery.
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The monastery was established against the backdrop of conflict between the Roman and Persian empires. It also took place during the reign of Roman emperor Julian, who opposed Christianity (which had been the official religion since 311 CE) and tried to return the empire to paganism.

Saint Matthew was born in the village Apgarshat near Diyarbakir around the beginning of the fourth century, into a wealthy and pious family. He had two sisters and a brother named Zaccharias. When his parents died during his youth, Saint Matthew entered the monastery of Saint Sergius and Bacchus next to his village to learn psalms and Syriac for seven years. After that, he joined the Zuqnin Monastery in Diyarbakir. He studied fairness, theology, ecclesiastics, spirituality, and sciences.

Saint Matthew loved asceticism and left Zuqnin Monastery. He roamed hinterlands in search of fellow hermits, ending up with four other monks. The five of them lived a simple life devoted to worshipping god, starting out in huts beside a spring before relocating to the banks of the Khabur where they built a small monastery.

The reign of Roman emperor Julian brought persecutions, so between 361-363 CE the saint came to Iraq to Nineveh, which at the time was the Sassanian empire's Ashur province under the governorship of Sennacherib. Saint Matthew had 25 monks with him, foremost among them being Saint Zakai, Saint Abrouhoum, and Saint Daniel. They encamped on Maqlub Mountain and thus the site of the Monastery of Saint Matthew was established. The saint died in the late 4th or early 5th centuries.

Legend of Saint Matthew

The most famous legend of Saint Mathew focuses on his miracle with prince Bahnam and princess Sarah, the children of the provincial ruler Sennacherib (referred to as a king usually, but of course not the Assyrian king of the same name from the 7th century BC).

One day prince Bahnam went hunting with forty horsemen and they chased a deer they saw in the distance. They followed it until they found it hidden next to a spring near Maqlub mountain. The sun was setting and the prince and his convoy were tired, so they slept there near the water.

At night, an angel appeared to Bahnam and told him to climb the mountain to see a saint who would do a miracle. In the morning, the prince told the story of his revelation to his convoy. He grabbed a group and guided them to the cave where Saint Matthew was residing. The saint welcomed them with pleasure.

Saint Matthew told Bahnam he would cure his sister Sarah's leprosy. The prince left some horsemen with the saint while he returned to Nineveh. He told his mother (the queen) the news of the promised cure and she gave him permission to bring his sister to the saint. When they arrived to Saint Matthew, he struck the ground with his stick and a spring of water sprung forth; to this day, it is called the spring of Sarah and is found near Qaraqosh. The saint baptized her and she was instantly cured of her leprosy. Bahnam and his forty horsemen converted as well.

When Bahnam, Sarah, and Bahnam's soldiers returned to Nineveh they spread the news of her being cured. However, the ruler Sennacherib was disturbed that his son and daughter had been guided to Christianity. He threatened them, but when they refused to abandon Christianity he gave an order for them and their horsemen to all be executed. They left the city but were found on a hill and executed there.

Sennacherib came and saw their corpses, but before they could be cremated the ground shook under them and the soil swallowed up their bodies. Sennacherib went mad from being responsible for the murder of his children, but the same doctors, idols, and priests who had been unable to cure Sarah's leprosy were similarly unable to cure Sennacherib's insanity.

One night, Bahnam appeared to his mother in a vision: he told her that she, the queen, must take the king to where Bahnam and Sarah had been martyred and that Saint Matthew would cure the king there. She took the king to the hill and sent the commander of the soldiers to bring Saint Matthew from his hermitage.

Saint Matthew came to the hill and cured the king – but the king still felt remorse for what he had done. He converted himself and all those under him to Christianity, and supported Saint Matthew and his fellow monks in establishing the monastery's first building. Since then, the monastery has remained a place of holy blessing for all believers and seekers of healing.

Original design

Nobody knows the original design of the monastery, as it has been destroyed many times by attacks. However, there are four locations which persist at least in their original location,
  • Altar, with the adjacent tombs.

  • The cell of Saint Matthew

  • The rock-cut water tanks.

  • Various caves, caverns, and cottages.

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We reached the rising ground and the dark olive groves under the hills. It is said that olives do not flourish out of reach of sea air; but here were magnificent groves, heavy with fruit, and more carefully irrigated and tended than any trees I had yet seen. many belong to the monastery, others to the Syrian Mosulis, who own the Christian houses in the villages of Bah-Shikah and Bahizani. Parry 1895, p 265

The monastery is located on a mountain situated between Mosul, Erbil, and Duhok. The environs are abundant with natural beauty and tucked-away curiosities to explore.

We passed through the walls of ancient Nineveh, crossed the fertile plain of the old Assyrian Triangle, and made for the gap in the hills between the Jebel Maklub and the Ain es Saffra hills, leaving the Yezidi village of Bashaikah and the Christian monastery of Mar Mattai on our north-west. The map showed us a nice double line, indicating a carriage road from Bardarash over Serderria Tepe to the Greater Zab. This does not exist; in fact, in places the track is hardly passable for pack transport. We reached the Greater Zab at Astyria. [The author continued to a crossing near Qasrok-Kelek.] Mason 1919, p 331-333

Visiting

The new road to the monastery is an easy drive, but the historic path of thirty-two switchbacks remains in the ravine leading up to the monastery. The path was called Al-Tapukki which is from the Syriac word taboyoor taberyoto and means elevated height.

We had been greeted with an "Upon my head you come in peace!" and the younger man had reverently kissed the Patriarch's letter. ... The monk then led us to a pleasant diwan at the very top of the building, where water was brought, and grapes, while he disappeared to prepare the customary cup of coffee. A servant then came up with a hen, which he had with difficulty caught, and proceeded to slay and pluck just outside our door in view of the evening meal. Refreshed with grapes and coffee, I then went out with the younger monk to see the monastery and its surroundings. Parry 1895, p 267

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This monastery has historically also been used for pleasure.

During the hottest months many Mosul families find their way hither, to escape from the heat of the town, and make kerf in the monastery or at the grotto just beside it. For this purpose several of the richer Syrians have combined to rebuild the monastery, but in a manner more adapted to family life than the requirements of a place of retreat. Nevertheless, the place has benefited in so far as it is no longer a ruin, but a very comfortable abode. ... It is well built, and the rooms within are clean and comfortable. Parry 1895, p 267-268

Several of these parties of pleasure thronged the place during our stay, and converted the sacred precincts into a common inn. Eating and drinking to excess seemed to be the sole object of their visit, and the noise of their revelry went on from day to day in spite of the entreaties and remonstrances of the Bishop. Every person o leaving is expected to make an adequate return for the provisions with which he has been supplied, as also for his accommodation in the convent, and the attempts made by some to avoid payment frequently gave rise to unpleasant altercation between the Bishop and the visitors. What a position this for a Christian prelate to occupy! Badger 1852, p 100

Mr. Rassam related to me that on going to reside for a week at Mar Mattai, three years prior to our visit, he found the interior of the convent in a most filthy state. As usual during the hot weather, the place was crowded with townspeople who only added to the accumulated nuisance and disregarded every solicitation to clear it away. What he failed to effect though the Bishop he now thought of accomplishing by stratagem, and accordingly he wrote a feigned letter from the Pasha demanding of the convent, on account of government, a contribution of four hundred weight of bones to be made into manure. A mounted attendant was directed to bring this order as coming from Mosul, and on reaching the gate he delivered the letter into the hands of Mutran Matta, who kissed it respectfully in token of obedience. Not being able to read Turkish he requested Mr. Rassam to make known to him the contents, and on hearing what was demanded of him, his consternation knew no bounds: "What shall I do? what shall I do?" said the poor bishop; "If I slaughter all the cattle of the convent they will not yield one-fourth of that quantity of bones. And where can I go to procure bones? O Consul! O Consul! use your influence to get released from such an imposition." By this time many of the principal visitors had gathered about the bishop, who aded their entreaties to his that Mr. Rassam would save them from a fine which it was impossible for them to pay. Knowing as he did the character of the Pasha, he could only promise them some abatement in the demand, say two instead of four hundred weight of bones; but even this he would only engage to do upon the condition that the convent was thoroughly cleaned in the course of the day. This device acted like magic; in the twinkling of an eye, men, women, and children, some with brooms and fire-fans, others with their hands and clothes, entered upon the task, and in less than four hours not a vestige of rubbish was to be seen. Still the affrighted Bishop could not rest, and when Mr. Rassam was leaving the convent he laid hold of the reins of his horse and begged him for the sake of his church and people, not to forget to plead with the Pasha on his behalf. Mr. Rassam then disclosed to him the artifice, and the joy of the poor man on finding himself free from the threatened exaction was not a little heightened by the pleasure which he derived on looking at the altered appearance and cleanliness of his convent. Badger 1852, p 100-101

Rooms

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RoomArabicEnglish

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الاستعلامات

Queries

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حازم ناصر مقادسي 1975

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المرحوم الياس عقراوي

The Late Elias Aqrawi

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المرحومه فصيحة داود سمرجي

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أنور عزيز خدرالمتوفي 1945

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المرحوم ميلاد صباح عطران

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بولس ناصر الخوري وولده

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(no info)

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(no info)

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المتامات منير عبدالعزيز النتوفي وزوجته ماري سعيد الجرموكلي

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المرحومين يوسف ونايف عبداليسي

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المرحومين خضوري عبدالنور وولده ممتاز المتوفين 1965

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Significance

The monastery is significant spiritually, ecclesiastically, and academically.

TopicDescription

Evangelism

The monastery was a center of evangelism for Saint Matthew and the monks who followed him, and was important for the conversion of many Jews and pagans living in the province.

Monasticism

Since the 17th century there has never been more than six or seven monks living at the monastery – sometimes just two or three even – but historically it was a major center for asceticism. It is said that at its height (between the 7th century and 13th century) there were sometimes up to seven thousand monks living at the monastery at one time. Yaqut Al-Hamawi mentions there being over a hundred monks when he visited in the 13th century.

Worship

Monasteries have become places where Christians can come to seek wellness and worship god under the graceful patronage of the monks.

Parish

At the end of the 5th century until the end of the 9th century, the monastery was the center of its parish. The bishopric was one of the highest of Eastern Christianity and carried a sovereign power. Also, the monastery has served as a meeting place for church councils.

Residence

The monastery has been a residence place for some notables, such as Bar Hebraeus who lived at the monastery for more than seven years. Three patriarchs, seven catholicos, and many bishops have lived at the monastery.

Library

The library of the monastery serves as a major store of Syriac Christian writing.

Seminary

The monastery has served as an important seminary, with teachers including Bishop Mar Severius Yaqub Al-Bantilly and Bar Hebraeus. It reached its zenith in the 7th to 8th centuries, with famous students including Mar Maroutha al-Tikriti, Ramishou and Jebrel (sons of distinguished linguist Al-Raba Sybroy), and David Ibn Poluse Al-Bayt Al-Raban. [This part was unclear who are the sons and who is a grandfather.]

Library

At the end of the 5th century the monastery's library was the most precious collection of Syriac manuscripts, but then it waned for some centuries until the start of the 9th century. It was totally destroyed in 1171, except for whatever could be saved by some monks who fled to Mosul.

Soon after the death of Mosul governor Badr Al-Deen Lulu in 1241, most of the books of Mar Mattai were added to his library by Severius Yaqub Al-Bantilly. [Whose?] In 1369, the monastery was again attacked and its library was ruined.

Since the monastery was restored in 1846, the monks have brought in more than sixty valuable manuscripts. Some of its books have found their way to libraries in London, Cambridge, Berlin, Mosul, the Vatican, and the monastery of Al-Shurfa in Lebanon. Now in the Vatican library is the Syriac Gospel written in 1220 by the monk Mubarak, who decorated it with 54 garnished pictures; it had been kept at the altar of the monastery.

Some books at the monastery now,

DocumentDescription

Syriac-Arabic bible

The New Testament, written in two columns: the first in Syriac and the second in Arabic. Dated to 1177.

Parchment bible

Dated to the early 13th century.

Assorted parchments

Dated to the 13th to 17th centuries.

History

DateDescription

c 363

The monastery was established by a group of monks led by Saint Matthew.

480

A fire engulfed and totally destroyed everything, leaving nothing but the monastery's charred remains on the scorched earth. It was abandoned.

Late 5th century

Some monks came to the site of the old monastery and began monastic life anew.

544

Under the Sassanians, the monastery was renovated.

1171

The monastery was plundered and deserted.

1187

Monastic life was resumed as the monastery.

Early 13th century

Geographer Yakout Al-Hamawi came to visit Nineveh and mentioned, "Mar Matta monastery east of Mosul is situated on a very high mountain called 'Mar Matta Mount'. It is a well-known site because most of houses were remarkably made of cut stones. About 100 monks lived in it. They al ate together in a winter-house or a summer-house, both of which are carved into the rocks. Each house is enough for all the monks. In every house there are about 20 low tables carved into the stone. At the back of each table is a cupboard with shelves and with a door shut upon them. Each table has a separate tool which is delicate and chiseled. There is a separate table, too, for the head of the monks – at the end of the house, where he sits alone at it. They are all engraved and carved in stones. It was a wonder to have a house enough for all the monks with such intricate designs on all the rocks. If ia man sits in the nave of the monastery, he can vividly see the city of Mosul which is about seven leagues away. On one of the walls of the subterranean passages is inscribed two verses which were unfortunately disfigured and gradually faded from sight."

1260

The monastery was looted by the Mongols and the Tartars, and was regularly disturbed by gangs.

Late 14th century

Timurlane came and totally detroyed the monastery, leaving it desolate. The monks wandered without anywhere to go, and the monastery became a shelter for criminals and gangs. It remained abandoned for about 150 years.

Late 16th century

By the late 16th century and early 17th century, under the reign of Othmani the Second, the monastery had regained its fame. Since this time it has been in use continually, except the twelve years that followed its destruction by Mohammed Pasha of Rawanduz.

1833

It was plundered by the Kurdish Pasha of Rawanduz; after this it took a long time to be restored.

1843

In the month of October, 1843, during one of our excursions among the Christians near Mosul, we spent two days at the convent of Mar Mattai, generally known as Sheikh Matta, situated near the summit of Jebel Makloob, and about four hours' ride from the town. Rich visited this part in 1820, but since then the convent has undergone a great change. Old Mutran Moosa, who entertained him, died a few years after, and Rabban Matta was appointed abbot in his stead. In his time, the monastery was attacked by the Coordish Pasha of Rawandooz, whose soldiers defaced or destroyed most of the inscriptions, expelled the resident monks, and plundered all the church property. ... We found the building deserted, and entirely destitute of gates or doors. A row of dilapidated apartments surround a triple court, at the end of which is the church, a very substantial edifice, differing little in its internal arrangement from Mar Behnâm. Badger 1852, p 96-97

1846

The monastery was restored.

c 1850

Since our first visit to Mar matter the convent has been partially repaired and is now the residence of Mutran Matta and two monks. Mutran Matta is the same person who has already been mentioned as the abbot who succeeded Mutran Moosa just before the attack of the Coords. His appointment to this place is another proof of the mal-administration of the ecclesiastical affairs of the Syrians; for while the extensive district of Jebel Toor is left to the care of three bishops, the only five Jacobite villages in this neighbourhood are formed into a diocese under Mutran Matta, separate from that of the town of Mosul, to which the episcopal jurisdiction of Mutran Behnâm is confined. ... The names of the villages in this district which are under the jurisdiction of Mutran Matta are: Karakôsh, Bartolli, Ba-Sheaka, Ba-Hazâni, and Kôb near Akra, containing in all 350 Jacobite families. We visited each of these in succession, and found many both among the clergy and laity, who deplored the state of their church and wished for a reform. The complaint was that the Bishops were indifferent to their spiritual wants, and only came among them to collect tithe. Badger 1852, p 99-101

We passed a few weeks here during the summer of 1850, and in that time had abundant opportunity of becoming acquainted with the internal economy of the establishment. Mutran Matta received me as an old friend, and placed at our disposal two of the best rooms in the convent. He is an illiterate man, but simple and kind-hearted, and after matins spends most of his time in superintending the repairs of the monastery and in looking after its revenue. He seemed busy all day long in attending to the crops, sheep, cows, fowls, wood, and other provisions; of which a large stock is kept for the use of the numerous visitors from Mosul and the surrounding villages who frequent the convent in the hot season. Badger 1852, p 100

1895

There were two monks in the monastery, one old and rather deaf, who had spent most of his life in Midhiat, and had come to pass his remaining days at Mar Mattha. The second was a young man, ordained Rahab only two years since, but being a trustworthy and well-educated man, was obtaining considerable influence, and had almost the entire management of the place, even when the Bishop was there. Parry 1895, p 266-267

There were a few trees, mostly figs and apricots, and pasture here and there among the rocks for the monastery's flock of 400 sheep.

1970 - 1973

The monastery was restored and many parts were rebuilt and connected with electricity.

1980s

The road was paved due to the establishment of a military base on a northern peak of the mountain.

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Badger 1852
Badger, George Percy. 1852. The Nestorians and their Rituals. Google Books

Google BooksParry, Oswald Hutton. 1895. Six Months in a Syrian Monastery.

aina.org

Google BooksBudge, E A Wallis. 1897. The Laughable Stories Collected by Mâr Gregory John Bar Hebræ.

Google BooksLaurie, Thomas. 1855. Dr. [A.] Grant and the mountain Nestorians.

Gertrude Bell's photos
1, 2, 3.

Mason 1919
Mason, Kenneth. 1919. Central Kurdistan, The Geographical Journal, Vol LIV No 6. jstor.org