Assyrian Monasteries
in Present Day Iraq

Mar Bihnam
Mar Elia
Mar Gewargis
Rabban Hurmiz
Dair Khtaya
Mar Mattai
Mar Mikhael
Mar Oraham

 Dair Mar Bihnam 

Location: 20 miles south-East of Mosul. 4 miles from the Ancient Assyrian city of Calah (Nimrud). Situated between the Tigris river and the upper Zab. Adjacent to the Khathar Elias Village.

Cared for by: The Syriac Catholic Church (previously, The Syriac Orthodox Church)

Description: The monastery is surrounded with walls having doors embroidered with ancient Assyrian designs*.  Beside the monastery, is the famous man-made cave, believed to have been dug during Assyrian times, with the tomb of Saint Bihnam. Visitors to the cave are overwhelmed by the spiritual aura upon entering the dark and serene location which many believe brings Christians closer to God.  Inside the Monastery is one of the most valuable Syriac libraries existing today.  The church is a historical treasure for the Christian Assyrian heritage containing many detailed carvings in Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian dating to the early 12th century.

Establishment:  There are two main theories as to the establishment of the monastery.  One states that the monastery is believed to have been built during the 4th century and belonged to the Mar Mattai Monastery. The other theory is that the monastery is named after the martyr Fihnam (not Bihnam), an Assyrian who was killed by Ardashir, son of Shapur (379-383)**

History:  The monastery, after its establishment continued its work and contributed greatly to the Christian world under the care of the Syriac orthodox church. Sculptures in the church show that renovations were done in 1164, 1250-1261 AD.***  Records show that the monastery suffered greatly during the period from 1743 - 1790 which is most likely due to the Nadr Shah attacks of the Christians in the region.  In 1790 was taken over by the Catholic Church and was managed for 8 years until the Syriac Orthodox church took it back.  For some unknown reason, the monks abandoned the monastery in 1819.  The monastery changed hands again to the Syriac catholic church in 1839, which has cared for it to present time.

* F. Dr. Hanna Shaikho, 'Kildan Al-Qarn Al-Ishreen' (Chaldean of the twentieth Century), p.195.
** F. John Feye, Assyrien Christien, Part 2, P. 566.
*** F. John Feye, Assyrien Christien, Part 2, P. 591.

Dair Mar Elia

Location: 4 miles south-west of Mosul.

Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: Currently has no clergy residing in the monastery. Surrounded by several hills which add to the beauty of site, especially during the spring season. The entrance is made up of large stone arch which remains from the original church. Thousands of faithfuls from the city of Mosul and the various Nineveh Villages visit the monastery during Mar Elia Holiday which occurs at the end of November on a Wednesday. Dair Mar Elia comprises the following:

Establishment: Mar Elia was a student of the famous Nisibin who entered the monastic life at the great monastery at the Ezla Mountain in Turkey. He became a student of Mar Orahim who established the bylaws of the monastery in 571A.D. Mar Elia established his Monastery during the reign of the Persian King Hurmizd IV before 595 AD.*

History: ,After many years of service by Mar Elia, the responsibility of caring for the monastery was given to Mar Elia's nephew, Khnanisho. During the 17th century, an Alqush native by the name of Hurmizd Alqushnaya renovated the monastery. It remained to be a successful center of Christianity until, as with Dair Mar Oraha, 1743 when Tahmaz Nadir Shah destroyed it and murdered its inhabitants. The beginning of the twentieth century brought much renovation and interest in the monastery. Thousands of Christians would gather during Mar Elia day to commemorate his holiday. A military compound ( Mu'askar Al-Al-ghazlani) was built around the monastery a few decades later which dramatically reduced the number of visitors out of fear from the military.**

*Dr. Yousif Habbi, 'Bet Nahrain' magazine, 1974 Issue 7 , p.268.
* ibid

Dair Mar Gewargis 

Location 6 miles north-east of Mosul. Situated on the east side of the river Tigris. 4 miles from Tel-kepeh (Telkaif).
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: Visited every 24th of April and the sixth Sunday of Easter Fast. Comprises a large building used as a church, a second smaller church built in 1924 named after Mar Antonios, the healer of monks, and a visitors' refuge/building.  The monastery has a school for 30-40 students to prepare them in language, theology, mathematics, sciences managed by principal Father Hurmiz Shalal of Telkaif.

Establishment: The date of the monastery established is not clear.  However, we are certain that it initially was only a church belonging to the village of Ba-wera which gained fame in the 10th century.  one of the famous Syriac fathers who was a monk in this monastery is Mar Abd-isho I, who became a patriarch of the Church of the East in 963.

History: Little is known about the monastery after the death of Mar Abdisho I  during the 10th century. There are a few indirect references to the Monastery such as the letter by Shimun Al-Mosuli to the heads of Dair Mar Gewargis in 1549AD.  The monastery contains the grave of an Italian-dominican father who died in 1753.  He was sent  by the Roman Catholic church to bring the inhabitants of Alqush back to Catholicism.  After his death, the people of Alqush refused to bury him in their town so the other Italian fathers took him to the Monastery where he was buried.  They, soon after, fled to the city of Mosul.
The monastery contains several calligraphy works given to the Monastery by a local lady from Telkaif in 1778.  The calligraphy was mostly famous sayings of  Ishaq the Ninevite*
In 1885, The blind saint Mar Shimun was buried in the upper church of the monastery.  The grave is visited by many Christians every year. In the beginning of the 20th century, several rooms were added to the monastery  by Father Moshi Iramya and father Yosip Najar. The heads of the monastery were the following:

    1. Father Kiryakos Goga of Telkaif  1875 - 1863
    2. Father Andraouis of Koisinjak 1863-1903
    3. Father Istephan Ogin of Baqufa 1903-1906
    4. Father Elia Shimun Qaryo of Shranish 1908-??
    5. Father Benyamin Oza of Telkaif  1917-1924
    6. Father Moshi Iramya of Urmia 1924-1936
    7. Father Antonios Gorgis of Shaqlawa 1936-1939
    8. Father yosip Dadisho Najar of Telkaif 1939-1942
    9. FatherHanna Chiyo of Alqush 1942-1952
    10. Father Mikhael Isho of Malla Barwan 1952-1960
    11. Father Philip Ishaq of Dawidia 1960-1962
    12. Father Ablahad Rabban of Shaqlawa 1962-1963
    13. Father Polis Nwiya Al-yasoo-ee 1963-1966
    14. Faher Hurmiz Shalal 1966-present
*Chaldean Patriarchal archives, No. 616, Baghdad , Iraq.

 Dair Rabban Hurmiz 

Location: 34 miles north of Mosul. 2 miles north-east of Alqush.
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: Dair Rabban Hurmiz is the most famous and most visited monastery in Iraq. Dair Rabban Hurmiz was the holy seat of the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East for several generations.  Situated directly above a large cave in the Alqush mountain. The monastery overlooks a famous valley called 'Gali Al-dair' meaning 'valley of the monastery'.  'Shara D'Rabban Hurmiz'   meaning 'the holiday of the monk Hurmiz' occurs every third Monday following Easter Sunday. Until a few years ago, the monastery was unreachable by automobile nor did it have electricity or running water.  The monks relied on mountain springs and oil lamps for everyday life. The monastery contains  several wings including a church with several alters, a burial site for saints and patriarchs( Baith Sahdeh) , a library currently containing manuscripts as old as 1497, 'Baith Sahdeh' or 'house of martyrs', 'Baith U'matha' or 'house of baptism', and over 40 small caves used by monks scattered all over the Alqush mountain. Some of the caves contain numerous carved writings pertaining to the date of establishment as well as other historical details.  The monastery also includes large rooms carved in the mountain stone including a large dining room able to hold over 100 monks.  This truly amazing 800 sq. ft. (15 ft. high) dining room is completely carved inside the mountain with small vertical portions left uncarved to act as support beams. The church contains the following alters:

  1. The Raban Hurmiz Alter : The oldest and simplest in the monastery. The north and west walls are part of the mountain and the floor is made up of stone coffins.  Includes stone carvings of 14 different types of crosses.  The later is a monolithic stone type with a center groove containing white sand called 'khnana'.  This 'khnana' is sacred to Assyrian worshipers and is usually brought from burial sites of certain saints.
  2. The Mar Antonios Alter: Situated east of the Rabban Hurmiz Alter. This small (8x3 meters) room includes an alter with two finely carved boxes used to store the holy book, the cross, and various oils used in mass.  The alter is made of white marble-like stone.
  3. The holy Trinity Alter: The largest later of the monastery.  Considered the formal church at the location.  Contains Syriac carvings dating to the 15th century.  The part of the monastery was renovated in 1485, 1667 (after an earth quake) , 1817, 1846, 1849, 1930.
  4. The forty Martyrs Alter: Built in 1820 under the care of F. Gabrial with the blessings of the Chaldean Patriarch Mar Yosip II of Amid**
  5. The patriarchal burial Alter: Contains 9 graves belonging the patriarchs from the house of Aboona who led the Church of the East from 1497 to 1804.  Three graves belong to:
Establishment: Rabban Hurmiz came to the Alqush Mountain after spending several years in Dair Resha (The head monastery) with his colleague, Rabban Yozadaq who also left to the Nuhadra mountain.  The monastery was built in 640 AD with the assistance of two Ninevite princes who witnessed miraculous healing by Rabban Hurmiz.*

History: Built during the patriarchship of Isho-yab II  (628-644 AD). Became a famous location of learning and religion especially during the 10-12 century which brought up such Syriac fathers as Mar Yohanna of Halabta, Isho Barnon, Mar Ipni Maron, and others. The monastary was then attacked by Mongols under the leadership of Taimorlang.  The monastic life returned to Dair Rabban Hurmiz a few years after,  but on a smaller scale.

The 16th century witnessed the division of the Church of the East when Yohanna Sulaqa sided with Rome and established the Chaldean Church. In 1653, the Kurds attacked the Monastery causing the Patriarch, Mar Shimun IX,  to move to Telkepeh (Telkaif) for a short period.  Mar Elia XI returned to the monastery in 1714 and became the center of the Chaldean patriarch for four generations.  In 1722, over 60 monks fled the monastery after the attack by Nader-Shah, and took refuge in the nearby Mar Mikha church in Alqush. Monastic life returned once again in 1808 under the care of F. Gabiral Danbu.  The monastery continued successfully until the Kurdish uprising in North Iraq between 1963-1974 which caused the monks and priest to vacate the mountain.  The Chaldean Church was able to return to the monastery in 1975 and has continued to care for it till today.

*F. Paulis Shaikho, 'Al-diura' (The monastaries), No.89 , p.59.
** F. Petrus Haddad, 'Diarat Al-mashariqa' (monasteries of the East), No. 13, P. 184.

 Dair Al-sayida (Dair Khtaya)

Location: 31 miles north of Mosul. 1 miles north-east of Alqush.  The sister monastery of Dair Rabban Hurmiz.
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church

Description: Also known in the region as 'Dair Al-tahtani' meaning 'the lower monastery'  since it is close to Dair Rabban Hurmiz and run by the same monks.  Has continued to be the Chaldean monastic headquarters since it was built. A large number of Chaldean-Assyrians visit the site on the 15th of May of every year to commemorate the holiday of the virgin Mary , Protector of the crops'. Contains four sections

 Establishment: Built started in 1858 by F. El-Isho Is-haq of Nohadra  in order to handle the increasing number of monks at the Rabban Hurmiz monastery. The building was completed in 1861.

History: After the death of  F. El-Isho, The monastery was cared for by the following**

  1. Father Polis Jalal of Urmia  1875-1879
  2. Father Abraham Abo of Karkuk 1879-1880
  3. Father Shmoel Jamil of Telkaif 1881-1884
  4. Father Polus Jalal of Urmia 1884-1887
  5. Father Shmoel Jamil of Telkaif 1887-1894
  6. Father Putrus Al-qas Oraha of Karkuk 1894-1900
  7. Father Shmoel Jamil of Telkaif 1900-1917
  8. Father Musheh Eramya of Deza Gawar 1917-1921
  9. Father Yosip Dadisho Nagara of Telkaif 1921-1933
  10. Father Hanna Hurmiz of Alqush 1933-1936
  11. Father Mosheh Eramya of Deza Gawar 1936-1939
  12. Father Antonios Gewargis of Shaqlawa 1939-1942
  13. Father Yosip Dadisho Nagara of Telkaif 1942-1948
  14. Bishop Istephan Balu of Alqush 1948-1958 (Became Bishop of Halab, Syria in 1960)
  15. Bishop Shmoel Shurez of Telisquf 1958-1960 (Became Bishop of Urmia until his death in 1980)
  16. Father Emanuel Haddad of Alqush 1960-1963
  17. Father Rophael Shorez of Telisquf May 1963-July 1963
  18. Bishop Ablahad Rabban of Shaqlawa 1963-1971 ( Became Bishop of Aqra in 1980)
  19. Father Abraham Ilyas of Karkuk 1971 - present
  20. *The library has been moved to the 'Chaldean monastery' in Al-dora, Baghdad Iraq.
    ** Bet nahrain Magazine, No.3, 1975  p. 161-172.

 Dair Mar Mattai

Location: 20 miles north-east of Mosul. Built on the Maqlub Mountain.
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: Dair Mar Mattai is considered to be the most important Assyrian monastery in Iraq due to its religious, historical, and geographical significance.  Located at the top of the famous 'Maqloub' Mountain, the monastery overlooks the magnificent fields of the Nineveh plains.  To the left of the monastery is a large cave with natural mountain spring water dripping from the ceiling of the cave.  The monastery has over 50 rooms, 3 halls for gathering, a church, A saints' room (Baith Qadisheh) believed to hold the remains of Mar Mattai, Mar Zakkai, Mar Abraham, Bar Ibraya among others*

Establishment: Considered the only monastery remaining with its original building since its establishment.  the only accurate date for the monastery actually belongs to the building of the church within it, and dates back to the mid 4th century.**.

History: Mar Mattai is believed to have been morn in Amid, Diar Bakir (present day South Eastern Turkey).  He, among many other monks fled to the 'Maqloub' mountain from the persecution of Julianis in 361 AD. The number of monks soon increased to over 7000 which brought about the new name of the mountain, Tura D'alpayeh, or the thousands mountain.  in 484 AD, the mountain monks followed the Monophisite theology, and since then, its bishop was given the title 'Bishop of Athur and the Nineveh Plains'.***
In the beginning of the 6th century, the theological direction of the monastery returned to follow the two natures theory which continues to the present.  The monastery became a well known learning center from the 7th century to the 12th century when many of its monks had to flee during the Salah Al-deen Al-ayoobi battles.  The monastery returned to its past splendor in the thirteenth century until its partial destruction by Taimorlang, the Mongole.
The monastery remained abandoned till 1795 AD when Basil Gargis II Al-Mosuli renovated it and built the fence walls around it.  In 1845, additional wings were added.  The monastery is still considered to by one of the most sacred places of Christian worship in the middle east.  Christians belonging to the Assyrian church of the East, the Chaldean Church, the Syriac orthodox church, and well as other Assyrian churches frequently visit Dair Mar Mattai for spiritual healing and meditation.

* Gorgis Awad, 'Tahqeeqat Baldaniya' (National research), p. 34.
**Senharib Sitwak, Dair Mar Mattai' (The monastery of Mar Mattai)', p.110.
*** Gorgis Awad, 'Tahqeeqat Baldaniya' (National research), p. 38.


Dair Mar Mikhael 

Location: 4 miles north-west of Mosul. Near the Tigris river neighboring several villages. 4 miles from Dair Mar Gewargis.
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: The monastery is divided into two sections; the internal quarters and the external quarters.  The internal quarters comprises 20 rooms and 8 halls on the first level.  The second level has additional rooms overlooking the beautiful monastery gardens adjacent to the Tigris river.  The external quarters is where the main monastery church is located as well as 6 additional rooms.  The mar Mikhael holiday occurs on the 5th Sunday of the Easter fast when thousands of faithfuls from Mosul, Telkaif, Telisquf, Batnaya, and other Assyrian villages and towns come to celebrate*

Establishment: According to tradition, the monastery was established in mid fourth century AD by Mar Mikhael, a student of Mar Ogin**.

History: Little is known about the monastery after the death of Mar Oraha in the fourth century until the 8th century when the monastery became under the care of Mar Ishoyab (Nephew of the patriarch Slewa Zakhai 711-728). In the beginning of the 11th century, a well was dug in the monastery .  During the dig, a stone carved tomb was found with a complete, clothed body along with inscriptions which were not comprehensible by the founders at the time***
It is also known that the famous 11th century writer, Elia Barshinaya, was one of the few hundred students at the monastary.****
Several remaining manuscripts and evidence show that the monastery remained an active school of thought and spiritual source till the its whole or partial destruction  by Nader-Shah in 1743.
Inscriptions on the East walls of the monastery today show that it was re-built, or renovated, in 1867, under the care of Father Romanos Al-alqushy. It was further renovated in 1956 under the guidance of Father Afram Rassam.

* F. Afram Rassam, 'Ta'reekh Dair Mar Mikhael' (History of the Mar Mikhael Monastery), p.34-38.
**Addai Sheer, 'Shuhada Al-Sharq' (Martyrs of the East)', Part 2 , p.128.
*** F. John Feye, "Christien Assyrien', Part II, P. 662.
**** Vatican Syriac Archive No.143, P.67-68.
 Dair Mar Oraham

Location: North-East of 'Batnaya' village, 20 miles north of Mosul.
Cared for by: The Chaldean Church (previously, The Church of the East)

Description: Situated on very fertile land with abundant water reserves due to the large valley directly in front of the monastery. Worshipers flock to the monastery twice a year: the fifth Sunday of the Easter fast and on the first Sunday after Easter. The hundreds of visitors enjoy spending the day in the nearby pistachio fields that surround the monastery near the Khusar River.
The monastery includes one large rectangular building 33 meters long and 26 meters wide. The building is surrounded by stones of marble and lapis lazuli meticulously carved with various Christian and ancient motifs.

Establishment: Mar Oraha was a monk at Dair Baith-'Awi when he approached Rabban Hurmiz to share his duties as a priest. The two worked together during Mar Oraha's seven years of service at Dair Risha Monastery in the Maqloob Mountain. Mar Oraha had to vacate Dair Risha due to sudden and drastic shortage of water . After spending three days at his new home at Baith-'Athrai, legend has it that Mar Oraha heard a voice ordering him to go to Nineveh and establish a monastery there. The Mar Oraha Monastery was then built during the patriarchship of Isho-yab (581-596 AD)*

History: Little is known about the monastery after the death of Mar Oraha. However, There is mention of it during the time of Patriarch Elia VII in 1607 and in 1610 in his reports to the Roman Catholic Pope Paul V regarding the state of the Chaldean Church. Records show that the monastery was mostly demolished but soon re-built by , F. Hurmiz Nur-din, a priest from Batnaya in the mid 17th century. During this period, the Monastery was managed by F. 'Abdo who aligned himself with the Catholic church on January, 6th,1719 along with F. Khadr Al-mosuli.**

In 1743, The monastery was forcefully occupied by Nadir Shah's army, who partially destroyed and murdered its monks after destroying all the villages and monasteries along the way from Mosul.***

The monastery was again re-built with the financial assistance of the Roman Catholic church , Pope Benedriktos XV by Patriarch Emanuel II in 1921, as shown in carvings on the main door of the monastery.

*F. John Fiye, 'Assyrian Christianity', Chapter 2 , p.265.
**F. John Fiye, 'Assyrian Christianity', Chapter 2 , p.533.
***Sulaiman Al-Saigh, 'The Nineveh Villages', Al-Mashriq magazine, Issue 21, 1923 , p.422.