The list of precious monuments destroyed by ISIS grows ever longer. The latest ecclesiastical treasure reduced to rubble is St Elijah’s monastery —Dair Mar Elia —which had stood on a hill, 60 kilometres south of the city of Mosul, in the Ninevah province of Iraq, for 1,400 years.
One of the earliest Christian structures in the Middle East, the monastery was founded in 595 CE by Mar Elia, an Assyrian monk who had studied in the great Izla mountain monastery in Turkey.
Later claimed by the Chaldean Church, an Eastern Syrian branch of Catholicism, it became a centre of Christian pilgrimage until damaged by a Persian invasion in 1743 when its 150 resident monks were slaughtered for their refusal to convert to Islam.
The monastery lay in ruins until the twentieth century when some restoration was made to its sanctuary and the monk’s cells built around a central courtyard. And conveniently located near a natural spring water reservoir, the holy place continued to draw Christian pilgrims from far and wide.
Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the ancient complex suffered further damage by Iraqi tank units and the rooms and cistern were trashed by soldiers.
Not until 2008 were archaeologists and journalists finally able to visit. Among them was James Foley, the American war correspondent who wrote that he hoped the site would be saved “for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it”.
In June 2014, Mosul a city counting some 35,000 Assyrian Christians, was overrun by ISIS or Daesh as it is known in Arabic.
Foley, who had been kidnapped in 2012, was beheaded on 19 August 2014 and sometime between August and September, St Elijah’s Monastery was blasted to smithereens.