Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pilgrims at Helm's Deep

After departing Mar Matay Monastery, our bus took us north to the Chaldean town of Alqosh.  As we rolled into town, I noticed the local communist party headquarters.  Communism has a following in Kurdistan because it is tied into Kurdish nationalism.  I find it strange that an internationalist ideology is so often at the service of nationalist causes.  Of course, the vast majority of Chaldeans are not communists and Alqosh is home to something far more impressive than a diminutive outpost of the Comintern.  High in the mountains above the town, sits the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, or as I prefer to call it, Helm's Deep.

Before we visited the monastery/fortress, we made a stop at The Virgin Mary, Guardian of Plants' Monastery inside the town.  A priest there explained that in the 19th Century, Rabban Hormizd Monastery lost access to water, and so the Virgin Mary's Monastery was built to house the monks.

Some photos of the monastery church:

Photo Credit: Walshes

Photo Credit: Walshes
This is a memorial to a previous abbot of the monastery.  It is written in Sureth and Arabic, with a short epitaph in Latin:

After leaving the monastery in Alqosh, our bus drive attempted to get us through the hairpin turns and up the mountain to Rabban Hormizd Monastery.  The bus had to be backed up for an assault on each turn, and every time it backed up, the passengers felt like vehicle was about to fall off the edge of the cliff behind us.  After we had gone about three quarters of the way up the mountain, the road got too steep for the bus, and we trekked up on foot.  The monastery, built in a semicircle on the mountainside, is a sight to behold.

The road up the mountain:

Rabban Hormuz Monastery has a fascinating history.  Founded in 640 AD, it was the home of saints and martyrs for over a millennium.  The most significant event in the monastery's history took place in the 16th Century.  In 1553, Shimun VII Yohannan Sulaqa, the abbot of Rabban Hormuz, traveled to Rome and offered allegiance to the Pope on behalf of the Assyrian people.  He was consecrated as the first Chaldean Patriarch, and reigned from Rabban Hormuz until his martyrdom in 1555.  Rabban Hormuz is the birthplace of the Chaldean church.

I got this photo off of Wikipedia.  It was probably taken in the spring.  When we were there, the grass was brown.

The wall of the Hornburg:

An ancient monk's cell, dug out of the mountainside:

The mountainside is dotted with caves hallowed out by the monks.

A system of caves and tunnels behind the monastery forms the catacombs.

Inside the catacombs:

I think this alcove may be a tomb:

Parts of the cave system are blocked off.

Before we left, I took this video from the monastery roof:


Our visit to Rabban Hormuz Monastery is one the highlights of my time in Iraq.  One feels a sense of peace in that holy place, looking over the valley as a cool breeze blows over the mountains.  I will  certainly never forget it.


  1. Helm's Deep huh. I can see why.
    The Church is georgeous & I suspect the pictures don't do it justice.
    Looks to me like the history major is getting a good look at the history of the Catholic Church in the Middle East we so often hear little about.

    1. Your right about the pictures. My iPod camera is not great, but even a nice camera is no substitute for being there.

      It's too bad that the Middle Eastern Church is forgotten by so many. I think most Americans don't even realize that Christians live in Muslim countries.

  2. I wonder what's behind the blocked of sections?

    1. I wonder that as well. I'd like to think that it's full of ancient relics guarded by deadly traps. You know, Indiana Jones stuff.

  3. Hi Patrick! I miss you. You are a prolific writer and a wonderful person. I like how the students learned so much from you. Keep in touch. Marianne

  4. Hi Patrick, I was just trying to google some pictures from that church and then I found your blog, which is very cool!

    I visited that church 2 years ago and I still can't forget about it, it was definiteley the most wonderful church I've ever seen in my life.

    The best part was that it was hidden, and did you know that many Christians had to hide inside when the muslims had the war in Iraq? Like a secret church, because you can't see it from a far distance.

    Anyways, what I wanted to say from the beginning was.. keep up with your good work her, I will remember to check out your blog again!

    Stay blessed, Omti from Sweden. (Omtiii@hotmail.com)

    1. It is an amazing place. Thanks for reading!