“Et cétait vrai. J’ai toujours aimé le desert. On s’assoit sur une dune de sable. On ne voit rien. On n’entend rien. Et cependent quelque chose rayonne en silence” [Le Petit Prince: Antoine de Saint-Exupery]
On the 28th of August the inhabitants of the desert town of Nebek, 90 kilometres north of Damascus and 1,500 metres above sea level, honour their patron saint Mar Musa al-Habashi, Saint Moses the Ethiopian. He is commemorated with flowers and prayers and otherwise festive celebrations. Legend dictates that this individual was a black slave who became a highwayman and terrorised all in his path as he cut sway through the frontier of a Byzantine Egypt. When force was against him, he fled into the wilderness and sought refuge with local hermits only to be converted to Christianity. He lived out his days as an ascetic, a life of selflessness and reflection, in the mist of the Jebel al- Mudakhan, “The Smoking Mountain” of the Qalamoun in Central Syria.
Local lore differs. It ascribes the bandit a noble birth, that of the son of an Ethiopian king, a calling to God of his own accord and martyrdom by the sword of the rival Chacedonian church and its henchmen. Be that as it may, all of the stories recount a black Musa as as the founder of the monastery which sits precariously on the Eastern slope of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range: Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi. To this day Saint Moses (Mar Musa) is venerated by cult: a silver-encased relic, the saint’s thumb, now resides in the neighbouring Church of the Virgin where the festivities of the 28th August also occur.
As with many foundation myths, we would be mistaken to believe that the monastery of Mar Musa al –Habashi was established under such patronage as claimed. Although the relic attributed to the hand of Moses the Ethiopian, reads (in Arabic), “this blessed glove was donated to the holy Monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi, in the village of Nebek, by the humble Bishop Elias (1817)” none of the inscriptions from within the monastery refers to al-Habashi, the Ethiopian. The initial dedicatory inscription, six lines of (Arabic) Kufic script incised in two limestone blocks (circa 1508 CE/ 450 AH), state that the “church was built “[with the help of] the Lady [Virgin Mary] and Saint Moses the Prophet.” A similar declaration is found with a second, and contemporaneous, foundation inscription: “In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate erected this blessed church in the name of the Lady and the Holy Saint Moses”. Equally the documentation from beyond the monastery makes no reference to an Abyssinian. The earliest text, a work of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople and one of leading Church Fathers, cites the “convent of Moses.” This manuscript, now held in the British Library (MS 14559), was written (or obtained) by the Bishop of Palmyra circa 575 BC and thus a 6th Century date for the monastery’s existence, at least according to the literary sources, may be established.
All the above would suggest that the monastery was established not in the name of Moses the Ethiopian but another Moses. Most likely it was the Prophet Moses who was also canonised (or at least refered to as Saint) in certain Christian tradition; and that up until the 17th Century, when the Bishop Dioskoros visited the convent of Moses the Prophet, the monastery’s Musa retained this designation. Only later did the monastery acquire an Abyssinian association.
Beyond this hallowed ground is a more ancient landscape. It has been the subject of expedition by Robert Mason of the Royal Ontario Museum; although brief in scope, the 2009 survey led to the discovery of “desert kites”, a triangular-shaped stone structure designed to trap large numbers of wild animals, and stone circles to indicate a Neolithic past. (6000-10000 BCE).
More attention has been paid to the early history of the desert brethren, their lodgings in one of the thirty-odd hermit cells and the architecture of the main monastic building. Within these walls, scoured with “loopholes” more reminiscent of warfare than reclusion, is a complex which has developed over several successive phases. It has been suggested that the first stage of occupation was Roman and that one of these two existent structures may have served as a Roman watch tower designed to guard the Damascus-Palmyra thoroughfare (which is still discernible in the desert plain below the monastery).
The early 4-5th Century church developed around the abandoned “Roman” tower and several of these roman blocks were utilised, albeit crudely, by monks rather than master craftsmen as the monastery took shape. The subsequent phase was altogether more professional; a basilica, more in keeping with other 6th century buildings, was established. And when Poseidon, god of earthquakes, struck this fragile region in the late 12th Century, renovation followed. It was at this time that the frescoes which adorn the current chapel were executed. The monastery was remodelled in the 16th Century at which point there was an active scriptorium.
By the time of Sir Richard Burton’s visit in 1870, the monastery was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. Captain Burton was one of the 19th Century’s most colourful orientalists (and arguably one the century’s most impulsive and sardonic travel writers). In 1853 he disguised himself as an Afghan physician and made the Hajj to Mecca under the name of Mirza Abdullah. Nearly 20 years later he visited Deir Mar Musa and exhumed 5 skulls, including the “priest’s skull, [and a] skull [whose] mouth stuffed with wool” [in a] semi-mummified condition“. Along the way Burton acquired the monastery’s bronze censer, an incense burner; it was summarily displayed before the Society of Antiquaries in 1872 in London (before finding a resting place in the British Museum).
Yet Burton had little regard for the frescoes which he considered tp be “the rudest Graeco-Syrian style with the vilest of daubs on the iconastasis and walls”. Opinion has since shifted. These paintings are perhaps Syria’s most understated treasure. Scenes of the Annunciation, the Baptism of Christ, Prophet Moses receiving the Tablets and The Last Judgment represent an indigenous and unbroken chain of Syrian tradition. This unique witness has survived from a 6th Century Byzantine Empire through the vicissitudes of the Islamic Seljuqs and Atabeq dynasties as well as Salah el-din (Saladin 1137-1193) and his foe, The Franks of the Latin Crusades.
Current scholarship is much kinder than Burton. It acknowledges the debt to a local style, long silenced and infused with both Byzantine and Islamic schools of Art. At the same time it divorces itself from a Western (or Crusader) hand and finds a unique narrative within the confines of this chapel, no bigger than 10 metres square. Underneath the peeling paintwork are the three different layers of workmanship executed in just over 100 years (11th-13th Century). The frescoes offer a glimpse of both the theological world of the Mar Musa monks and the artistic endeavours of the painters such as Sarkis ibn al Qassis Ghalil bin Barran and the calligrapher Hunayn who have inscribed their names upon the chapel walls. They have entered the history books. So too have the modern day conservators who have also left memorial inscriptions. On the interior of the chancel screen in Arabic and Italian is a dialogue with history: a record for future restorers. Here, future generations can find the details of the date of restoration and the fact that it was painted in one session using the traditional techniques of the original artists, 700 years before.
C Carter Blake, Description of the Remains from Dayr Mar Musa el Habashi Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 1 (1872)
Erica Cruikshank Dodd, The Frescoes of Mar Musa al-Habashi: A Study in Medieval Painting in Syria (2000)
Erica Cruikshank Dodd. “The Monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi, near Nebek, Syria” Arte medievale, II serie, 6.1 (1992), pp 61-132
Il restauro del monastero di San MosŠ l’Abissino, Nebek, Siria / Istituto Centrale per il Restauro, Roma ; Ministero della Cultura, Direzione Generale delle Antichit… e dei Musei, Damasco ; Comunit… Monastica di Deir Mar Musa, Nebek. – Damasco/Damascus (in Italian) 1998.
On desert kites and stone circles: See:
http://www.archaeogate.org/classica/article/1445/1/stone-structures-in-the-syrian-desert-by-amelia-carolin.html (Amelia Carolina Sparavigna)
Stone circles of the harraat of the Syrian desert, Amelia Carolina Sparavigna (13 August 2012) http://arxiv.org/abs/1208.2591
The author would like to thank Dr. Robert Mason of the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Emma Loosley and Dr. Amelia Sparavigna for their assistance (and photographs).
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similary those of the author. Adam.email@example.com @blitz_adam on Twitter