DEIR MAR MOUSA – THE STORY OF FATHER PAOLO DALL’OGLIO AND THE PICTURESQUE DEIR MAR MOUSA
By Alisar Iram
This is the story of a priest who fell in love with an ancient country and its people, a colorful country with amazing diversity and vitality, a country which watched the first steps of mankind towards civilization. One day on a visit to Syria, the Italian priest climbed high up a mountain and came across a fairy spot where heaven and earth seemed to meet and the intersection between the worlds rested for a moment in an old crumbling monastery, humble and ruined, yet rising like a fortress commanding the Kalamoun mountains around it and overlooking hills and mountains as old as time and a landscape where men walked thousands of years ago. The priest nearly fell to his death, and was injured, but he later recovered to dedicate thirty years of his life to the service of this sacred spot, rebuilding the monastery compound with the help of other good people. In his heart, he knew that God had many names and that all the names of God are equally holy and equally important. Thus began the spiritual journey and the indefatigable quest for the Holy Grail of love and understanding of the young priest whose course and destiny not even a Revolution followed by a war could alter or halt. When he heard God calling to him atop the hills of Kalamoun in that lonely glorious spot, he felt an unbreakable bond grow between him and the humble simple people in the rambling villages all around him, simple peaceful people who lived a life of semi poverty and worked terribly hard to raise their children and feed their families.
As time passed the young priest, the monastery and its little church, adorned with lovely old frescoes, the steep lofty hill where it stood and the panoramic vastness of the Kalamoun became one, indistinguishable from the earth and the spirit of Syria.
I remember the first time I visited the Monastery of Mar Mousa Al-Habashi. My sister in law who sadly died of cancer was a lover of Deir Mar Musa. She told us so much about how special the place was that the family, myself among them, decided to accompany her. I shall never forget this trip to one of the most picturesque and atmospheric places in Syria. High up the mountains, we climbed and climbed until we reached the rustic simple monastery which also looked like a natural fortress, rising out of the living rock. I stood still, spellbound by the beauty and the holiness of the place. I gazed at the mighty steep rocks creating a landscape of ancient power and loveliness. In the modest church, I let my eyes wander caressingly as they lingered over the old frescoes which were still being restored and I delighted in them, in their ancientness and in their devotional spirit. Tears streamed down my face because that was Syria too, a great and immortal Syria.
At the very heart of this living archaeological sacredness lived a holy man, brother to the stars, Father Paolo. His spirit filled the sacred place with the beauty of his longing and love. Yes, there lived Father Paolo, a man both Christ and Mohammad would have loved and honoured.
I had visited many great churches, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world, lavishly decorated and constructed, mighty in their splendour, but the church of Mar Mousa, rock-ringed and held in the arms of the mountain, lit by gentle shafts of sunlight in the morning and in the evening the moon, with its congregation kneeling or sitting on the carpets like in a mosque, while all around slumbered the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints in their halos along the walls and under the simple arches, awakened only by the desire to tell their stories – that rocky solitary church and its frescoes spelled to me the kind of beauty and hushed richness that only the soul can dwell on and recollect as a moment lost in time but found in a memory that does not die.
I do not know beyond the shadow of doubt whether Father Paolo was kidnapped by Al Qaida affiliates (ISIS), the State of Iraq and the Levant, or by agents of the regime collaborating with Al-Qaeda during his mission of peace in order to free some Syrian prisoners, although the first possibility has now become almost certain; we do not know whether he is dead or alive because we have no evidence of either. Rumours are rife and reports of every kind are choking the Net. In the beginning, we were advised to be discreet about his disappearance in order not to jeopardize his chances. But I was among those who thought that too much discretion might convince the kidnappers that he was expendable.
All I know is that Father Paolo made the Syrians his family, therefore we, who love him, have made him a part of our family too. We are responsible for him. Weeks ago, I posted this plea on Facebook to the kidnappers, asking for the release of Father Paolo:
We, the Syrians, would like you to know that Father Paolo was and still is in our hearts. He is our Father Paolo, our brother, our son and shepherd. We loved the devout learned man of God and we loved his love for us, for our land, for our mountains. We loved his gentleness and his moral integrity. We loved that he lived like the poor and loved the poor. Release our Father Paolo. You are responsible for his life because he came to you as a messenger of peace in order to beseech you to release the innocent citizen prisoners captured by your soldiers. He went to you with nothing but his trust and faith in your generous response. Where are the Arab code of honour and the laws of hospitality which oblige you to return him safe and unharmed? Father Paolo is honoured by all of us, Muslims and Christians, alike.
Perhaps, it would be apt at this stage of the narrative to let the facts, as related by Wikipedia, to take over and give a short biography of Father Paolo.
Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (born November 17, 1954) is an Italian Jesuit priest and peace activist. He was exiled from Syria by the government of Bashar al-Assad in 2012 for meeting with members of the opposition and criticizing the actions of the al-Assad regime during the Syrian civil war.
Before his exile, he had served for three decades at the Deir Mar Musa, a 6th-century monastery 80 kilometres (50 mi) north of Damascus. He has been credited with the reconstruction of the Mar Musa complex and its reinvention as a centre of interfaith dialogue.
In 1975, Paolo Dall’Oglio joined the Jesuit order. He spent his novitiate in Italy before starting university studies of Arabic language and Islamic studies in Beirut, Lebanon, and Damascus, Syria.
In 1982, he explored the ruins of the old Syriac Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa) that can be traced back to the 6th century and had been abandoned since the 19th century.
In 1984, Dall’Oglio was ordained priest in the Syriac Catholic rite. In the same year, he obtained a degree in Arabic language and Islamic studies from Naples EasternUniversity “L’Orientale” and in Catholic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
In 1986, he obtained another master degree in Missiology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
In 1989, he obtained a PhD degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic “About Hope in Islam”.
In 1992, he established the mixed monastic and ecumenical Community al-Khalil (“the Friend of God” – Biblical and Qu’ranic byname of the patriarch Abraham in Arabic language), dedicated to Muslim-Christian dialogue and located firstly in the refurbished Deir Mar Musa.
In 2009, Dall’Oglio obtained the double honorary doctorate of the Université catholique de Louvain and the KU Leuven.
Role in the Syrian civil war
In 2011, Paolo Dall’Oglio wrote an article pleading for a peaceful democratic transition in Syria, based on what he called “consensual democracy”. He also met with opposition activists and participated in the funeral service for the 28-year-old Christian filmmaker Basel Shahade, who had been murdered in Homs.
The Syrian government reacted sharply and issued an expulsion order. Paolo Dall’Oglio ignored the order for a couple of months and continued living in Syria. However, following the publication of an open letter to UN special envoy Kofi Annan in May 2012, he obeyed his bishop who urged him to leave the country. He left Syria on 12 June 2012 and joined in exile the newly established Deir Maryam al-Adhra of his community in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.
In December 2012, Paolo Dall’Oglio was awarded the Peace Prize of the Italian region of Lombardy that is dedicated to persons having done extraordinary work in the field of peace building.
In late July 2013 Paolo Dall’Oglio entered rebel held territory in eastern Syria but was soon kidnapped by the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, while walking in Raqqa on 29 July Opposition sources from Raqqa said that Paolo Dall’Oglio has been executed by the extremist group. The claims are not yet confirmed.Wikipedia.
Father Paolo believed passionately in furthering and enhancing inter-religious dialogues. His knowledge of Christianity and Islam revealed to him where they met, even fused, therefore he shunned the clash between Islam and Christianity in favour of a peaceful constructive and enriching discourse on the intellectual level and on the level of sharing and participating in a simple inter-communal activities. Father Paolo, from his vantage point, atop the hills of Kalamoun commanding the geological landscape around him, felt the spot to be also commanding the religious landscape of Syria. I listened to his video (Clikck to watch) with great interest. He understood the religious pluralism of Syria, Christian pluralism and Islamic pluralism. He found in them richness where others found danger and sources of conflict. Syria’s Christianity, dating back to the Disciples of Christ, not only travelled west but east as well. Very early in the history of Christianity, Syriac Christianity travelled as far as India and established a church known as the Malabar Syriac (Syrian) Church which is still thriving today. With the wandering Aramaean Syriacs also travelled, along the Silk Road, the Aramaean language and the Aramaean Syriac script and writing which influenced the scripts of central Asia, even Sanskrit. Perhaps it is apt to remind ourselves here that Aramaean, the langue Christ spoke, remained the lingua Franca of the Persian Empire until the Arab Conquest in the 7th century.
Father Paolo in his video also spoke about the confluence and flow of divers religious streams covering the vast geographical expanse from India to Egypt. He presented the idea of four main religious valleys: the Indo valley, the Mesopotamian valley, the Syrio-Mediterranean Valley and the Egyptian Valley, which he valued, celebrated and perceived in their historical context. In view of all these historical and geographical factors he understood, like few people did or have done, the terrible danger political despotism and tyranny posed because of their inevitable role in creating political polarization which by necessity and the logic of the accelerating events would lead to sectarian polarization and the undoing, because of its unprecedented violence, the undoing of what he called good neighbourhood i.e., coexistence and tolerance, dating back to 5 thousand years of civilization and older than both Christianity and Islam.
Deir Mar Muosa and Father Paolo: Restoration
The Kalamoun mountains, which cradle Deir Mar Mousa, presents to the visitor a riddle of ancient rock formations, hanging crags and boulders sculpted against the vastness of heaven in the majesty of times immemorial. The artist in me dwelt on the fantastic shapes of the rocks until my fascination seemed to give me the ability to read in the towering peaks and precipices haunting tales of geology interacting with man, as if they were keeping earth and rock records of his passing.
Father Paolo began the rebuilding of the monastery in 1982. In 1984, restoration work started through a common initiative of the Syrian State, the local Church, and a group of Arab and European volunteers. The restoration of the monastery building was completed in 1994 through the cooperation of the Italian and Syrian States. An Italian and Syrian school for restoration of frescoes was created at Deir Mar Musa and was entrusted to complete the work in the context of Syrian European cooperation.
Robert Mason of the Royal Ontario Museum who also works at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations of the University of Toronto got involved in Deir Mar Muosa and in the restoration works. Being an archaeologist and true to his profession, he began to explore the desert surrounding the Monastery and the Kalamoun hills. A mystery city seemed to lie underneath Syria’s deserts, one older than the pyramids. In 2009, tombs and rock formations suggested to him: “What it looked like was a landscape for the dead and not for the living,”…“It’s something that needs more work and I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen”. Fragments of stone tools, stone circles and lines on the ground led him to liken the formations to “Syria’s Stonehenge.” The experts think that the finds may date back to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age, 6,000 to 10,000 years.
History of Deir Mar Mousa
The first reference to the foundation is in a manuscript dated 586 CE that is now in the British Library in London. It is thought that by this time the community was already a thriving Laura in which the monks live in cave-hermitages and return to the monastery in order to pray together. The monastic buildings themselves provide evidence of occupation in subsequent periods. The church itself is typical of the basilical form of the 5th to 6th century, as are motifs carved into the stonework of the church. A period of prosperity in the 11th to 13th centuries is indicated by the renovation of the church in 1058 CE followed by no less than four different levels of frescoes, with the last bearing an inscription dating it to 1192 CE. However it is not until the 15th century CE that there are significant finds of ceramics to give a more thorough understanding of the continuity of occupation of the site, and even this is due to the abandonment of certain rooms, and so represents the beginning of the decline of the monastery. The monastery is certainly known to have been completely abandoned by 1831 CE. Official Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi Website.
The church of the historical monastery was built in 1058 AD. Thus far, three layers of frescoes have been revealed. The first layer is from the middle of the eleventh century AD, the second is from the end of the eleventh century, and the third is from the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. According to accounts, the monastery was first mentioned in the 6th century which does not mean that it might not have existed before. The frescoes are dated mid eleventh century to the beginning of the 23 century. It is important for me to get the dates right because as a researcher in Arab Islamic art, the art of Christian Syria is of paramount importance to the beginning of Arab art, in particular the art of illumination and miniature painting: the art of manuscripts.
The Frescoes of Mar Musa
Wikipedia offers a full description of the frescoes, their cycles, their themes and the stories they depict. I have chosen a part of the description of the first cycle:
The images of the most recent layer are fairly complete, and comprise two well-integrated iconographic cycles. The first and larger cycle focuses on the dimension of sacred history. The second, in the sanctuary, represents the Mystery of the eternal and present Instant.
The first cycle begins with the image of the Annunciation. Gabriel stands on the north side and the Virgin Mary stands on the south side of the east window; the Emmanuel, the infant Jesus, the sun of justice, rises above…
I consider the frescoes of Mar Musa as unique not only in the history of Christian art in Syria but in the history of Christian art as a whole. The first fresco paintings in the Christian era in Europe date back to the late Medieval period and early Renaissance (mid 13th century), while the first cycle of the frescoes of Mar Musa were created about mid eleventh century. The frescoes of Mar Mousa seem to me like enlarged miniatures because the relationship between them and the art of manuscript painting cannot be mistaken or ignored. I am not going now to further dwell on the subject because the scope of this article does not permit such a study. But I would like to end with a quotation from an essay I wrote on the relationship between the rise of Arab art and Western art, as exemplified in the art of manuscripts during the Middle Ages:
The art of manuscript illumination was known to most civilizations of the ancient world, like Egypt, the Roman Empire, Persia, China, and India. This art did not grow in total isolation, geographically speaking, because techniques and influences travelled along the Silk Road and along the locations of contact between East and West in later periods. It was also practiced in the Hellenic world, under the Byzantines, reaching great heights of sophistication and splendour under Islam and in Europe. Islam and Europe share a significant common heritage in this respect because they both inherited the classical world. The artistic traditions and influences of Hellenism (incorporating Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian elements) and that of the Byzantine world played a role that cannot be overestimated in creating the Islamic and the Western schools of illumination, including miniature art, in other words painting
Please also see my original article in this blog: