The story of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and the picturesque craggy Deir Mar Mousa

The story of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and the picturesque craggy Deir Mar Mousa of the lovely frescoes where he lived and preached love

Father Paolo

Father Paolo

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 firsr 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.

Deir mar Mousa the Abyssinian

Deir mar Mousa the Abyssinian

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.

Deir Mar Mousa

Deir Mar Mousa

 

I Posted to my page on Facebook: “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.

The beautiful frescoes of Mar Mousa

The beautiful frescoes of Mar Mousa

 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.

Shaft of sunlight

Shaft of sunlight

 I do not know beyond the shadow of doubt whether Father Paolo was kidnapped by a splinter group of rebels or by Al Qaida  affiliates, 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 (the latest reports say he is held by the regime in Damascus); 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. 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.   A few 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 by his own free will, 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.

At Deir Mar Mousa

At Deir Mar Mousa

Now that I have allowed my imagination to stray and invoke a past made for Father Paolo out of facts and my impressions and feelings, I am going to let the bare facts speak and move to adopt the role of the researcher.

A short biography, Wikipedia

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[1] and criticizing the actions of the al-Assad regime during the Syrian civil war….[2]

Before his exile, he had served for three decades at the Deir Mar Musa, a 6th-century monastery 80 kilometres (50 mi) north ofDamascus. He has been credited with the reconstruction of the Mar Musa complex and its reinvention as a centre of interfaith dialogue.[3]

In 1975, Paolo Dall’Oglio joined the Jesuit order. He spent his novitiate in Italy before starting university studies of Arabic language andIslamic studies in BeirutLebanon, and DamascusSyria.

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 Eastern University “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.[4]

Role in the Syrian civil war[edit source | editbeta]

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.[5]

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,[6] 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 SulaymaniyahIraqi Kurdistan.[7]

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 peacebuilding.[8]

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 inRaqqa on 29 July.[9] Opposition sources from Raqqa said that Paolo Dall’Oglio has been executed by the extremist group.[10] The claims are not yet confirmed. Wikipedia

Together

Together

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 (see below) 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 theMalabar Syriac ( Syrian) Church which is still striving today. With the wandering Aramaean Syriacs  (السريان in Arabic) 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 posing

Father Paolo posing

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 calls good neighborhood  i.e., coexistence and tolerance, dating back to 5 thousand years of civilization and older than both Christianity and Islam.

00:00
05:15

Deir Mar Muosa and Father Paolo: Restoration

The Kalamoun mountains which cradle Deir Mar Mousa present 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 so that my fascination gave me the power to read in the towering peaks and precipices haunting tales of geology interacting with man and keeping earth and rock records of his passing.

Mar Mousa; Majesty of the rocks

 Father Paolo began the refoundation and restoration of the monastery in 1982.  In 1984, restoration work began 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 thanks to cooperation between 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. 

Mar Musa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

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  in 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.

Mar Mousa frescoes, Gabriel on the right

Mar Mousa frescoes, Gabriel on the right

History of Deir Mar Mousa

The first reference to the foundation is in a manuscript dated 586CE 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   

Mar Musa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

    Wikipedia: The church of the 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.

Mar Musa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

According to the accounts the monastery was first mentions in the 6th century which does not mean that it might have existed before. The frescoes are dated between 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 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. (This image was destroyed, together with other images, in 1983 and was later partially reconstructed out of pieces.)…

Mar Musa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

 

Christ

Christ

 

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 a biographical account of my own art in relation to the art that engaged my creativity, which I named Annotations,dedicating part of it to the relationship between the rise of Arab art and Western art, as exemplified in the art of manuscripts:

Mar Msa frescoes

Mar Msa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

Mar Musa frescoes

 

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. Painting in the East and West continued to share many features in common  in the two rival worlds until the Renaissance changed the aesthetic norms so drastically, bringing about the great severance in introducing such innovations as perspective, naturalism, shading and the hung (suspended)  independent work of art, painted on canvas or wood

©Alisar Iram

Credits:

I uploaded many images from the Internet. The issue of the copyrights of some of these images is not clear. This is a none profit making endeavor.

 

10 Responses to The story of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and the picturesque craggy Deir Mar Mousa

  1. Not George Sabra says:

    Beautiful photos, my God…

  2. yes, beautiful Father Paolo and beautiful pages from you Alisar, thank you!

  3. pamberi says:

    Alisar Iram, you have a great gift, the gift of bringing to life people and places. Your evocation of Deir Mar Mousa, of Padre Paola is outstanding. I feel I know the area that is dominated by the monastery complex, high up on its mountain fastness. You paint such a word picture of Padre Paolo that I will pray even harder that he will be released, unharmed, to go back and live among the people he loves and honours, and who love him as their brother. In the frescoes above, the one where the Angel Gabriel is on the right, I believe the four saints on the left are the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, authors of 4 gospels that bear their names and that are
    illustrated as the books in their hands.
    The precious memory of going to Deir Mar Mousa with your dear aunt who later died is one that links her to your work to publicize this historic place and the man who was trying to bring it back to life. I hope one day I may be able to visit Deir Mar Mousa. Thank you Alisar. Therese.

    • alisariram says:

      Thank you very much Therese. I shall never forget the visit to Deir Mar Mousa where Father Paolo resided in his element.If you had been there in that magic spot, high up where only the birds fly, you would have felt the same. You are right about the fresco above the Angel Gabriel depicting the four Evangelists.
      Father Paolo belongs to us and to Deir Mar Mousa. I wish to visit him there one day after he has been set free in a free Syria..I imagine the bond between him and Mar Mousa is keeping him safe. I do hope the Vatican will do something about working towards his release from Al-Qaeda prison.

  4. pamberi says:

    I pray that the fact that Padre Paolo is a well-known figure will protect him But if he is being held by ISIS, they are not renowned for their tolerance of even Sunnis who do not share their extremist, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. They feel they have the right to condemn too many people as infidels. They may try to “educate” Padre Paolo, but he will be educating them too, as unobtrusively and gently as he can. I prayt it is a good sign that we have not heard anything about him, alive or dead. They longer this gang hold him, I think the harder it would be for them to kill him. “Stockholm Syndrome” must work both ways. Those kidnapped may form attachments to certain of their kidnappers, who also come to like/respect their captive. I hope and pray this is at work here. Padre speaks fluent Arabic and can listen to the rants of his captors and patiently try to refute their most bizarre ideas. He may look like a simple man, but he is marvelously well-educated.
    As for the Vatican, if history is a guide, I would expect the powers-that-be there to weigh the well-being of Syrian Christians against that of one Jesuit priest. The Vatican’s record re intervening to stop Hitler’s persecution of Jews all over Europe is appallingly bad. Where Germany is concerned. an agreement between itself and the Nazis was made just before WW11 wherein the German state collected tax monies from members of the Catholic and Lutheran churches and transferred them to church authorities, with a certain % transferred to Rome. The man who was WW11-era Pope Pius X11 was Papal Nuncio in Berlin and was involved in the agreement. It stands to this day.
    Pius was widely condemned for his apparent indifference to the plight of Germany’s Jews. Many view his lack of Christian charity as based on fear that his speaking out could put not only German Catholics in danger from Hitler’s wrath, but also the agreement and the money it brought into the church. The Vatican issued false pass-ports to Nazi war criminals, allowing many to escape to Argentina and other countries in south America. One of the most Catholic countries, Poland, was also one of the most anti-Semitic, and many extermination camps were sited in Poland. John Paul 11 was born there, one of the most conservative Popes in recent memory. The many cardinals he named will be around for decades, running the church in the image of J P 11. They elected Benedict, the ideologue of ultra-conservative precepts, wearer of Prada shoes and bling. Now we have Francis. He is going to need divine assistance to cut through the tangles of relationships within the church.
    A good analogy is the men Ayatollah Khamenei has placed at every level , in every institution in Iran. These men owe no allegiance to Iran, only to their patron. They are like a cancer strangling the life out of the country and its people. Ditto Saud Arabia, the royals one side of the coin, the other being the Wahhabi clerics, and both of them subjugating and terrifying Saudis into silence and submission. They have cynically set it up so that it appears if you break one of the kingdom’s many laws, you also break a (manufactured?) religious law. They give theocracy a bad name.
    I battled the Catholic church in Ireland for several years, not too long ago, over the sexual abuse of children by priest, nuns and brothers in countless institutions, over many decades. I won’t bore you with details here, but this casts a vile, dark shadow on an Ireland that threw off over 400 years of English ownership and rule, only to allow the Catholic church to fill the power vacuum left after they took themselves back to where they came from. One of Ireland’s first Presidents, Eamonn de Valera, an arch-conservative and friend of the then Arch-bishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, is reputed to have allowed McQuaid to pen certain parts of the Constitution that gave the RC church the power to require that all Catholic children be educated in schools managed by parish priests, though independent Protestant and Jewish schools were allowed. The climate of deference to priests gave them the impression that they could do as they wished, and as history has shown, they were aided and abetted in this by their Bishops and Cardinals. Disgusting and depressing. Religion is intended to bring us closer to God. When it is co-opted and distorted to serve the earthly objectives of any one group, it loses its power to unite us in acknowledging a power greater than any earthly entity to one that divides us by asserting that only certain men are the holders of truth, a a truth that they distort to serve their own purposes.

    • alisariram says:

      Thank you Therese for this long argument. Let us hope that Father Paolo with his compassion, gentleness and learning will triumph over his captors darkness of the mind and heart. Father Paolo is always in our heart and minds. May he live long and come out to bless Syria’s emancipation.

  5. Not George Sabra says:

    Check out the story re: Father Paolo and Deir Mar Mousa at roughly 10 minutes in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDa3W6H1HWs

    • alisariram says:

      Thank you very much Not George Sabra. I shall post your comment with the link to the video which narrated the role of Father Paolo in the Syrian Revolution at its beginnings. It is a very interesting video. The part about father Paolo starts at 9.37 of the video track.

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