Rabban Hormizd Monastery

Alternative Names

Rabban Hormz, Rabban Hormuzd


7th century AD

MMM Documentation Dates
Fall 2013
Site Type
Religious Buildings and Complexes
Nineveh Governorate

    Monastery Entrance & Vicinity

    Chapel of the Holy Trinity

    Small Chapel

    Monastic Dwellings & Tunnels (Interior)

    Patriarchs' Cemetery

    Reliefs (Unknown Area)

    Historical Photographs

    The monastery of Rabban (Syriac: 'Monk') Hormizd is probably the most famous Christian monastery in Iraq. It is located about a kilometer from the village of Alqosh and about 45 km northeast of Mosul. The monastery complex is built halfway up the Beth Athra Mountain, also known as Jebel al-Qosh. It stands in a kind of natural amphitheater, as if it were carved out of the mountain 800+ meters above sea level, with a magnificent view of Nineveh Plain and its ancient villages (see the panorama). Until recently, the monastery could only be reached on foot. However, a paved road for cars has been constructed, making the monastery more accessible to both pilgrims and visitors. Upon reaching the monastery, one finds a complex consisting of a church at the center and many cells and rooms to either side. The whole complex is constructed directly on the bedrock, without any foundations; parts of the complex are built of roughly hewn sandstone, while others are simply cut into the mountainside. Surrounding the monastic buildings and the church, the mountainside is pierced with caves penetrating the rock: the past dwellings of the hermits associated with the monastery.


    The Rabban Hormizd monastery complex has an arched entranceway decorated with a carved cross at the top. It bears inscriptions (in Syriac, Arabic, and English) providing the name of the monastery. Until the 1930s, this entrance was decorated on its right side with a relief of a snake, symbolizing the saint’s healing power. In addition to this entrance, the monastery originally had two other entrances on the eastern side, leading down to the plains. Because of earthquakes and other natural disasters, the eastern parts of the monastery were heavily damaged and the eastern entrances were neglected and eventually abandoned.

    From the main entrance, one enters into a small open courtyard with a church and a guesthouse, where visitors are welcomed to rest and enjoy the spectacular view of the plains (see the panorama). Earlier photos show the monastery’s guest room decorated with paintings of a large bird, probably a falcon, above a yellow tiger and a black snake. At the center among the three animals, there was a marble slab bearing a Syriac inscription. The marble slab appears to be dated to 1931, while the yellow ribbon is dated to 1936 or 1939, suggesting a later addition. The room is also decorated with various Syriac inscriptions painted in black on a white background. 

    The monastery complex includes several structures and features of different dates, including a bell tower and a cemetery. The monastery’s churches have undergone several renovations and were rebuilt after various violent attacks throughout its history. The site includes a modern church, several ancient churches, and other religious and monastic spaces; the most conspicuous structures and spaces are described below.  

    The Chapel of the Holy Trinity:

    The Chapel of the Holy Trinity, accessed by way of a small portal from the entrance courtyard, is the largest of all the site’s churches and the most recent structure. The ancient church that once stood here had fallen into ruins and was therefore demolished and rebuilt in the early 20th century. Until 1934, the church appears to have kept its original stone altar, which was decorated with paintings of a green snake with the head of an alligator, a green and red tiger, and other ornamentation in yellow and black; the altar also included several Syriac inscriptions.1

    The interior of the modern church features a wide nave and high ceiling (see the panorama). The walls are made of marble, and the altar is decorated with carvings in white gypsum; its Syriac inscriptions are written in black paint. A painting depicting Rabban Hormizd stands at the center of the altar. In addition, modern paintings and statues of Jesus and Mary, as well as Syriac inscriptions, are found throughout the chapel.

    Two black marble slabs bearing Syriac inscriptions, located opposite to the chapel’s entrance, are of particular importance. The upper slab documents the history of this church back to 1666 AD, when an earthquake destroyed the earlier building. The structure was again rebuilt in 1846, and further renovations were made in 1849. During the 1930s, the complex and the church were fitted with interior plumbing, and it appears that the building was renovated again in 1978. The lower slab bears a memorial inscription of the monk Gabriel Danbo (1832 AD), including his works and life events at the Rabban Hormizd monastery. 

    The Church of Mar Hormizd:

    The Church of Mar Hormizd is the oldest of all the churches within the complex, apparently dating back to the lifetime of Rabban Hormizd (7th century AD). It is located behind the modern Church of the Holy Trinity, which is encountered first.

    The church is a long and narrow structure, extending east-west, with a tall, barrel vaulted roof (see the panorama). The entire church is built of roughly hewn stone blocks. An entranceway leading from the Chapel of the Holy Trinity is located in the southeast corner. A second doorway is situated in the middle of the southern wall of the church, leading to a small side room. The eastern wall is decorated with a pointed arch, suggesting a space for an altar. Two pointed stone arches subdivide the entire horizontal space into three sections or bays by means of their verticality. The first arch springs from two engaged stone columns, while the second one is supported by a secondary wall built against the church’s southern and northern walls. Small flowers are carved inside the arches. The space above the first section was eventually converted to a small dome that rises below the high vaulted roof of the church.

    A total of fourteen niches are carved into the church's walls. Several of the niches take the shape of small round arches decorated with floral designs at the top and a cross in the lower end, each one elaborated differently. In one case, the cross is inlaid with faience. These niches are still used to receive votive offerings. 

    Until the 1930s, this church had no windows, but today two openings in the ceiling illuminate the interior. Later additions also include two gravestones that are placed against the northern wall between the two arches. While the Arabic inscriptions on the first stone has faded, the second one bears the name of Mansour Shamoun Kawzi, who was born in the nearby village of Tell Kaif in 1879; he died in 1961 and was buried here. 

    The Cell of Rabban Hormizd:

    By creeping through a narrow corridor that runs about 100 m inside the mountain, one can access the cave where Rabban Hormizd lived and the chapel where he made his devotions. The cell itself is 2 x 2 m2 and about 3 m high; it is empty of furniture. Several patriarchs' tombs are located along the pathway leading to this cell (see below).

    The Monks’ Cells:

    As one approaches the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, the western mountainside appears to be pierced with caves penetrating the rocky surface of the mountain. These are the oldest dwellings of the monks who lived here over the centuries. About 400 cells are distributed over six levels; some of the cells are linked through narrow pathways, while others are completely isolated. Several have rock-cut niches shaped like benches, which must have served as beds. Cells on the topmost level had small gardens maintained by the monks. The most significant cell is the so-called “dining room,” measuring about 40 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 15 feet high; this room was big enough to seat 100 monks at a time.2 

    About 40–45 cells remained in use up until the 1930s, when they were eventually abandoned. Some of the cells remain accessible even today, while many others are completely isolated. Although all cells are now empty of furnishings, some contain Syriac inscriptions mentioning the monk’s name and the year during which he occupied a particular cell (see 'Inscriptions').

    The Patriarchs’ Cemetery:

    This cemetery is located in the pathway leading to the cell of Rabban Hormizd. It includes nine patriarchal graves dating to the 15th century AD. Each of the tombs is covered with a marble slab bearing a lengthy Syriac inscription (see ('Inscriptions'). The slabs are true masterpieces; the inscriptions are carved in relief, and the Estrangela calligraphy is beautiful. Furthermore, there is great literary value in the inscriptions. In them, the patriarchs speak in the first person, which is unusual. Despite their funerary context, they are mainly confessions of faith, reflecting the theology and Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East. 

    • 1. Awad 1934.
    • 2. Awad 1934.

    'Description & Iconography' general sources: Awad 1934; Leroy 2004; Brock 2009.

    The entire monastery complex bears numerous Syriac inscriptions.

    Cell Inscriptions:

    Syriac inscriptions were found in at least five caves distributed on the western side of the mountain.1 The following are their translations:

    1. The Cell of Father Elishaʿa: “In the year of 1835 of Christ, I the poor Elishaʿa occupied this cell during the reign of our father the distinguished Hanna Jra from Alqosh.” 
    2. The Cell of Brother Mansour: “I brother Mansour occupied this cell in year 1820.”
    3. The Cell of ʿOdishʿo: “In the year of 1995 Greek [1684 AD], I ʿOdishʿo the sinner occupied this cell.”
    4. The Cell of Youan: “Pray for the sinner Younan.”
    5. The Prison Chamber: “In the year 1842, Ismail Pasha (governor) of Amadiya imprisoned the monks and tortured them in this cell and plundered the monastery. We (the monks) enlarged this cell in 1931.”

    Inscriptions of the Patriarchs’ Cemetery:

    Nine marble slabs inscribed with Syriac inscriptions cover the patriarchs’ tombs. Amir Harrak has provided an edition with English translations.2


    • 1. See Awad 1934.
    • 2.  Harrak 2009.

    The monastery’s founder, Rabban Hormizd, was born either in the late 6th or early 7th century AD to a Christian family in the Persian province of al-Ahwaz. He traveled to Mesopotamia, where he met three monks of the Church of the East. These men introduced him to monastic life at the monastery of Rabban Bar Idta. After spending more than forty years moving among three different monasteries, Rabban Hormizd eventually reached Alqosh, whose Christian inhabitants asked him to build a monastery there (that which now bears his name). The exact date of his death is unknown, although it must have been sometime in the second half of the 7th century AD. His burial place is located under the eastern altar of the monastery’s church. Rabban Hormizd was a man of mortifications and miracles, and his monastery has been open to welcome people of all religions and faiths throughout its history.  

    Throughout its history, Rabban Hormizd remained one of the most active centers of the eastern monasticism, where the mystic tradition of the Church of the East appears to have been maintained longest and most successfully. Although the monastery remains in use today, it has suffered several attacks that resulted in its abandonment in past centuries. One of the worst attacks took place in the 13th century AD, when the Mongols advanced into Mesopotamia, murdering Christians and ransacking their churches and monasteries.1 Eventually life was restored in the monastery, and by the end of the 15th century, Rabban Hormizd became the seat of the Catholicos-Patriarchs of the Assyrian Church of the East. In the 16th century, a monk from this monastery, Sulaqa, traveled to Rome and became the first of a separate line of Catholic (Chaldean) patriarchs. The Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, however, remained under the administration of the Assyrian Church of the East, whose patriarchs are buried here and whose tombs bear long, informative inscriptions.

    Through the course of the 18th century, the monastery suffered a number of serious raids by the Kurds, leading to its abandonment.2 In 1808, however, monastic life in the monastery was reestablished again by the monk Gabriel Danbo (1775–1832). However, further raids followed, including one in which Danbo himself was killed, the monastery ransacked, and taxes imposed and collected from the congregation. Consequently, a new monastery, Our-Lady-of-the-Seed, was established in 1858 much closer to Alqosh, with a community of about fifty monks. Today, monasticism again seems to have been abandoned here, and the Christian population has been reduced to very small numbers due to increasing unrest and violence, especially after 2003. 

    In recent years, the complex and its churches have seen significant renovations. These are especially conspicuous in the Church of the Holy Trinity. Its entrances and inner doorways have been enlarged, its wall plastered with white gypsum, and its chapel lit with electricity. In October 2013, when the MMM team visited, various building materials were present at the site, suggesting that further reconstruction was about to take place. 

    • 1. Awad 1934.
    • 2. Awad 1934.

    'History' general sources: Awad 1934; Brock 2009. 

    Awad, Georgis H. 1934. Ancient Monument in Iraq: The Monastery of Rabban Hormizd. Mosul: al-Nadjm Press. 

    Baumer, Christoph. 2006. The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity. London: I. B. Tauris.

    Brock, Sebastian. 2009. “Monasticism in Iraq: The Cultural Contribution.” In The Christian Heritage of Iraq: Collected Papers from the Christianity of Iraq I-V Seminar Days, edited by Erica C.D. Hunter, 64-80. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias.

    Budge, E. A. Wallis. 1902. The History of Rabban Hormizd the Persian and Rabban Bar-Idta. 2 vols. London: Luzac.

    Harrak, Amir. 2009. “Patriarchal Funerary Inscriptions in the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd: Types, Literary Origins, and Purpose.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 62: 293–309.

    Leroy, Jules. 2004. Monks and Monasteries of the Near East. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias.

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