Rabban Hormz, Rabban Hormuzd
7th century AD
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.
Description & Iconography
'Description & Iconography' general sources: Awad 1934; Leroy 2004; Brock 2009.
The entire monastery complex bears numerous Syriac inscriptions.
Syriac inscriptions were found in at least five caves distributed on the western side of the mountain.1 The following are their translations:
- 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.”
- The Cell of Brother Mansour: “I brother Mansour occupied this cell in year 1820.”
- The Cell of ʿOdishʿo: “In the year of 1995 Greek [1684 AD], I ʿOdishʿo the sinner occupied this cell.”
- The Cell of Youan: “Pray for the sinner Younan.”
- 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
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.
'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.