Behnam, Dayro d-Mor Monastery of St. Behnam [formerly Syr. Orth., now Syr. Cath.]

Situated ca. 36 km. southeast of Mosul, Dayro d-Mor Behnam contains the only full program of medieval church decoration that survives to this day in Iraq. The monastery consists of a fortress-like complex, the main buildings of which are the monastic church and a separate octagonal mausoleum housing the relics of Mor Behnam, which is commonly referred to as either the ‘Pit’ or the ‘Outside Martyrion’. The entire complex is known in Syriac as Beth Gubbā, and in Arabic as Dayr al-Jubb, ‘Monastery of the Pit’. According to the legend of Mor Behnam (ed. P. Bedjan, AMS, vol. II, 397–441), the monastery was built in the 4th cent. on the site of the graves of the martyrs Behnam and his sister Sarah. The first secure evidence for its existence is encountered in the 12th cent., in the first place in a dedicatory inscription which states that the ‘altar’ (probably meaning the entire altar room) was reconstructed in 1164, which suggests that the church existed well before this date. These reconstruction activities may have occasioned the writing down of the legend of Mor Behnam. The oldest written account is preserved in a Syr. Orth. ms. (London, Brit. Libr. Add. 12,174), which was copied in 1197 for Dayro d-Mor Barṣawmo near Melitene, and contains a note by Patr. Michael I Rabo.

Whatever the exact nature of the restoration work executed at Dayro d-Mor Behnam in 1164, less than a century later the monastery was the site of large-scale refurbishment activities, probably through the involvement of monks from Dayro d-Mor Matay, with which the monastery appears to have maintained close administrative and economic ties. Most of the monastic church’s extensive sculptural decoration and architectural features closely resemble those encountered in monuments dating from the reign of Badr al-Dīn Luʾluʾ, the Atabeg ruler of Mosul, and may therefore be dated between ca. 1233 and 1259. Obviously benefiting from the economic and cultural boom in the Mosul area during this period, the interior and exterior of the church were both provided with new stone carving. Three domes with interior stucco decoration probably also date from this period of artistic activity. In addition to motifs familiar from contemporary Islamic contexts, such as lions and dragons, the decoration program conveys distinctively Christian themes, including equestrian saints, martyrs, and monks, as well as two scenes based on the life of Mor Behnam.

Along with the extensive figural decoration, the numerous inscriptions situated on the walls of the monastic church and the mausoleum, which date from the 12th through the 20th cent. , are of particular importance to the study of Syriac Christianity. Mainly written in Syriac, but also in Arabic, Armenian, and Uighur, these inscriptions not only include liturgical texts and biblical verses, but also historical information, as well as names of artists and patrons. According to one of these inscriptions, the monastery was looted in 1295 by the invading Mongol army of Khan Baidu. The abbot of the monastery was subsequently able to persuade Baidu not only to return all the stolen objects, but even to make a donation, which was apparently used for the construction of a new grave for the relics of Mor Behnam, built in the mausoleum in 1300. In the 15th and 16th cent., several Maphrians chose Dayro d-Mor Behnam as their seat, including Diosqoros Behnam II (1415–17), whose grave is still found in the monastery’s burial room. In 1579/80, Maphr. Basilius Pilatus (1576–91) wrote a letter from the monastery to Pope Gregory XIII (1572–85) in which he expressed interest in establishing a formal union with the Church of Rome.

Having suffered a long period of decline, the monastery was finally brought under the jurisdiction of the Syriac Catholic Church in 1839, but continued to lead a poor existence until 1936, when Ephrem Abdal established a new community of monks there. In addition to revitalizing Dayro d-Mor Behnam’s library, superior Abdal (1936–66) initiated the first of a series of large-scale restorations, which were continued by his successors, in particular during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the monastery is one of the most flourishing Christian sites in the Mosul area.

See Fig. 7, 12c, 25, 26, 27, 28 , and 80.


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  • A.  Harrak and Niu Ruji, ‘The Uighur inscription in the Mausoleum of Mār Behnam’, JCSSS 4 (2004), 66–72.
  • M.  Novák and H.  Younansardaroud, ‘Mar Behnam, Sohn des Sanherib von Nimrud. Tradition und Rezeption einer assyrischen Gestalt im iraqischen Christentum und die Frage nach dem Fortleben der Assyrer’, Altorientalische Forschungen 29 (2002), 166–94.
  • B. Snelders, Identity and Christian-Muslim Interaction. Medieval Art of the Syrian Orthodox from the Mosul Area (OLA 198, 2010).
  • B. Snelders and A. Jeudy, ‘Guarding the Entrances: Equestrian Saints in Egypt and North Mesopotamia’, ECA 3 (2006), 126–35.

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