Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, Dayr Mār [formerly Syr. Orth., now Syr. Catholic]

The Monastery of Moses the Ethiopian is perched on top of a steep, rocky promontory that juts out of a deep gully between two cliffs in the high region south of Nabk. The earliest historical reference to the monastery is in a hand-written note beside a text of John Chrysostom on the Gospel of Matthew, in a 6th-cent. ms. preserved in the British Library. A second note in the same ms. states that this volume was ‘the property of the convent of Mushe, on the hill called “the Great Head,” east of Natpha, in the province of Damascus’. The subsequent history of the monastery is closely documented by numerous inscriptions within the church, and by mss. that once belonged to its flourishing scriptorium. Until the end of the 14th cent. it was the seat of a bishopric that later fell under the jurisdiction of Ḥama and Mardin, and then under the bishopric of Jerusalem and Damascus (Kaufhold).

The monastery prospered well into the 18th cent. and was recorded by both Burton and Moritz late in the 19th cent., but some time thereafter was totally abandoned and fell into ruin. The fortress-like building was approached through a small door on the top floor, from where it was built four stories down; but when discovered again in 1981, the lower floors had all caved in and the upper terrace had only one room that sheltered sheep. At that time the chapel was still preserved, its walls decorated with falling, painted stucco but the roof and the ciborium were gone, burned for firewood. A young Jesuit, Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Orientalist by training, visited the site and decided to restore the monastery to its former state. With great care to reproduce its original plan and accoutrements, and with the help of local teams of Christian volunteers from Syria and Iraq, with experts in the Department of Antiquities in Damascus, and the Istituto del Restauro in Rome, Father Paolo cleared the lower rooms and rebuilt the upper stories and the chapel. In subsequent years he dug a well, added outlying buildings, and established a new order for the monastery. He now presides over a small group of monks, nuns, and novitiates in a religious center dedicated to serving the surrounding community of Christians and Muslims and to promoting a dialogue between them. The monastery receives daily a great number of visitors, both Christian and Muslim.

For as long as the inhabitants of Nabk can remember, the monastery has been known as Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī (St. Moses the Ethiopian), but, according to the inscriptions and to the mss., it was originally dedicated to Mār Mūsā the Prophet (St. Moses the Prophet). The earliest reference to Moses the Ethiopian comes from the 17th cent. It is possible that this saint became associated with the monastery on the arrival of a number of Abyssinian monks in the 15th cent. (Cruikshank Dodd). These monks from Mar Girgios al-Ḥabash, in Ehden, and Mar Yaʿqub al-Ḥabash in Bsharre, were evicted from the Qadisha valley by the Maronites in 1488. In this case the change of name from Mār Mūsā, to Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabash (of the Ethiopians), to Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashi (the Ethiopian) might have come about naturally in the process of time. A hand encased in a silver casket purporting to be the hand of Mar Moses the Ethiopian is inscribed as a donation to the monastery by Bp. Eliya in 1817 and is now preserved in the Church of the Virgin, in Nabk. The Syr. Orth. Christians of Nabk celebrate the feast of Moses the Ethiopian on 28 Aug. In the Greek Church his feast day is 18 June.

The various stages in the monastery’s long history are recorded in inscriptions. Those carved in the building stones indicate that the church was rebuilt and renovated in A.H. 504 (= AD 1058/1059). Subsequently, it was enlarged and turned into a fortress in the 15th cent. and restored again in the 16th. Inscriptions painted on the wall paintings identify the figures and scenes. Earlier layers of painting are inscribed in Greek, whereas the top layer for the most part uses Syriac. There are also dedications and memorials written on the paintings themselves by various visitors to the monastery, in Syriac and in Arabic, that contribute to the history of the monastery (Tweir, Haddad, Muwazzin, ter Haar Romeny et al.).

With this long and fascinating history, the chapel in Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī also preserves until today the most extensive series of paintings to have come down to us from the whole of the Levant (Cruikshank Dodd, Dall’Oglio, Westphalen, Immerzeel). The chapel is unique in that it shows a well-documented, coherent series of paintings from more than one period, paintings that are indispensable for the study of medieval Christian art.

There are three (or three and a half) principal layers of painting, applied at three different periods (Westphalen). The first, or earliest layer of paintings (layer 1), can be dated to the 11th cent. ca. 1060, soon after the first renovations to the church, to which more wall paintings were added a few years later (1a), at some time before 1095. Another layer (2) is dated by an inscription on the Baptismal scene to 1095. The latest series (3) is the most extensive and best preserved. The date of the third layer is recorded in an inscription over a painting of the Evangelist Matthew, and it may be read as either 1192 (assuming that the Seleucid calendar is followed), or 1208/9 (if it is taken as a Hijra year), a distinction which is, unfortunately, not clear in the original.

The interior of the chapel was elaborately painted when it was first restored in 1058/9. Beneath the more recent remains of the third layer, there is a bust of Christ on the triumphal arch with what appear to be archangels at either side. Above these figures there may have been painted the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (Immerzeel). An Annunciation was placed on either side of the window. The riding saints, Theodore and George, appear opposite each other on the spandrels of the arches in the nave, where also the remains of a second pair may be traced from this early date. Still in the nave, on the southern spandrel nearest to the apse is the Ascension of Elijah in his Chariot. In the southern aisle, west end, an early representation of the Presentation in the Temple (?) is balanced by a group of apostles, probably the Pentecost, at the west end of the northern aisle. In the southern aisle, an image of Samson and the Lion is painted high above the western arch. At the east end, there may have been an early Baptism in the northern aisle and an early Myrophores (Three Women at the Tomb) in the southern aisle. The columns and the soffits of the arches are decorated with standing saints and martyrs, both male and female most of whom were added shortly after this first layer (period 1a).

Layer 2 (1095) comprises a large Baptism, painted over the earlier Baptism at the eastern end of the northern aisle, and a renewed Myrophores painted over the earlier one in the southern aisle. A stylite Saint (Shemʿun the Stylite?) stands beside the Baptism. At the western end of the southern aisle is a renewed Presentation in the Temple.

Most of the extant paintings belong to layer three, the last layer of paint, 1192 or 1208/9. They present the most coherent series of paintings to have come down to us in the Syriac churches. The triumphal arch, high up under the eaves, is decorated with Christ Emmanuel and an Annunciation, below which is the Christ Pantocrator between the figures of twelve standing apostles that spill into the nave. In the apse was a Deesis (now largely destroyed) with the Christ on a throne surrounded by the four beasts of the Apocalypse. Below them, in the bema, the standing Virgin Blachernitissa between standing Church Fathers: Cyril of Alexandria, Basil, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom, on her right; and Ignatius, James, and two others (destroyed) on her left. On the iconastasis there are painted the five wise and five foolish virgins. Four large riding horsemen, George and Theodore, Bacchos and Sergios charge down the nave, above the arches, towards the apse. The remains of two other riding saints are visible nearer the apse, making six in all. Four evangelists writing their gospels fill the spandrels. On the western wall is a great Last Judgment above which is the Traditio clavium and the Traditio Legis, of which only the lower part of Peter and Paul remain. Below them the remaining ten Apostles are seated on either side of a Hetoimasia between Adam and Eve. On the one side, below the apostles, are the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, together with Mary, holding bunches of souls in their laps. Beneath them are the saints, martyrs and holy men ascending from their tombs to heaven at the blast of trumpeting angels. On the other side of the Hetoimasia stand heretical bishops and various groups of enemies of the orthodox churches, along with Satan seated among souls drowning in the waters of the Styx, a devil holding down the scales, and below them are naked women symbolizing the seven sins. The Last Judgment spills over onto the walls of the nave.

Among these impressive scenes, the walls and the piers in Mār Mūsā are painted with numerous figures of standing saints and martyrs, including John the Baptist and Saba, Euthymios and Anthony (?). The soffits of the arches are reserved for female saints, among them: Anastasia, Catherine, Barbara, Elizabeth, and Julia (Juliana).

These paintings are evidence of a continuing tradition of Christian painting in lands dominated by Muslim rulers. In their iconography, they kept alive the painterly tradition of the Early Christian Church and also followed closely Byzantine innovations from Constantinople. In the 12th cent., some iconographic elements were imported from Crusader Jerusalem. In their style, each of the layers of paint demonstrate a stylistic tradition in East Christian art that was aware of and sensitive to regional developments in Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq and Cappadocia. The painters were local Syrians who were also influenced by contemporary Islamic art in the region. On the whole, the paintings of Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī remain the richest illustration of East Christian art preserved until today.

See Fig. 85c, 86, 87, and 88c.

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How to Cite This Entry

Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, Dayr Mār,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Musa-al-Habashi-Dayr-Mar.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, Dayr Mār,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Musa-al-Habashi-Dayr-Mar.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Dodd, Erica Cruikshank. “Mūsā al-Ḥabashī, Dayr Mār.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Musa-al-Habashi-Dayr-Mar.

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