Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (Monastery of St Moses the Ethiopian)
Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi is located amidst the rock-cliffs of the Qalmun mountain range 7 km east of Nebek, a city 80 km north of Damascus. The area is vernacularly known as Jebel al-Mudakhan, or “the Smoky Mountain”, due to the misty atmosphere, Qalamun Mountains, East of Nebek, Syria
The oldest part of the monastery (currently serving as the kitchen area) was originally a pre-Islamic Byzantine tower dating back to the AD 5th or 6th century. The monastery’s church dates to AH 450 / AD 1058
The architects of the monastery’s church, which was built during the AH 5th / AD 11th century, were called Musa and his brothers (known as the sons of Abu al-Asad) and Mazhlum bin Tuma al-Nebeki. The fresco painter of the topmost layer was Sarkis ibn al-Qassis Ghali bin Barran and the calligrapher was Hunayn.
Byzantine, Seljuq, Ayyubid
Since the AD 6th century the monastery was cared for by the Eastern Christian communities and the residing monks. After much neglect and damage, especially during the 1970s, the task of restoring the monastery was undertaken by Italian Jesuit Paolo dell’Oglio and the Syrian Catholic communities, taking care to maintain the old and indigenous methods of art and architecture.
The monastery grew around an abandoned Byzantine watchtower dating back to the AD 5th or 6th centuries. According to legend, the King of Ethiopia's son arrived to Syria after he rejected royalty to seek out a spiritual existence. After travelling though Egypt and Palestine, attaining his priesthood along the way, he became a monk and settled in the Qalamun Mountains of Syria, living in the caves and the nearby abandoned watchtower and leading a devout life. He was martyred at the hands of Chalcedonian Byzantine soldiers in the early AD 7th century and the monastery was thus named after him.
The monastery is characterised by a defensive style of architecture. The entrance on the western wall is extremely small, 1 m in height; with arrow loops distributed along the wall. The entrance leads into a dark corridor leading to various small chambers, the church and the terrace overlooking the cliff. The main rooms are distributed along two stories built above the cliff top and three stories dug below. Rain water was collected in reservoirs and stored inside the monastery to be used throughout the rest of the year. In the AH 10th / AD 15th century the monastery facilities were further extended.
The church is located to the north of the monastery and was built in the year AH 450 / AD 1058. It is square in plan with sides measuring 10 m. This layout is divided into two sections: the Holy of Holies, consisting of the prayer-niche and screen wall, and the prayer hall, composed of three bays separated by two rows of columns. The extensive fresco paintings that cover the church walls have survived as some of the richest examples of regional Christian art. These reveal three different layers of painting, all of which were executed during the period of Seljuq, Atabeg and Ayyubid reigns.
Due to the flaking of the paint, restorers have been able to examine stylistic and iconographic features of all three layers. Their date inscriptions have survived, written in Arabic, revealing the adoption of the Arabic language by the Christians of the region during the medieval period. The lowest layer, dated AH 466 / AD 1073–4, is the sparsest and has an animated style of painting, a continuity of local Hellenistic Christian art. The second layer, dating just a little later than the former at AH 488 / AD 1095, is similarly expressive and survives most completely on the eastern wall of the central nave, portraying the Baptism of Christ. The third and most visible level, survives as a comprehensive medieval Christian mural, offering a rare opportunity for iconographic analysis. An example is the depiction of the Day of Judgement, located on the wall of the western window, and exactly facing the painting of the Annunciation on the wall of the eastern window. Stylistically, these later paintings reveal a Syriac style, more spontaneous than earlier Byzantine traditions. The date is not very clear; one reading is 1504 in the Seleucid calendar, which corresponds to AH 587–8 / AD 1192. Another reading is AH 604 / AD 1208. Either possibilities place these paintings in the Ayyubid period.
This monastery is located in the cliffs overlooking the Qalamun mountains, near the route connecting Damascus and Homs. While the oldest part of the monastery is pre-Islamic, an AH 5th- / AD 11th-century church displays in situ the most complete survival of medieval Christian mural paintings. The three layers of these distinctive local paintings are dated to the Atabeg and Ayyubid period of Syrian rule. They indicate an artistic renaissance among the Syriac Christian communities, in keeping with the tradition of Islamic tolerance towards communities of different faith, even at the height of political militarism and Crusader warfare.
Through excavation, massive dome-shaped constructs in the monastery's foundations were discovered and attributed to the pre-Islamic Byzantine era, dating to the AD 5th or 6th centuries. There is also a manuscript in the British Museum in London attributed to the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi and dated to AD 575, implying that the monastery was well-established prior to that date. As for the church, a carved inscription dates its construction to 450 / 1058. There is also an inscription above the entrance indicating that renovation works were completed in 902 / 1497.
Cruickshank-Dodd, E., “The Monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi near Nebek, Syria” Arte Medievale: periodica internzionale di critica dell 'arte medievale, 2nd series, 6:1, 1992, pp.61–132.
Evans, H., Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261–1557, New York,2004, p.424.
Dell'Oglio, P., "Tarikh Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi wa wasf al-Rusumat al-Jidariyya fi Kanisatihi [The History of the Saint Moses the Ethiopian Monastery and a Description of the Mural Paintings in its Church]", Tarmim Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi [The Restoration of Saint Moses the Ethiopian Monastery], Damascus, 1998, pp.11–23.
Dina Bakkour "Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (Monastery of St Moses the Ethiopian)" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020. 2020. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;23;en
Prepared by: Dina BakkourDina Bakkour
Dina Bakkour is an archaeologist. She studied archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology and Museums in Damascus and General History at the University of Damascus. She received her Master's (DEA) in Islamic archaeology from the ParisI Sorbonne University, where she is currently preparing her Ph.D. thesis. She holds a Master's in Museology from the Ecole Du Louvre in Paris. Dina followed many stages in conservation and restoration in Rome, Murcia and Amsterdam. Nowadays, she works in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus. She participated in many national and European excavations and restoration in Syria and taught at the Institute of Archaeology and Museum in Damascus. She was a contributor to The Restorations of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi. Nabek-Syria (Damascus: Syrian Ministry of Culture; Rome: Central Institute for Restoration).
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 29
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