August 31, 2010

Monastery of Saint Moses the Ethiopian in Syria

The Monastery of Mar Mousa al-Habashi (St. Moses the Ethiopian) is an active monastery in the Syrian mountains that dates from the 6th century. It was founded by St. Moses the Ethiopian and is known for its beautiful ancient frescoes and peaceful atmosphere. It is a monastic community of Syriac Catholic rite, situated near the town of Nabk, approximately 80 kilometers north of Damascus. The main church of the monastic compound hosts precious frescoes dating to the 11th and 12th century CE.

Mar Mousa is an active monastery, housing a few resident monks who grow their own food, keep livestock, and sell various products to locals to pay for the upkeep of the monastery. It is currently headed up by Paolo dall'Oglio, an Italian Syriac monk of the Assyrian Catholic Church.

The Monastery of Mar Mousa is designed to be isolated and can only be reached by a steep climb on a winding footpath, which is reached from a winding road that begins at the town of al-Nabek.

Visitors are welcomed by the monks and can overnight at the monastery. There is usually no charge for lodging except that you help with the work of the monastery during your stay.


According to local tradition St. Moses the Abyssinian was the son of a king of Ethiopia. He refused to accept the crown, honors, and marriage, and instead he looked towards the kingdom of God. He traveled to Egypt and then to the Holy Land. Afterward, he lived as a monk in Qara, Syria, and then as a hermit not far from there in the valley of what is today the monastery. There he was martyred by Byzantine soldiers. The story says that his family took his body, but that the thumb of his right hand was separated by a miracle, and was left as a relic, now conserved in the Syrian church of Nabk.

The Monastery of St. Moses existed from the middle of the sixth century, and belonged to the Syrian Antiochian Rite. The present monastery church was built in the Islamic year 450 (1058 AD), according to Arabic inscriptions on the walls, which begin with the words: "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate". The frescoes go back to the 11th and 12th centuries. In the fifteenth century the monastery was partly rebuilt and enlarged, but by the first half of the nineteenth century it was completely abandoned, and slowly fell into ruins. Nevertheless, it remained in the ownership of the Syrian Catholic diocese of Homs, Hama, and Nabk. The inhabitants of Nabk continuously visited the monastery with devotion, and the local parish struggled to maintain it. In 1984, restoration work began through a common initiative of the Syrian State, the local Church, and a group of Arab and European volunteers. The restoration of the monastery building was completed in 1994 thanks to cooperation between the Italian and Syrian States. An Italian and Syrian school for restoration of frescoes has been created at Deir Mar Musa and will complete the work in the context of Syrian European cooperation. The new foundation of the monastic community started in 1991.

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