Iraq probably isn’t the first country that comes to mind when thinking about Christian monasteries. It’s probably not even in your top 10. Well, at least it wasn’t in mine before I visited the Northeastern Autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
There I learned that there are actually quite a few monasteries, some of which are one of the oldest in the world. Most of the remaining monasteries in Iraq are spread around Mosul in the Nineveh Governorate.
There are also some inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Let’s take a look at the 8 best ancient monasteries in Iraq.
Why are there so many monasteries in Muslim Iraq?
Iraq is mostly Muslim, right? According to statistics, around 97% of the population is Muslim. Then why are there even any Christian monasteries?
Assyrian Church of the East
Long story short, it’s all about this little-known branch of Christianity known as the Assyrian Church of the East. It originally developed as far back in time as the 1st century AD and grew throughout the ages, despite the Muslim conquest of the region sometime in the Middle Ages.
It remained an isolated church with only regional significance. Its most tumultuous times were actually very recently, during the ISIL conquest of Assyria and northern Mesopotamia. Many of the religious sites were destroyed and the Christian community experienced severe repressions, displacement, and borderline genocide.
Still, the Church persists. It recently moved its seat of the patriarchy back to Erbil from Chicago. As of 2023, the Assyrian Church of the East has about half a million members. Its traditions and beliefs are kept and the religious sites in Syria, Iraq, and beyond – maintained.
Syriac Orthodox Church
Another important church in the region is the Syriac Orthodox Church based in Damascus, Syria. Most of its adherents and religious sites are in Syria, but there are a few in North Iraq too.
Ancient Monasteries in Iraq
1. Mar Mattai Monastery
Also known as Dayro d-Mor Mattai, this monastery was founded in 363 by a hermit called, you guessed it, Mar Mattai. Mar or Mor in Syriac carries the same meaning as the West’s milord, while Mattai is the equivalent of Matthew.
Mar Mattar fled the Roman Empire during the persecutions of Emperor Julian. Yes, that was after the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine, but Julian was an Apostate. It’s complicated, go read about it here.
Today, the Monastery holds some 200 Christian manuscripts from various points in history. It is situated on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding area with spectacular views.
How to reach
Reaching the Monastery is no easy task. There’s no public transportation that goes there. It’s easiest to get there with a rented car – 110 km from Duhok, 35 km from Mosul, or 95 km from Erbil.
Getting a taxi from these cities will cost you (one way, per car):
- 12000-15000 IQD / 8-10 EUR from Mosul
- 35000-50000 IQD / 24-34 EUR from Duhok
- 30000-45000 IQD / 20-31 EUR from Erbil
You might want to combine it with other sites in the region like Lalish and Rabban Hormizd Monastery.
It’s easy to hitchhike in Iraqi Kurdistan and people have reached the monastery this way. The only peril is actually the low traffic.
Important note: Mor Mattai is technically in Federal Iraq. If you’re coming from Erbil or Duhok, you will pass a checkpoint and your visa will be inspected.
If you have a visa only for Iraqi Kurdistan, you technically cannot go.
The checkpoint guards may or may not let you visit the monastery, it’s up to your negotiation and persuasion skills.
2. Rabban Hormizd Monastery
Situated near Alqosh, it is an ancient Assyrian Christian monastery with impressive architecture and outstanding historical significance.
It was founded in 640 AD (by, of course, Rabban Hormizd) and was one of the most important monasteries for the Church of the East until the middle of the 18th century when wars and diseases forced it to become abandoned.
It was restored and repaired at the beginning of the 19th century.
In more modern times, the monastery suffered under ISIS, but survived. It is still a very important religious site for Chaldean Christianity.
How to reach
As with Mar Mattai Monastery, there’s no public transport that goes here. Your only options are to take a taxi (about 4000-5000 IQD / 2.70-3.40 EUR per 10 km) or to hitchhike.
It’s a good idea to combine it with a trip to Lalish and/or Mar Mattai Monastery to lower costs.
Important note: Alqosh and Rabban Hormizd Monastery are technically in Federal Iraq. If you’re coming from Erbil or Duhok, you will pass a checkpoint and your visa will be inspected.
If you have a visa only for Iraqi Kurdistan, you technically cannot go. The checkpoint guards may or may not let you visit the monastery, it’s up to your negotiation and persuasion skills.
Unlike Mar Mattai, the checkpoint guards are much more willing to let you pass, as the monastery is really close to the border.
3. Deir al-Sayida
Not exactly ancient, as it was built in 1861 as a sister monastery to Rabban Hormizd. The same monks maintain both monasteries, which are only 6 km from one another. It’s not on Google Maps and you have to ask the locals in Alqoosh for ‘Deir Al-tahtani‘ (the lower monastery) to get directions.
The Monastery is a pilgrimage site for Chaldean-Assyrians on the 15th of May every year to commemorate the holiday of the Virgin Mary, “Protector of the Crops”.
4. Mar Gewargis Monastery
We don’t know for sure when this monastery was founded, but a good guess would be the 10th century when Mar Abdisho I, the future patriarch of the Church of the East, was a monk in the monastery.
We know very little about the history of this secluded monastery. There’s a grave inside the monastery of an Italian-Dominican father who died in 1753. What was he doing there, you might ask.
He most likely tried to convert the local population back to Catholicism, but obviously didn’t succeed. The local villages wouldn’t bury him, but the Monastery did.
Mar Gewargis Monastery is a pilgrimage site. Pious Christians go there every 24th of April and 6 weeks after Lent (which is itself 40 days before Easter).
The Monastery is 10 km northeast of Mosul and 4 miles from Tel-kepeh (Telkaif). The only way to reach is by taxi. Keep in mind that’s in Federal Iraq and to get here from Erbil or Duhok requires the proper Iraqi visa. Check my disclaimer in the orange box above.
5. Mar Bihnam Monastery
As the legend goes, this monastery was built in the 4th century by King Senchareb who killed his son Mar Behnam and daughter Sarah because they converted to Christianity, but later wanted to repent.
Another theory suggests that the monastery is named after the martyr Fihnam, an Assyrian who was killed by Ardashir, son of Shapur.
The monastery has had a tumultuous history, destroyed and repaired many times, most recently abandoned in 2014 due to ISIS (jihadists later desecrated the monastery and the tomb), and repaired in 2018.
One of the most valuable Syriac libraries that exists today is within the confines of the monastery. The church is a historical treasure containing many detailed carvings in Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian dating to the early 12th century.
Mar Bihnam Monastery is about 35 km south of Mosul (it’s on Google Maps) and is only reachable by private taxi/rented car. It is situated in Federal Iraq and if you only have an Iraqi Kurdistan visa, they will stop you at the checkpoints towards Mosul and likely turn you back.
6. Deir Mar Elia
Deir Mar Elia, also known as the Monastery of Saint Elijah, unfortunately no longer exists, as it was completely demolished and run over by bulldozers by ISIS militants.
Prior to its destruction, the monastery was one of the oldest in Iraq. Founded in 595 by Saint Elijah (Mar Elia) it was for centuries a focal point for Christians from the area, who would go there to celebrate Mar Elia Holiday on the last Wednesday of November.
The Monastery was completely destroyed in 2014. It was 6 km southwest of Mosul. You’d be lucky to see more than a bunch of rubble where it once stood.
7. Deir Mar Mikhael
Established sometime in the 4th century, Deir Mar Mikhael is one of the most ancient of the monasteries in the Nineveh Plain. As with most religious sites in the region, little is known about its history.
What I found fascinating when I researched this monastery was that in the 11th century, the monks dug a well and accidentally found a tomb. The tomb was carved with inscriptions that couldn’t be deciphered and a clothed body was found within. Spooky stuff.
The Monastery is located 6 km northwest of Mosul and 6 km away from Deir Mar Gewargis.
Mar Mikhael holiday occurs on the 5th Sunday of the Easter fast.
Deir Mar Oraham
This monastery was built in the late 6th century by the monk Mar Oraham, who heard a voice telling him to establish a monastery in the Nineveh Plains.
As with the other monasteries, we know very little of the history of this place. You’re probably tired of reading this from me, but what am I supposed to do – invent the monastery’s history?
There are a few mentions of the Monastery from the 17th and 18th centuries and in 1743 it was partially destroyed by the marauding armies of Nadir Shah.
It was restored in the beginning of the 20th century and is currently operational with the feast of Mar Oraha being held twice per year: the first Sunday of Easter Fast, and the second Sunday after Easter.
You can find the Monastery 30 km north of Mosul, just outside of Batnaya village. It’s on Google Maps.
So there you have it – a list of 8 ancient monasteries in North Iraq, 7 of which you can currently visit. While their histories are shrouded in mystery, the monasteries are living proof of the complexity of the region and a remnant of times forgotten.
Traveling to this region can prove difficult and the easiest way to visit all 7 monasteries is by a rental car. Alternatively, you can hire a private driver to tour the area around Mosul for the monasteries.
If you don’t have much time, I advise you to visit Mar Mattai, Rabban Hormizd, and Mar Binham, as these are the most impressive monasteries still standing.