Dayr Mar Elian Archaeological Project

Emma Loosley, 2004

Data copyright © Prof Emma Loosley unless otherwise stated

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Prof Emma Loosley
Theology and Religion
University of Exeter
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Rennes Drive

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The Dayr Mar Elian Archaeological Project (DMEAP) was first thought of at Easter 2000 when His Grace Monsignor George Kassab, Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Homs, Hama and Nabk, gave the monastery of Mar Elian to the monastic community of Dayr Mar Musa, Nabk. Since the community had already restored one late antique monastery and re-founded a monastic order at the site, it was hoped that they could achieve a similar transformation at the neighbouring foundation. In 2001 a preliminary survey was undertaken, and in 2002 the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums granted an excavation permit.

Despite the fact that the antiquity of Qaryatayn is easily verified it is more difficult to trace the origins of the monastery. Today Dayr Mar Elian stands half a kilometre west of the village due to the modern sprawl of the settlement. At the time it was founded the monastery was approximately 5km north-west of the tell and the village. A Roman qanat half a kilometre west of the monastery and scattered finds between the qanat and the cloister indicate occupation of the area since the Roman period but this is not supported by literary sources. Local legend attributes the foundation of Dayr Mar Elian esh Sharqi to late antiquity, with Mar Elian as the teacher of St. Ephrem the Syrian (d.373), and this dating is partially confirmed by the evidence. The limestone tomb of Mar Elian is present in the north-west corner of the contemporary church on the site and is clearly a Byzantine sarcophagus. It is difficult to date it exactly but the presence of a number of Syriac inscriptions in both estrangelo and serto pshitto attest to the fact that it is older than the eighth-ninth century due to the use of estrangelo.

In the first half of the twentieth century Johann Georg von Sachsen found a wooden door in the cloister that was dated stylistically to the sixth century and is now on show in the National Museum of Damascus, but it is the twelfth century before any textual reference is made to the monastery. This occurs in the neighbouring monastery of Mar Musa where an inscription inscribed on the church wall there refers to "Hanna, son of Baqi deacon in the monastery of Mar Elian" and is dated 1176. The next reference is in the early thirteenth century and is inscribed on a stone resembling a pagan altar bought by the Syrian Catholic Patriarch Rahmani in 1900. Rahmani reports that the stone was found within the walls of Dayr Mar Elian and refers to the body of St. Simon, which was discovered by the priest George, son of Hanoun, in the year 1528 of the Greeks (1216/17 AD).

After these brief glimpses of Dayr Mar Elian in the sources there is a further dearth of sources until the fifteenth century, when it becomes easier to trace the evolution of the foundation until the eighteenth century. This period appears to have been something of a golden age for the monastery with a number of monks from Dayr Mar Elian being elevated to bishop, and evidence suggests that it was home to a thriving school of fresco painters who had commissions as far afield in Jbail (Byblos) in Lebanon. From the end of the eighteenth century until the late nineteenth century the monastery disappears from view once again and when it re-emerges it is through the eyes of a group of European travellers who passed through the village from the 1870's onwards. By this stage monastery is unoccupied but remains a regional pilgrimage centre with a small mudbrick chamber and chapel covering the tomb. During the twentieth century a number of families lived on the site to the west of the cloister and in a range of vaulted chambers along the east wall (of which a tower and one adjoining chamber still remain). These chambers collapsed along with the east wall in the 1980's, and the evidence suggests that this was caused by a termite problem. The west wall was deliberately destroyed in the 1990's when the local community wanted to build a cemetery enclosure next to the monastery.

Today the site remains an integral part of the village and is used by both Christians and Muslims. The Christian population call the saint Mar Elian and the Muslims refer to him as Ahmed Hauri. The annual festival of Mar Elian on the 9th of September attracts around 1,000 people with coach loads of Christians arriving from the nearest villages as well as Christian and Muslim participants from Qaryatayn. The shrine is still used as a place of pilgrimage by those seeking a cure for mental illness and local people frequently sleep in the monastery church believing that this will cure their sicknesses. Therefore it must always be remembered that this is a living site and this brings with it responsibilities towards the local community.