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Dayro d-Mor Matay
Mosul, Iraq

Source: Brock, et. al. The Hidden Pearl, 2001.

Located on the Alfaf Mountain 35 km. northeast of Mosul (Nineveh), the Mor Matay monastery (known in Arabic as Deir Mar Matta) was founded in the fourth century. According to hagiographic tradition, a saint by name Matay lived in this mountain. One day, the son of the local king, Behnam, went hunting in the mountain where he met the saint. Impressed by his teachings, Behnam went back to his mother and persuaded her to let him take his sister Sarah, who had a disease, to the saint. She was cured by the saint. After the miracle, both Sarah and Behnam were baptized by the saint. Upon hearing the news, their father, the king, was angered and he ordered that they be put to death. The king was then struck with a disease. Behnam appeared to his mother in a dream and told her to get Mor Matay. She did and the saint cured the king. To show his gratitude, the king built a monastery in the mountain.

The monastery was affected during the turbulent Christological controversies of the fifth century. The Chronicles of Patriarch Michael the Elder (also known as Michael the Great and Michael the Syrian) and Bar Ebroyo record that life resumed at the monastery by the end of the fifth century. Monasticism took various forms in the monastery: some were abeele 'anchorites' and others hbeeshe 'recluses'; some chose to become iheedoye 'hermits' and others preferred a more communal life.

The monastery appears to have had a bishopric line from its early days. It was also at this monastery that a number of Synods of the Maphrianate of the East (i.e., the Syriac Orthodox Churches east of the Euphrates) took place. The bishopric of this monastery was so strong that on many occasions, especially from the seventh century onward, the residing bishop would challenge the authority of the Syrian Orthodox Maphrian of the East, to the degree that he became a de facto co-equal to the Maphrian, each of them ruling over half of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the East. In 869, Patriarch John III held a Synod which reiterated the subordinate position of the Maphrianate of the East in relation to the Patriarchate of Antioch. In addition, the first Canon of that Synod made it clear that the Bishop of the Mor Matay monastery is to be subordinate to the Maphrian of the East. Patriarch Michael the Elder also reiterated this relationship in 1174.

The monastery is famous for its magnificent library. Back in the 9th century, Daud Bar Paulos Beth Raban (d. 837) wrote to a bishop, "My grandfather wrote two books in the form of questions and answers against the Nestorians [sic], and three books answering 60 questions put forward by another Nestorian, and I think that the books are in Mar Matta monastery." It is also mentioned in a colophon of a Syriac manuscript (Berlin, no. 327) that in 1298 the library contained all the writings of Bar Ebroyo which are more than 35 books. In 1171, the Kurds attacked the monastery and many of the manuscripts were damaged; some that survived were carried by monks to Mosul. In 1369, another Kurdish attack on the monastery damaged more manuscripts. Today manuscripts from this monastery can be found in the British Library, Cambridge, and Berlin.

Mor Matay monastery served as the Seat for the Maphrian of the East on many occasions. Bar Ebroyo spent the first seven years of his Maphrianate here.

The monastery has a historic connection with the Church in Malabar (India). In 1663, a monk named Yaldo was consecrated Maphryono and was installed at the monastery. In 1683, Thomas II of Malabar wrote to the Patriarch asking him to send a bishop and four teachers. The following year, the Patriarch discussed the matter at a Synod in Mardin during which Yaldo offered to abdicate the Maphrianate and go on the mission to India. He died a few days after his arrival in Malabar after an arduous journey; his remains are interred at the Mar Thoman Church in Kothamangalam, Kerala.

During the early 19th century, the Kurds raided the monastery many times that it was abandoned for 12 years. Later that century, Oswald Parry, a delegate of the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the monastery. He describes the life in the monastery:

It was rough riding across the spurs of the hills to ... Malleh, a village at the base of Jebel Maqlub, on the almost perpendicular face of which was built the monastery, clinging like a swallow's next against a wall. From the village it seemed scarcely credible that there could be any way up the rock, nor was any visible. And when we reached the path, it had much the appearance of those that lead up to hillside pagodas on antique china plates. As we neared the top... two monks looked out over the high wall upon us straight below them, where they could have dropped a stone upon our heads... There were two monks at the monastery, one old and rather deaf, who had spent most of his life in Midhiat, and had come to pass his remaining days at Mar Matta. The second was a young man, ordained Raban only two years since, but being a trustworthy and well-educated man, was obtaining considerable influence, and had almost the entire management of the place, even when the Bishop was there.

The monk had lead us to a pleasant diwan at the very top of the building, where water was brought, and grapes, while he disappeared to prepare the customary cup of coffee... Refreshed with grapes and coffee, I then went out with the younger monk to see the monastery and its surroundings. It was a strange place indeed, almost inaccessible, with a few trees, mostly figs and apricots, and pasture here and there among the rocks enough to feed the convent's flock of four hundred sheep. None but a recluse could have chosen such a spot, although the air is glorious, and even in summer, when Mosul is intolerable, one may be as confortable here as on the hills about Mardin...

About 1830 the place was plundered by the Kurdish Pasha of Ruwanduz and has only lately been restored...

The church is a large plain building, chiefly interesting as containing the tomb of the great Bar Ebroyo... Every monastery of the Syrians countains some copies of parts of his numerous works... He lies buried with his brother Barsoum in the Beth Qadishe of the Church, and over them is placed the inscription: 'This is the grave of Mar Gregorius John, and of Mar Barsoum, his brother bnai [plural of Bar] Ebroyo, on Mount Elpep.'

Near the church was another building where many of the Syrian bishops are buried; and in a grotto just below the monastery, the Raban pointed out the place where Mar Behnam lived.

It was a splendid night, with a bright moon; but the lightning played all along the horizon, threatening rain... With many regrets at the shortness of our visit, the monks bade us good-bye... It was still harder work going down the mountain path than it had been to ascent.

Passing the monastery in 1841, Horatio Southgate records that the monastery was "uninhabited, but formerly the seat of the Syrian Patriarchs [sic], and still nominally the residence of the Maphrians" (p.156).

The first Synod to be held this century in this monastery was convened and presided by Patriarch Elias III in 1930. The Synod recommended that all churches open Sunday schools. It permitted the use of an organ during the liturgy. It also encouraged young women to participate in choirs and especially enouraged the bishops to open schools for girls. With respect to the calendar, the Synod decided to remain on the Eastern Julian calendar, but allowed the Churches in America to use the Gregorian calendar, except for Easter. The Synod also forbade the social tradition of giving and receiving dowry. A compilation of laws and rules that apply to the monastery were approved by the Synod.

The Beth Qadishe of the monastery contains the remains of six Maphrians and many bishops including Mor Mattay, Mor Zakka, Mor Abraham, Bar `Ebroyo among others. The monastery has over 50 rooms, 3 halls for gathering, and a church. To the left of the monastery is a large cave with natural mountain spring water dripping from the ceiling of the cave.

The monastery is the seat of its own Archdiocese. Its current bishop is Mor Dioscoros Luka Shaaya, formerly bishop of Jerusalem.

View of the Interior; Source: Brock, et. al. The Hidden Pearl, 2001.

Main source:

Ignatius Jacob III, dafaqaat al-tiib fii taariikh maar matta al-`ajiib (Damascus, 1961).

Other References:

H. Southgate, Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian [Jacobite] Church of Mesopotamia; with Statements and Reflections upon the present state of Christianity in Turkey and the Character and Prospects of the Eastern Churches (New York: Dana and Company, 381 Broadway, 1856).

Oswald Parry, Six months in a Syrian Monastery, Being a Record of the Visit to the Head Quarters of the Syrian Church in Mesopotamia, with Some Account of the Yazidis or Devil Worshippers of Mosul and el Jilwah, Their Sacred Book (London, 1895), Ch. 19.

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Last Update: May 19, 2003