In addition to being the cradle of civilization, Iraq is home to one of the earliest native Christian communities, believed to have been started by the Apostle Thomas when he passed through the land during the first decades after the death of Jesus.
We recently visited Mar Mattai, one of the most ancient, still-standing Christian sites in the region. In Arabic and Aramaic, mar means “saint” or “holy.” The monastery of Mar Mattai (Matthew the Hermit), began in 363 (or 365) AD, was been inhabited by Christian hermits and monks until the 14th century, when it was abandoned and partially destroyed. The Assyrian Orthodox Church renovated it in the 1700s and has continued using it as an Assyrian Orthodox monastery and seminary since then. Many Eastern Catholics, as well as the Orthodox, revere Mar Mattai, however, given that the monastery was founded by him prior to the split between the two Churches. Mar Mattai was known for his fervor and asceticism, as well as miraculous cures worked through his intercession during his lifetime. He played a key role in converting the pagan Assyrian king, Senacherib, and much of the population then inhabiting the Nineveh area to Christianity.
Like many monasteries in the region, Mar Mattai was built high up, offering a magnificent view, contributing to the fervor and beauty surrounding a life of solitude dedicated to God.
To foster obscurity and safety, the early monks built their monastery into the side of the mountain, making it blend with its surroundings, so it wouldn’t be noticed from afar. Even today, aside from the original footpath, the monastery can only be reached by one road that winds up the side of the mountain, connecting the monks and seminarians with the parishes and communities they serve down in the plains.
While the monastery building itself has been rebuilt, renovated and expanded several times, most recently in the 1800s, the original dome of the first hermitage chapel, built in the early 400s, remains intact, as does the tombstone of Mar Mattai, who likewise passed away in the early 5th century.
The value I find in visiting this site, and many other ancient Christian and historical sites that I hope to visit during the time we live here, goes beyond their cultural and archeological value, enriching as it is. I believe that the true worth of Mar Mattai and other such places, whether still functioning or just remnants of the past, lies in human experience. As my husband aptly pointed out a few days ago, one of the benefits of traveling and living in different places is personal enrichment and ongoing education. Men have many things in common, but different cultures and time periods also bear witnesses to the many differences between men, and to the uniqueness of the human experience proper to each individual and to each culture. By traveling to different places and visiting sites of cultural, historical and religious value, we continually grow in our own understanding of nature, society and man. We are able to benefit from the experience of others, in our own day and out of the past, and add it to a growing reservoir of appreciation for the greatness God has shared with us through his varied creation.
Religious sites, like Mar Mattai, have an added dimension as well – an aurora of sacredness, a tribute to the divine. They are a reminder that the same God we worship has been worshipped for centuries. The same liturgy we celebrate today has been celebrated for two millenia. The same experience of conversion and reversion that each of us go through at some point in life, have been given to men, individually and sometimes together as a community throughout the ages. These tributes to man’s common experience of God, of worship, adoration and reverence, are a constant reminder that the God we know and love is a living, breathing, loving and infinite God. While times, places and people change, he remains the same. The age-old stones of the original chapel at Mar Mattai, still hold the secrets of the prayers, hopes, dreams, worries, challenges and doubts of men who, though living centuries ago, shared many of the same struggles and joys as we do today, and managed to keep their faith in God alive through it all. I hope and pray that I, and all my loved ones, will also be able to unite our lives to the host of good people, good Christians, who have gone before us, joining the timeless chorus of praise raised from this earth in honor of the God who continues to create, love, and save all of us.