New satellite photos confirm what church leaders and Middle East preservationists had feared: the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been reduced to rubble, yet another victim of Islamic State’s relentless destruction of heritage sites it considers heretical.
St Elijah’s monastery stood as a place of worship for 1,400 years, including most recently for US troops. In earlier millennia, generations of monks tucked candles in the niches, prayed in the chapel and worshipped at the altar. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, were carved near the entrance.
This month, a high resolution camera was used to capture images of the site, which were compared with earlier photographs of the same spot.
Before it was razed, a partially restored, 27,000-sqft stone and mortar building stood fortress-like on a hill above Mosul. Although the roof was largely missing, it had 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and chapel. A month later photos show “the stone walls have been literally pulverized”, said imagery analyst Stephen Wood, chief executive of Allsource Analysis, who pinpointed the destruction between August and September 2014.
“Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of grey-white dust. They destroyed it completely,” he said.
In Irbil, Iraq, Catholic priest Father Paul Thabit Habib, 39, was shocked by the images. “Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically leveled,” he said. “We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.”
Isis, which controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, has killed thousands of civilians in the past two years. During that time, its fighters destroyed whatever they considered contrary to their interpretation of Islam.
St Elijah’s joins a growing list of more than 100 religious and historic sites looted and destroyed, including mosques, tombs, shrines and churches. Ancient monuments in the cities of Nineveh, Palmyra and Hatra lie in ruins. Museums and libraries have been pillaged, books burned, artwork crushed or trafficked.
US troops and advisers had previously worked to protect the monastery.
“I would imagine that many people are feeling like: ‘What were the last 10 years for if these guys can go in and destroy everything?’” said US army reserve Col Mary Prophit, who was deployed there in 2004 and 2009.
St Elijah’s was built in 590. In 1743, up to 150 monks who refused to convert to Islam were massacred by a Persian general. In 2003 St Elijah’s shuddered as a wall was smashed by a tank turret blown off in battle. Iraqi troops had already moved in, dumping garbage in the cistern.
The US army’s 101st Airborne Division took control, painting over ancient murals and scrawling their division’s “Screaming Eagle”, on the walls. Then a US military chaplain, recognizing its significance, began a preservation initiative.
Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic army chaplain who celebrated mass at the monastery’s altar, was grief-stricken at its loss. “Why we treat each other like this is beyond me,” he said. “Elijah the prophet must be weeping.”