Soldiers Visit Ancient Monastery

By Sgt. Mitch Armbruster, 207th MPAD Journalist

Hidden away from the populace of Forward Operating Base Marez sits a monastery nestled next to a graveyard of old Russian tanks.

The Dair Mar Elia Monastery of St. Elijah is located on Marez and is open to the servicemembers and civilians who live on the FOB or those living on the adjacent FOB Diamondback.

Infantry units operate and work from Marez to provide security in Mosul and keep northern Iraq safe. Strykers cruise down the dirt roads of the FOB while humvees and non-tactical vehicles pull to the side to let them through. With all of the FOB’s activity, this small historical site has quietly endured the elements of time.

“This is a big morale booster,” said Pfc. Allan Ambrose, a chaplain’s assistant with the 142nd Corps Support Battalion. “It’s not every day that you get to visit a 2,000- year-old monastery.”

iraq monastery
Capt. John P. Smith, chaplain and monastery tour guide with the 142nd Corps Support Battalion, gives a brief to Soldiers about the monastery before entering.

Soldiers found the trip allowed them a chance to view a historical location unlike the tourist sites available to them back home.

“I’m a spiritual person,” said Spc. Whysheka Robinson, who works for the 203rd Personnel Service Battalion. “This gives you time away to think to yourself. Coming to a site like this is something different. It’s something new that you don’t see in the United States.”

The commanders of many of the units have supported the visits by allowing their Soldiers time to go to the monastery.

“The Soldiers are in awe when they step inside the monastery. They have this feeling that they are getting a piece of history,” said Capt. John P. Smith II, a chaplain for the 142nd CSB and tour guide for the monastery trip. “They can almost put themselves back in the fourth or fifth century and realize all of the history around here and they are a major part of that now.”

Visiting the monastery is a great experience for all Soldiers and shouldn’t be limited to those with religious backgrounds, explained Smith.

“Those who have a more religious base are going to see the experience through religious lenses. Those who don’t are going to see it through historical lenses. Either way, it’s all good because there is a lot of history here,” Smith said.

“It was interesting to see some of the Soldiers walking around and taking photos as if they were actual monks. They were trying to put themselves in the position of those who lived here and actually held services here,” Smith added.

The last Wednesday in November is dedicated to remembering Mar Elia, a man who entered the monastic life and established the Dair Mar Elia Monastery sometime before A.D. 595. During the 20th century, Christians would gather at this site to commemorate Mar Elia. Later, a military compound built around the monastery reduced the number of visitors to the location. On the same location, a church was built sometime between the 14th century and the 15th century. During the 17th century, the monastery went through some renovations.

During World War I, the monastery became a place of refuge and many of the halls and rooms were rebuilt.

“I think it’s a great historical site,” Ambrose said. “Only in this part of the world will you ever find this much history this close together.”

“It makes me feel good to be a part of these Soldiers’ overall experience here, to know that I am making a difference in their lives and just to see what is happening with them,” Smith explained. “To give Soldiers an opportunity to visit a place like this, this monastery, it takes them away from all of the fear at that present time.”

While a new history unfolds in Iraq, the physical remains of the past are still present to admire. Smith said he’d like to share sites like the monastery with others.

“I would like to see a university come in here and do research and find out what we can do to build this location back up and make it a major tourist site,” Smith said.

By Sgt. Mitch Armbruster, 207th MPAD Journalist

Military Friends of NewsBlaze originated these stories, sending them directly to us from Iraq, some from Afghanistan and some in the USA.