FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — When the 101st Airborne Division captured this base back in 2003, an American tank blasted the turret off a T-72 tank, catapulting it into the side of St. Elijah’s Monastery.
The force buckled a wall of mortar and stone that had stood for more than 1,000 years in one of the earliest redoubts of Christianity. Such is the tragedy of war.
The division then made the site a garrison and painted its emblem on the stucco above the low door to the monastery’s chapel. The insignia remained there until a chaplain contemplated the righteousness of having “Screaming Eagles” adorn a house of God.
“That’s not right,” the chaplain said, as the story goes.
Thus began the accidental American stewardship of St. Elijah’s, an ancient site of Christian worship and martyrdom stuck in the middle of a vast military base just south of Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Now, in one small act of preservation, and perhaps penance, the Americans hope to restore St. Elijah’s. Army engineers have drawn up plans to shore up the roof and walls of its main sanctuary — believed to have been built in the 11th century — before the last United States troops leave the monastery to an uncertain fate.
“We get so close sometimes, but we don’t finish,” Master Sergeant Howard C. Miller said, referring to the unfinished business that increasingly consumes the United States military as a deadline for withdrawal nears. “I’d really like to see this through.”
The sergeant is a nurse, the senior noncommissioned officer at the combat hospital here on Marez, but either by coincidence or higher purpose, he is also a master stonemason, experienced in historic preservation back home.
In his off-hours, he has gathered the broken chunks of mortar from St. Elijah’s. In a garden behind the hospital, he has refired the chunks on a barbecue and then pulverized them in an attempt to recreate the mortar used more or less the way it was 1,000 years ago to rebuild the parts of St. Elijah’s that remain standing today. He calls it “the world’s oldest recycling program.”
As historic sites in Iraq go, St. Elijah’s has little of the significance of the ruins of the great Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, all endangered by decay and looting.
The ruins of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are only a few kilometers away. So is the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and that of another, Nahum, whose short chapter in the Bible warns Nineveh of its destruction.
“Nineveh is like a walk through the Bible,” said W. Patrick Murphy, the leader of the United States’ provincial reconstruction team here, which is coordinating the restoration, referring to the modern name for the province that includes Mosul.
In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors who might otherwise never leave the base and encounter Iraq’s deeply layered history. Amid the hardship of modern military operations, it once again became a place of prayer.
“We stand in a long line of people who bequeathed the faith to us,” said Major Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic chaplain, presiding over Mass in the monastery recently, attended by three camouflaged soldiers, their rifles leaning in a corner.
Little is known about the history of St. Elijah’s, or Dair Mar Elia. The site has never been studied or excavated, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all of Iraq’s historic sites. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.
The board, which has previously been critical of United States activities at ruins, including Babylon, is reviewing the proposal to restore St. Elijah’s.
The monastery is believed to date from the late 500s, when Elijah, an Assyrian monk, traveled from what is now Turkey. It later became part of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Terraced hillsides nearby are evidence of cultivation that sustained the monks who lived here. The valley where it stands would be lovely were it not for the ruined remains of Saddam Hussein’s 5th Army Corps nearby and the ever-smoldering pit where the Americans burn trash and sewage down the road.
In 1743, a Persian king swept through the area and ordered the monks to convert to Islam. They chose instead to die. In a violent place where Christians are still targets, most recently in bombings this week that struck two churches in Mosul, St. Elijah’s history resonates.
“May I be committed like those who lived here and perished instead of denouncing their faith,” Major Julian L. Padgett, a Baptist chaplain, prayed after leading soldiers and contractors on the weekly Friday tour of the monastery.
The monastery has 26 rooms, built around a central courtyard, in various stages of decay. Graffiti in English and Arabic mar some walls. “Adios Mozul,” Raoul wrote with imperfect spelling.
“When we left, we ended up leaving a mess, too,” Padgett told the tour, recounting the military’s initial mistreatment of the place and its efforts now to make amends.
The church itself, with a baptistery, nave and altar, remains largely intact, but the interior wall has buckled badly. A shell-shaped niche remains undisturbed, inscribed with a prayer, but another appears to have been chiseled out, possibly by looters. The floor is covered in dirt. Part of a ceiling arch has collapsed. Cracks run along the corners and ceiling, letting in sunlight, but also rain, which will ultimately cause more damage.
The goal, Miller explained, is to give St. Elijah’s “another 100 years of life — in whosever regime it is then.”