What We’ve Lost: Mar Behnam Monastery
Stuck in between ISIS’ destruction of the Mosul Museum in late February and its destruction of Hatra and Nimrud in early April, the destruction of the Mar Behnam monastery northeast of Nimrud went largely unnoticed. While Der Mar Behnam is certainly not as well known as Nineveh, Hatra, or Nimrud, the tiny burial place of a Syriac saint has its own very interesting history, almost as old as than those cities.
There are two buildings at the site. The larger is a church, and next to it sits the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah, set into the small hill known as Tell al-Khidr. Yet sacred space is often continuous in the Near East, and excavations of the tiny tell have revealed remains dating back to the Hassuna, Ubaid and Warka periods, along with later Assyrian and Sassanid remains. There is no hard evidence that the site served as a religious sanctuary during these periods, and much more comprehensive excavation is necessary to understand the full history of the site.
Our story picks up in the Sassanid period during the mid fourth century AD. According to legends first written down in the twelfth century, there was a king named Sinharib who ruled over Nineveh (presumably as a Sassanid vassal) and had a son named Behnam and a daughter named Sarah who was afflicted with leprosy.
One day Behnam was riding north of Nineveh on a hunting expedition, accompanied by forty horsemen who were his constant companions. The hunting party sighted a gazelle and gave chase, pursuing it up the side of Maqlub Mountain where the animal darted into a cave and disappeared.
Following his quarry into the cave, Behnam instead found an elderly hermit sitting inside. The man was Mar Mattai, who lived on the mountain. He invited Behnam to sit down and the two men had a long conversation wherein Mattai introduced Behnam to Christianity, and also disclosed that through God he had been given miraculous powers of healing. Behnam promised that if Mattai could heal his sister Sarah of her leprosy, he would convert to Christianity. Mattai promised he could if Behnam and Sarah would meet him at another place at a specified time.
When Behnam and Sarah arrived at that place along with Behnam’s forty cavalrymen they found Mattai already waiting for them. The old hermit struck the ground with his staff and water flowed out. He commanded Sarah to wash in the water. When she did so, she was instantly healed. As a result, Behnam, Sarah and the forty cavalrymen were all baptized on the spot.
Their father was not at all pleased, and after repeated entreaties to his children to abandon Christianity failed he ordered that they be put to death. Behnam was warned, and he fled with Sarah and the forty cavalrymen to Qaraqosh before being overtaken. Sanharib ordered them slaughtered, but before his command could be carried out the earth opened up and swallowed Behnam’s party. The date of this event is traditionally set to December 10, 352.
Sanharib nevertheless mourned their loss, and his sorrow was compounded when he became afflicted with leprosy as well. His wife suggested he visit Mar Mattai, since Mattai had managed to cure Sarah. He acceded to her suggestion and was likewise cured, and as a result also converted to Christianity. He had the bodies of his son and daughter exhumed and reburied at the site of what is now Mar Behnam’s monastery, where a tomb was constructed in their honor and they were recognized as saints. Later a Syriac Orthodox monastery was built nearby. The tomb, sunk into the tell, became known as “al-Gibb” or “the Pit.”
This story was not written down until the twelfth century, but its themes are found in other stories that came before, all rooted in the world of court politics in the many tiny buffer states that lay between the great empires of Rome and Persia. The religious conversion of a king was an inescapably dangerous political act, caught as they were between the pagan, and then Christian Rome and aggressively Zoroastrian Sassanids, and this dilemma found its way into the literature. For example, Mar Qardagh, another widely recognized Syriac saint, was described as the son of Zoroastrian Sassanid nobility who was killed on the orders of Shapur I for refusing to renounce Christianity. In the fifth century Armenian historian Moses of Chorene related how the first century Armenian king Sanadroug massacred the descendants of his uncle Abgar, including executing Abgar’s daughter Santoukhd for refusing to renouncing Christianity and exiling Abgar’s wife Helene to Jerusalem. Moses seems to have mixed up some of this story with Josephus’ account of the conversion of Izates and his mother Helene of Adiabene to Judaism in the first century, yet another story navigating the political issues of religious conversion in the halls of power.
Yet in Mar Behnam’s case the first written versions of the story coincide with the renovation of the tomb and monastery in 1164 to give far more prominence to the Behnam story, which has led some scholars to argue that the monastery came first, and the legend was developed to explain the founding of three Syriac Orthodox monasteries (Mar Behnam, Mar Mattai and Mar Abraham) in a region where the Assyrian Church of the East had been traditionally dominant. A story that dated from before the Islamic conquest was necessary in order to comply with frequent Muslim prohibitions on constructing new churches.
At some point the grave and monastery also became associated with the mysterious Qur’anic figure of al-Khidr, the “maker of things green” who was often associated with fertility. Yezidis also revered the site for its connection to Khidr, and the town next to the monastery came to be known as Khidr Elias. Two explanations have been advanced for this: The first is that the monks deliberately cultivated the association with Khidr as a cover story to protect the monastery and tomb from Muslims, and the second is that the association with Khidr represented a form of religious syncretism.
Regardless, the monastery became known as a site to seek miraculous healing. Whether this reputation was the result of the story of Behnam and Sarah, or the origin of that story, can only be determined by excavating the site. Between 1248 and 1261 many more sculptures were added, and the monastery prospered. Many inscriptions were added to the walls in Syriac, Armenian and Arabic dedicating sculptures and doorways.
In 1258 the Mongols under Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad and ended the Abbasid caliphate, but the monastery was unaffected because the vassal ruler of Mosul quickly submitted to Hulagu. In 1295, however, Hulagu’s grandson Baidu Khan marched on Mosul and then attacked Erbil. Mongol raiding parties traveled throughout the Nineveh plains. One party plundered the monastery of Mar Mattai. Another party visited Mar Behnam. According to a Syriac inscription on the walls which described the raid:
One of them came to the Monastery of the Pit, opened its gate and entered. He put his hands on the sacred vessels, the veils and the rest. Nothing remained on the altar except for the Gospel and the reliquary of the Saint—God obscured their eyes!
Rabban Jacob, the chief of the monastery, went to Baidu Khan to complain about the looting. Surprisingly, Baidu agreed to return all the looted goods, and in return the monastery added an inscription in Uighur above Mar Behnam’s tomb which read “May the happiness and praise of Khidr Elias befall and settle on the Il-khan and the nobles and the noblewomen!”
From 1415 to 1508 the monastery became the seat of the Maphrian of the Syriac Orthodox Church, second in importance only to the Patriarch of Antioch. From 1576 to 1782 the monastery was the seat of the Bishopric of Der Mar Behnam and Bakhdida. In 1782, the seat of the bishopric was moved to Der al-Za’afaran monastery near modern Mardin, Turkey. The monastery of Mar Behnam experienced a period of decline. For a while in the 1790s the site was abandoned and cared for only by the Yezidis who also worshiped there.
In 1839 the Syriac Catholic Church officially took control of the tomb and the monastery from the Syriac Orthodox. According to English clergyman George Percy Badger, who visited the monastery twice in 1844 and 1850:
When we first visited it in 1844, it was only tenanted by a few Kurds, and the whole building was rapidly falling into decay. Since then, however, it has been repaired, and the service is now daily performed in the church by a resident priest.
A few caretakers looked after the site for the next several decades. It was not until 1900 that monastic life was re-established.
In July 2014 ISIS fighters reached the monastery, where they ordered all of the monks to leave without saving any of the monastery’s relics. The monks walked several miles on foot before making contact with Kurdish troops.
On March 19, 2015 ISIS fighters rigged the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah with explosives and blew it up, completely leveling the structure. The church does not seem to have been targeted. The destruction fits the pattern of destroying shrines such as the Tomb of Jonah where graves are specially revered.
This explosion destroyed the saints’ graves, the associated relief sculpture of Mar Behnam, and one of the Middle East’s few inscriptions in Uighur. Its destruction represents a continued attempt to wipe out the heritage and history of both Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi populations.
 J.M. Fiey, Mar Behnam [Touristic and Archaeological Series 2] (Baghdad: Iraqi Ministry of Information, 1970), 4; Suha Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam: The Monastery of St. Behnam” in The Christian Heritage of Iraq (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2009), 85.
 A full list of the medieval manuscripts which preserve this story can be found in Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 81-84; see also the accounts in Harry C. Luke, Mosul and its Minorities (London: Martin Hopkinson & Co., 1925), 118-119; Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian Jacobite Church of Mesopotamia (New York: D. Appleton, 1844), 215-217.
 Joel Thomas Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 115, 122-123, 231-232; Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.27-29 in Syriac Documents Attributed to the First Three Centuries, appendix to Vol. 20 of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, trans. by B.P. Pratten (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1881), 150-163; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.2.1-5.
 Bas Snelders, “Art et Hagiographie: La Construction d’une Communauté à Mar-Behnam,” in L’hagiographie Syriaque (Paris: Geuthner, 2012), 273-274.
 Ethel Sara Wolper, “Khidr and the politics of translation in Mosul: Mar Behnam, St. George and the Khidr Ilyas,” in Sacred Precincts: The Religious Architecture of Non-muslim Communities Across the Islamic World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 381-392; Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 86; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 4-5.
While Wolper and Snelders are skeptical that the Behnam story has any historical basis, Rassam on the other hand believes there was an actual martyr’s tomb on the site dating from the mid fourth century which became a popular local place to seek healing, and which grew in importance only after Syriac Orthodox Christians were expelled from Tikrit and fled to northern Iraq. Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88.
 Translated in Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 68-69.
 Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 66-69; Fiey, J.M. Mosul Chrétienne (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1959), 50.
 Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88-89; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 6.
 George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), 95.
 Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 89.
Article © Christopher Jones 2015.