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4 Sacred Christian Historical Sites in Iraq

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4 months ago

Since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq War, Iraq’s Christian minority has declined from almost 1.5 million people to an estimated 250,000 adherents. Much like Syria, you can learn about the heartbreaking story of Iraq’s Christians by visiting the sacred and historical sites of Christian Iraq.

Christianity in Iraq stretches back thousands of years to the first apostles and the earliest days of the religion with major communities historically existing in Basra, Mosul, Baghdad and elsewhere. In recent years, many of Iraq’s sacred and historical Christian sites were threatened by the Islamic State as much of Iraq’s Christian population was systematically displaced.

In 2021, Pope Francis visited Iraq, drawing a renewed attention on the plight of Iraq’s Christians and the need to preserve Christian historical sites in Iraq.

During your visit to these four sacred and historical Christian sites in Iraq, you will learn about the highs and lows of Iraq’s Christian population.

Before You Go: Everything you need to know about visiting Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan

I realize Iraq is not exactly your ‘regular’ tourist destination. You are probably thinking, can I really just visit Iraq?

There are a few things you should keep in mind before visiting Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, including visas, safety and security and whether you want to join a guided tour. For the answers to all these questions, make sure you read our comprehensive guide to visiting Federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

4 Christian Sacred and Historical Sites in Iraq

1. Rabban Hormizd Monastery (Al Qosh)

This monastery dates back to 640 CE and is at the site of the Tomb of Saint Hormizd. As you enter the cave-like monastery, you will find yourself surrounded by icons and plaques in the Syriac language. This ancient language, closely tied to the Assyrian people, is still spoken today in only a handful of towns in Iraq and Syria.

To the left of the tomb of Saint Hormuz, you will see a chain which can be affixed at the neck.

Historically, local medicine men would tie people here in an attempt to rid them of demons or djinns.

In one of the later caverns, you will find the 14 stations of the cross embossed into the cave walls. If you look carefully, you will notice that two of the stations are missing. A local Al Qosh legend says that they disappeared soon after the American invasion in 2003.

The monastery is frequented by local Chaldean Christians from the town below and surrounding region. There are a number of particular rituals associated with the monastery, including one where you try to lodge a small stone in a ridge in the wall. If your stone stays put, your wish will come true!

The Rabban Hormizd Monastery is technically in Mosul governate (Federal Iraq), but it is currently under Kurdish government control in the town of Al Qosh.

You do not need a Federal Iraqi visa to visit the site from Kurdish cities like Erbil or Dohuk.

As you enter the monastery complex, you will meet a soldier – he will usually be very friendly. Ask nicely for the key and he will accompany you up and let you in. In my opinion, Al Qosh is best visited with a Kurdistan guide. Otherwise you will miss out on the historical stories and legends of the region (there is no signage here).

While you are in Al Qosh, take some time to explore the small town which is full of small winding alleyways. Al Qosh is also home to the recently restored tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum, one of the most beautifully maintained biblical tombs to visit in Iraq and a great place to learn about Iraqi Jewish heritage.

2. Morr Mattai Monastery (Nineveh)

At about 1600 years old, Morr Mattai is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. Set in the plains of Nineveh and only about 30 minutes from Mosul, the Kurdish army miraculously defended this monastery from ISIS fighters only a few minutes away.

Morr Mattai is most famous for its large monk population and its huge collection of Syriac Christian manuscripts.

With the ISIS advance through Nineveh, Morr Mattai’s entire library was packed up and sent into the better-protected parts of Kurdistan (where most of it remains today). From the monastery, all the villages you see below were occupied by ISIS militants.

3. Abraham’s House, Ur

Every good Iraq itinerary should include the ancient Ziggurat of Ur.

Archaeologists excavated an ancient sewerage system about one mile from the ziggurat, suggesting the site of an village in close proximity to the Ziggurat. According to the Bible, Ur is the birthplace of Abraham, and in turn, this ancient village was coined ‘Abraham’s house’. Within years, this site became an important Christian pilgrimage site in Iraq – and was even included on Pope Francis’s historic Iraq tour!

Abraham’s House isn’t accessible as part of the entrance to the main Ziggurat of Ur. You will need to find the local caretaker and beg him to open the gate for you.

If you are keen to practice some Arabic, you are looking for Beit Ibrahim or Beit El Nebi. Presuming you get the go ahead, you will need to drive along a path (he will drive alongside you) from where you will find the excavated residential area.

4. St Thomas Chaldean Church (Basra)

The St Thomas Chaldean Church is in the heritage district of Old Basra. This neighborhood is home to the UNESCO world heritage shanasheel balconies which make Basra one of the best cities for architecture in the Middle East. Walking the streets of Old Basra is easily one of the top things to do in Basra.

I love visiting St Thomas as it really is one of the most atmospheric churches in the Middle East. While this neighborhood was historically quite Christian, after 2003 most Christian families left. Today, there are only three Christian families living in Old Basra.

To visit the Church, you really need some good luck. Knock on the metal door and the elderly Christian caretaker will open up. If he’s in a good mood, he will let you in. I wish I could give you better guidance, but this really is the only way to arrange a visit.

Travel tip: Have 5000 Iraqi Dinar on hand to tip the caretaker.

In the front courtyard of the Church is the former Christian cemetery. Today, there is nothing to indicate this paved area was a graveyard.

However, if you ask the caretaker nicely, he will share a map of the identities of those buried here.

The interior of the church is in a terrible and dilapidated state. Sadly, most of the ceiling is collapsing (including the fans).

Please be very careful – I would not recommend walking too deep into the church, not least because of the chance of something falling from the ceiling and hitting you.

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