In most countries a seventh century Christian monastery would be a place of pilgrimage, or at least a tourist attraction. But this is Iraq, and ISIS is only 20 kilometres from here. There are no tour buses. There is no-one else here.
Well, there may be a few nuns, be we don’t see them. But there is a guide, though he doesn’t speak any English. Fortunately one of our group speaks a little Arabic, enough to give us the highlights.
The tour is rudimentary. I’d like a bit more time than the hour or so that we have, I’d like to spend the entire day here, exploring the caves and soaking up the atmosphere. I know that’s not going to happen – I’ve been in groups before.
Our guide, hearing that we are from Canada, is excited. His wife and two-year-old daughter are in Canada he says. He sent them there when it looked like ISIS was going to capture the village. He wants to join them at some point, but he doesn’t have the money. I didn’t find out whether he has another source of income besides the tips he receives here, but he certainly won’t get rich from tourists in Iraq at this point. Even if we tip generously, it’s probably the only income he’ll have today, and maybe tomorrow as well. Or even the entire week. No-one who watches the TV news is going to come anywhere near this place.
Iraq is a country steeped in history going back 3,000 years and more. It should be a place teeming with tourists who want to learn more about the roots of civilization. The war with ISIS has pretty much put an end to that. When I looked at a few tourist websites I didn’t find any that had been updated since 2011. Understandable I guess – when tourists think of taking a risk it is more along the lines of bungee jumping or zip lining, not looking at ancient artifacts in a war zone. The bus from Erbil to Duhok goes through Mosul, according to one site I was looking at. Probably not anymore though, ISIS captured Mosul in 2014.
The monastery draws me into it. What must it have been like to have been here 1400 years ago? When I think of it, the terrain was probably pretty much the same. So I suppose was the political situation – with the death of Mohammed his heirs and successors were on the move to conquer more territory. Seems like nothing much has changed; it’s still dangerous to be a Christian in the Middle East. In the face of persecution the Church continues to stand as a beacon of hope and love.