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The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Buildings


Posted: September 15, 2014 - 12:04 , by Robert Mason

Categories: None | Comments (0) | Comment

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa in its heyday included hermitages spread around the landscape, but as today, the focus of the complex would have
been the buildings, especially the chapel, home to the important frescos. The archaeology of standing buildings requires looking at walls to see how they
are made, and how they relate to each other. One structure may clearly be seen as one that came first, with later structures abutting on to it. Different
phases may be made of different materials, or the same material worked in a different way. At Deir Mar Musa the stones themselves provide evidence in
their size and form, and how they were shaped. Once distinct structures are recognised within the complex, they may fit floor patterns of recognised
building types that provide a chronology, while sometimes details of door, window, or other attributes may have a chronological association. In an ideal
situation inscriptions with dates may be associated with each phase. In this way it is possible to create a history of a complex of buildings, albeit at
times a hypothetical one! Eventually a plan like that below will be created, but a two-dimensional representation cannot really describe a three
dimensional structure adequately, so reconstruction drawings are often helpful. The reconstruction drawings in this blog are based on the plan.

Phase One: Roman?

There seem to be two structures upon which all the others are built around at Deir Mar Musa. This architecture comprises courses of large stone
blocks, typically about 50-60 cm high, about 80 cm wide, and 50 cm thick, although larger and smaller stones are found, all quite well-dressed with a
hammer. Two structures on the site have several courses of these blocks, with the stones keyed into the bedrock of the site. The large blocks rise to a
height of one storey in the south building and two in the north (for the north building see below). An opening articulated by large blocks in the south
wall of the southern structure is almost certainly the original doorway. It is about 1 m high by 60 cm wide, and has sockets for the door and bolt. The
doorway is about 150 cm from the base of the wall, and when it was built there would have been a precipitate drop to the valley (the present floor has
been built up later). This means that this door would be very inaccessible. This door, the ground-plan, and the large blocks would be suggestive of a
Roman watchtower.
Large blocks require organisation and cranes. Such things are not unique to the Roman period, but in later periods such large blocks only became
popular again when developments in trebuchet design made large blocks in castle walls desirable in the 12th century. The simplest way to build with
stone is to make a block large enough for one man to carry it. Hence it is logical to hypothesize that only the Romans would be so deliberate as to drag
a crane out to the desert to make a building. Roman watchtowers are widespread on the borders of the Empire, and were designed to be visible to each
other, so that they could signal. The towers tended to be inaccessible, as this one would have been with a small door high up over a cliff face, and are
typically of this plan. The position of this tower would have been perfect for observing one of the main roads between Palmyra/Tadmor and

Damascus, which could be the main route an

invading army from the East would make.
The monastery of Sergius and Bacchus at
Dayr al-Nasrani in Jordan is built around a
watchtower under similar circumstances.
The now blocked entrance to the suggested Roman watchtower,
the first building at Deir Mar Musa.

Phase Two: The Monastic Foundation

I think the second structure made of large
blocks, the northerly of these two buildings,
is later. The original watchtower, of which
there are examples of towers elsewhere in
Greater Syria preserved to a height of six
stories, would have been vulnerable to
earthquakes, which are common here (see
below). So the north building may have been
built using blocks from the collapsed Roman
watchtower. The present entrance in the
north structure is later, comprising a small
low door which might be appropriate but the
inner archway has a pointed arch and is
probably mediaeval. Extensive remodeling
has obscured any more likely doorway,
although there is a possible gap in the larger
stones on the western wall.

Similarly proportioned towers often seem to

have doors in the middle of the long side.
These "similar" towers are actually often the
foundation buildings of monasteries.
Defensive towers were an important aspect
of monastic foundations of the early
Byzantine period and are fairly common on
Syrian monasteries. They would often be
the first buildings in the monastery, in order
to provide shelter for the monks, which
would be particularly appropriate here. These
are not meant to be tall watchtowers, just strongly built and tall enough so that it is difficult for unwelcome visitors to get inside. The large blocks go to
a height of two stories, and the original building was probably no higher until renovations in the later mediaeval period.
The west wall of the main buildings showing several phases of construction. The north building using large blocks is to the left (note the red arrows showing the line where the original building is abutted by a later

Phase Three: The Monastery Chapel

The chapel is not built in one phase, but has several types of stonework in it. The core of the building, including the half piers, the west wall of the
nave, and the inner shell of the apse, are badly ordered and comprise some very large stones with smaller stones fitted around them, probably re-used
from the Roman towers. This core masonry seems like the work of monks, rather than masons, while the rest of the chapel is obviously the work of a
team of highly skilled masons. This combination would be odd if the building was built in one project. If one considers the plan, this core masonry
actually forms the outline of what is considered the most typical plan of monastic churches in the Holy Land by scholar Yadin Hirschfeld. The most
reliably dated examples are late 4th or 5th century. There seem to be two main ways of constructing a church of this nature, one with a pitched roof
(common in northern Syria), the other with a flat stone roof supported by transverse arches (common in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel), but these parts
of the hypothesized chapel are entirely missing. For now I have reconstructed the church with a pitched roof. Typically the better preserved examples,
for example at masada in Israel, have a window in the apse.

In comparable monasteries, the church is

placed on the north side of the complex,
with a courtyard on its southern side to
provide space for the community to
congregate, a function of particular
importance in laura with their infrequent
assemblies. The proposed monastery-type
church actually provides a far more
appropriately sized courtyard for this
function at Deir Mar Musa. Typically, the
door to a church of this nature would be at
the western end, or on the south wall
towards the western end, where it is intended
to let in light to the church.
Then Br. Jihad and Br. Boutros discussing scripture, the wall
behind Br. Jihad dates to the original chapel building.

Phase Four: The Basilical Chapel

The next phase of the chapel exhibits the
skills of highly qualified craftsmen. The
isolated piers, the archway, the spandrels that
separate the nave from the aisles, and the
east wall above the apse, are all constructed
of a finely worked ashlar masonry. This has
been dressed with chisels of about 3.5-4 cm
wide with 10-12 teeth, in blocks which are
typically about 30-40 cm high, and the full
width of the column (66 cm) by half its
width. Crosses and other motifs carved into
this stonework are considered to date to
about the 6th century. The original parts of
the outer walls are of hammer-dressed blocks
in well-ordered courses; typically the stones
are about 22 cm high. These well-ordered
blocks are found in other parts of the
monastery buildings, including the rebuilding
of the original watchtower, the south range
of buildings, the terrace revetment near the
chapel, the lower part of the terrace wall,
indicating a lower terrace in this period, and a fragment of wall on the northeast edge of the terrace which was probably once a part of
the diaconicon, where the priest would prepare for Mass. All of this work is not neccessarily all of one phase, but probably shows construction over the
Byzantine period.

The fine carved cross in this block is characteristic of the 6th century. Note the surface of the stone which has been "dressed" by a chisel with "teeth" in it.

Phase Five: The Mediaeval Monastery

The greater part of the medieval construction on the site seems to be due to earthquake damage, and if the hypothesis that the clerestory of the nave
of the church was made in its present form between the dates that bracket the paintings, then this would date the earthquake in the 12th century.
Earthquake damage certainly seems to be indicated in a number of major cracks in the walls, and the actual collapse and subsequent rapid
reconstruction of the walls. All of this masonry is of a similar nature, comprising undressed rubble and re-used blocks, and also including wood,
indicative not of professional masons but of amateurs trying to rapidly shore up the remaining buildings. Apart from the clerestory and the pieces of
masonry already suggested as being repair following an earthquake, other walls of the same nature include the rooms constructed over the aisles of the
church, and the rooms below the present terrace.
A 12th century date for the reconstruction works very well with the known seismic history of greater Syria. Major transverse faults may be found all
along the region, while a major north-south fault on the same alignment is visible in the valley. During the 12th century a series of major earthquakes
passed down the fault system from north to south. The Aleppo earthquake of 1138 is known as one of the most destructive earthquakes in recorded
history. The Hama earthquake of 1157 is particularly well known in Middle Eastern history because it practically annihilated the Munqidh family of

Shayzar. It is also recorded as being the first

earthquake in which wood was incorporated
into rebuilding. Each of these shocks caused
widespread damage across the region, and
could have caused the damage at Deir Mar
Musa. The closest epicentre (which does not
necessarily make it the most likely culprit) is
an earthquake of 1170, while the Baalbek
earthquake of 1202 was only 6 years before
the completion of the wall-paintings in
1208. It is rather salutary to consider that the
famous mural paintings of Deir Mar Musa
al-Habashi were created because of an
earthquake that is known to have killed tens
of thousands of people.
To the upper right of this image can be seen the repairs after
the earthquake, with rubble masonry and wood typical of this
sort of repair. The last phase of frescoes would have been over
these repairs.

Building also appears to have been

undertaken on the remains of the larger of
the first two towers in about this period.
This masonry comprises blocks which are
well-dressed with a hammer and pecked, in
well-lain courses of about 28-30 cm height.
Small narrow windows all have a little detail
of an arch cut into the top stone, and there
is a small but effective box machicolation,
situated directly over the door on the ground
floor, already postulated as being medieval in
its present form (see above). The vaulting in
the ground floor of this structure would
probably also be of this period. It seems
probable that after the initial reconstruction
following the earthquake, professional
masons with experience of military
architecture were employed to develop this
defensive structure. The mediaeval
modifications to the Bab al-Sharqi and Bab
Touma in Damascus have similar stonework, windows, and box machicolations, the latter being of a suitably larger size. Both of these gates are
particularly apposite comparisons as they also have foundations of large Roman blocks.
This is a "box machicolation" a defensive structure made to allow defenders to drop things on people without attackers seeing them, it is positioned right over the door of this building, two stories below. The 15th
century expansions put this feature inside the building.

This narrow window is typical of defensive architecture of the 13th-14th centuries.

Phases Six & Seven: Fifteenth century and later

In the late 15th century it is known that the monastery was producing a large number of manuscripts. Two inscriptions claim to have constructed a
fortress on the site, one dated 1467/8 and located in the courtyard, the second over the present main entrance dated to 1497/8. There are indeed at
least two further phases recognizable in the architecture at Deir Mar Musa which may fit this data. The final phase visible in the floor-plan is an
extension that abuts the 15th century extension, which presently contains the lavatories, and presumably had this function when it was constructed.
Further inscriptions attest to intermittent activity until the abandonment of the monastery in the early 19th century.


Robert Mason, The Monastery of St.

Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa alHabashi), Syria, Antiquity Vol 83 Issue
319 March 2009

Roman watch-towers

Y. Hirschfeld, The Judean Desert

Monasteries in the Byzantine Period (Yale
U. Press, 1992).


NAVIGATION (links will become hot as they are published)

The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: Introduction (
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Pottery (
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Frescoes (
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Cave Survey (
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Buildings
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Prehistoric Remains
The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: Conclusion and Syria Today


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