The Mart Meskinta Chaldean church in Mosul

The Mart Meskinta Chaldean church is located at 36°20’18.91″N 43° 7’32.30″E (adjust) and 233 metres altitude, to the south-west of old Mosul, designated by the Ottoman city walls in the Christian district Sham’ûn al-Safâ, known in Arabic as al-Mayyāsā.

The Mart Meskinta church is attested to in a Gospel book dating from 1199 or 1212, conserved by the Chaldean patriarchate. Up to the mid-19th century, Meskinta was a small church. It was totally renovated and transformed in 1851, at the instigation of the Chaldean Patriarch Joseph VI Audo. After the Chaldean patriarchate of Diyarbakır (in Turkey) was transferred to Mosul in 1830, the first patriarchal church was Sham’ûn al-Safâ, followed by Meskinta. At this time it required renovation and embellishment work. The Audo patriarch had the new, large Meskinta church built but did not destroy the ancient church which it is still twinned with. Two Chaldean patriarchs are buried in Meskinta: Pierre Élie XII  Abbolyonan, who died in 1894 and Emmanuel II Thomas, who passed away in 1947.


Pic : Nave of the Mart Meskinta church in Mosul in 1975 © In “Monuments chrétiens de Mossoul et de la plaine de Ninive”, Slideshow, 2018, Slide 54, Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p. 


Plan of the Mar Meskinta church in Mosul according to Herzfeld (Pl VI) © in “Les chrétiens de Mossoul et leurs églises pendant la période ottomane de 1516 à 1815”. Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p., Mossoul-Ninive, 1983, p.122, A.

Plan monument

Location

The Mart Meskinta Chaldean church is located at 36°20’18.91″N 43° 7’32.30″E (adjust) and 233 metres altitude, to the south-west of old Mosul, previously designated by the Ottoman city walls in the Christian district Sham’ûn al-Safâ[1], known in Arabic as al-Mayyāsā (or al-Mansūriyya), 400 kilometres north of Baghdad. The ancient Mart Meskinta cathedral is close to the Chaldean churches Sham’ûn al-Safâ and Mar Gorgis, as well as the two Syriac-Catholic and Syriac-Orthodox Mar Touma churches.

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[1] Sham’ûn al-Safâ: Peter, also known as Prince of the Apostles

The churches of Mosul before 1815, with the location of the Mar Meskinta church shown in orange
© In "Les chrétiens de Mossoul et leurs églises pendant la période ottomane de 1516 à 1815", Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p. Mossoul-Ninive,1983, p.93 B

About Mart Meskinta

The tradition tells us that Meskinta was martyred by the Persians at the time of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Sassinid king Yazdegerd II (438 – 457).  Her crime was to have taught catechism to her children. Meskinta is cited in a breviary dated 1777, written in Araden, a mountain village in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At war with the Eastern Roman Empire which had turned to Christianity, the Persian king considered Christians to be an internal enemy. Yazdegerd II not only failed to eliminate Christianity from the Persian Empire, but also started the cult of martyrs which is still today an essential part of Mesopotamian Christianity.

Coat of arms of the Chaldean Church.
April 2018 © Pascal Maguesyan / MESOPOTAMIA

The origins of the Chaldean church

The Chaldean Church is a Catholic church, born in the 16th century, further to a schism that occurred within the Church of the East. In 1552, several bishops, who had set up in northern Iraq[1], southern Turkey and northern Iran, contested the hereditary succession of the Catholicos of the Church of the East Shimun VIII. They elected in Mosul another Patriarch, Yohannan Sulaqa, abbot of Rabban Hormizd Monastery in Alqosh, who named himself Yohannan/John VIII and went to Rome to profess his Catholic faith. On 20th April 1553, Pope Julius III appointed him Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church “whose creation was thus officialised.”[2]

Back in the Ottoman Empire, he set up his patriarchate in Diyarbakır (southeast of modern days Turkey), 400 kilometres northwest from the monastery of Rabban Hormizd. Fighting openly with his rival Shimun VIII, Yohannan Sulaqa was arrested, imprisoned and murdered in 1555.

The foundation of the Catholic Chaldean Church had been preceded a century earlier, in 1445, by a decree of union in Cyprus between Rome and some members of the Church of the East, that Pope Eugene IV already called “Chaldeans”.

Up until the 19th century, this schism was all the more conflictual as a large number of worshippers from the Church of the East chose to remain in communion with Rome. The Catholic Chaldean Church’s see was transferred from Diyarbakır to Mosul in 1830, before the Metropolitan Yohannan VIII Hormizd was elected as Patriarch.

Though they undisputedly counted as the majority among the estimated 1,200, 000 Christians in Iraq before the first Gulf war in 1991, the Chaldeans number 750,000 in the last census in 1987, compared to 300,000 Assyrians (Church of the East and former Church of East). The total number of Christian people in Iraq amounted then to 8% of the total population. How many were there in 2018? The data collected by Mesopotamia’s correspondents confirms the demographic collapse reported by the communities visited. There are less than 400,000 Chaldeans in Iraq, living in Baghdad, Kurdistan, the Nineveh plain and Basra. The disasters faced by the Christian communities in Iraq have not ceased since its independence in 1933. There was no respite at the start of the 21st century with the American invasion in 2003 and the terrible sanctions imposed by the UN, along with the violence and persecution perpetrated by Islamicist and organised crime groups, targeting Christian communities since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Today, the Chaldean church is composed of a large diaspora spread across five continents: the United States, Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the former USSR, in particular in Russia (Moscow, Rostov-on-Don), Ukraine, Georgia (Tbilissi), Armenia (Yerevan).

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[1] In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

[2]In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

Bell tower of the Mart Meskinta church in Mosul in 1975
© In "Monuments chrétiens de Mossoul et de la plaine de Ninive", Slideshow, 2018, Slide 52, Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p.

Fragments of the Christian history of Mosul

This chapter is largely based on the work of Brother Jean-Marie Mérigoux [1] o.p. who lived in Iraq for 14 years from 1968 to 1983 as part of the Dominican mission for Mesopotamia, Kurdistan and Armenia, based in Mosul. See, two books by Brother   Jean-Marie Mérigoux, in particular: « Va à Ninive ! Un dialogue avec l’Irak », Éditions du Cerf, October 2000; and « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Éditions La Thune, Marseille, July 2015.


Mosul “remains a Christian metropolis,[1]” as attested by its history, and its ancient and modern heritage, which persists despite recent catastrophic events.

Although the first archdiocese is attested to in 554[2], it is also important to take into account the Paleo-Christian apostolic tradition. “Three churches are proud to be founded on houses where apostles are said to have stayed. The Sham’ûn al-Safa’ church, [built during the Atabeg period in the 12th – 13th centuries] is said to be built where Saint Peter stayed during his visit to Babylonia and the Mar Theodoros church is connected to the visit of the apostle Bartholomew.  As for the apostle Saint Thomas, the house where he was shown hospitality on his journey to India, became a church.[3]” The church in question is the Syriac-Orthodox church Mar Touma.

The first church attested to in Nineveh (modern-day Mosul-East) dates back to the year 570. It is mentioned in the “Chronicle of Seert”.  It is the Isha’ya church. This confirms a pre-existing Christian community. In the 7th century the Syriac-Orthodox Mar Touma church was also known of.  From the 7th century onwards, the Mar Gabriel monastery was the seat of one of the Church of the East’s most important schools of theology and liturgy.  The al-Tāhirā Chaldean church was built on the site of this monastery in the 18th century. [4]

Over the centuries, through successive councils and conflicts, a multitude of churches of different denominations, including the Armenian and Latin churches, were formed.

Of these various fragments of history, the Muslim conquest must be cited as one of the most important. Mosul fell in 641 and the Christian members of its population became dhimmis, with (limited) rights and (stringent) obligations based on their religious identity. This status remained in force up until the 19th century and was abolished in the Ottoman Empire in 1855. Despite this abolition, Christians (and Jews) still remain defined by their dhimmi status which governs denominational relations in public life and attitudes in almost all Muslim countries. It is still legally enforced (in Iran).

In the 7th and 13th centuries, at the height of the Seljuq period, the Atabeg dynasties imposed their rule throughout Iraqi Mesopotamia and made Mosul a centre of power. At this time, Syriac-Orthodox Christians persecuted in Tikrit fled to the Nineveh plain and Mosul, where they established their community and founded the Mar Ahûdêmmêh (Hûdéni) church. “At the end of the 20th century due to below-ground flooding throughout the neighbourhood, the Mar Hûdéni church located well below ground level was flooded and had to be abandoned. A new church was built right on top of the old one. Thankfully, the royal door in the Atabeg style, described by Father Fiey as a “jewel of 13th century Christian sculpture”, was transported to the new church and given pride of place.” [5]

Following on from the Atabeg, the Mongol Houlagou Khan, took Mosul but spared the city from destruction and from the massacres committed in Baghdad in 1258, thanks to the “cunning governor of the city, Lû’lû, of Armenian origin[6].” The following century was nonetheless a tragic one. “Christian persecutions peaked under Tamerlan, whose armies ravaged the Middle East in the first years of the 14th century and exterminated the Christian populations. No other eastern Christian church underwent anything close to this type of eradication, the community in Iraq is well placed to claim the first prize in martyrdom.”[7]

In 1516, Mosul fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks for the first time, but it was not until the following century that they established a dominant presence in Iraqi Mesopotamia that was to last for four centuries after the conquest of Baghdad in 1638 by the sultan Murad IV.

Mosul in the 16th century was a major centre of Christian influence. It was here that the schism of the Church of the East took place, with the election of Yohannan Sulaqa as the first patriarch of the Chaldean church Abbot of Rabban Hormizd Monastery in Alqosh, he took on the name Yohannan/John VIII and went to Rome to profess his Catholic faith. On 20th April 1553, Pope Julius III appointed him Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church “whose creation was thus officialised.[8] After Diyarbakır (in the south-east of modern-day Turkey) and before Baghdad (in 1950), the seat of the Chaldean church was established in Mosul in 1830, with the election of Jean VIII Hormez as the metropolitan of Mosul.

In 1743, the Christians of Mosul played an active role in defending the city during the 42-day siege laid by the Persian Nâdir Shâh who had already looted and ransacked the plain of Nineveh.  Victorious and grateful, the pasha of Mosul, Husayn Djalîlî “obtained a firman from Constantinople favourable to the churches of Mosul [9]”.  In 1744, the two al Tāhirā churches were built in Mosul, one for the Chaldeans, one for the Syriac-Catholics.  The churches damaged by bombs were also restored.

The 17th century marked the opening of the Latin missions in Iraqi Mesopotamia. The Capuchin Friars open their first house in Mosul in 1636.  The Dominicans of the Province of Rome arrived in 1750, followed by those from the Province of France in 1859.  Under their impulsion, the large Latin church Our Lady of the Hour, was built “in the Byzantine style, between 1866 and 1873[10].This is the church to which the empress Eugénie de Montijot, wife of Napoleon III, donated the famous clock which was placed in the first clock tower ever built in Iraq. For almost three centuries, members of the Dominican mission for Mesopotamia, Kurdistan and Armenia, have been actors, experts and vital witnesses to the history of Christianity in Iraq and the dangers facing Christians in the Middle-East.

A turning point came in 1915-1918 with the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans in the Ottoman Empire.  Large numbers of survivors came to live in Iraqi Mesopotamia, specifically in Mosul where there were pre-existing Christian communities. During this period, in January 1916 over just two nights, 15,000 Armenian deportees living in Mosul and the surrounding area were exterminated, tied together in groups of ten and thrown into the Tigris river. Already, well before this carnage, on 10th June 1915, the German consul to Mosul, Holstein, telegraphed his Ambassador, reporting telling scenes: “614 Armenians (men, women and children) expulsed from Diarbekyr and transported to Mosul, were all killed en route, as they were transported by raft (on the Tigris).  The kelek arrived empty yesterday. For a few days now the river has been carrying corpses and human limbs (…)” [11]

The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and associated criminal activity, had a considerable impact on the demographic collapse of Christian communities in Iraq, particularly in Mosul. On 1st August 2004, simultaneous attacks against five churches in Mosul and Baghdad triggered the mass exodus of the Christians of Mosul to protected areas in the Nineveh plain, Iraqi Kurdistan and overseas. The next few years in Mosul were truly harrowing. The targeted kidnapping and murders of Christians exacerbated the exodus. On 6th January 2008, Epiphany, and 9th January, criminal attacks targeted several Christian buildings in Mosul and Kirkuk.

It was in this climate of terror that Monsignor Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped. “On 13th February 2008, as he welcomed a delegation from Pax Christi, in the church in Karemlash, right next to Mosul, the prelate revealed that he had been threatened by a terrorist group several days previously,  “Your life or five hundred thousand dollars,” the terrorists told him.  “My life is not worth that!” he replied. One month later, on 13th March, Monsignor Rahho was found dead at the entrance to the city.”[12]

From June 2014 to July 2017, Mosul fell into the hands of ISIS fighters.  The houses of the 10,000 or so Christians still living in the city were marked with the sign Nazrani (Nazarean, i.e. disciples of Jesus). They were ordered to convert to Islam, pay the djizia (the tax on dhimmi) or die. They fled the city hastily and en masse but had to abandon their Christian heritage which was extensively looted, vandalised and desecrated. The battle of Mosul and the bombing by the international coalition which pulverised the ISIS fighters in a deluge of fire, reduced some of Mosul’s largest Christian (and Muslim) buildings to dust.

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[1] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Éditions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p.88

[2] In Assyrie chrétienne, vol.II, Jean-Maurice Fiey. Beirut, 1965. P. 115-116. See also “Mossoul chrétienne” by Jean-Maurice Fiey.

[3] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 89

[4] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 92-93

[5] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 94

[6] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 95

[7] In “Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient”, Jean-Pierre Valogne, published by Fayard, 1994, p.740

[8] In “Histoire de l’Église de l’Orient”, Raymond le Coz, Éditions du Cerf, 1995, p. 328

[9] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 97

[10] In « Entretien sur l’Orient chrétien », Jean-Marie Mérigoux. Editions La Thune, Marseille, 2015, p. 102

[11] In “L’extermination des déportés arméniens ottomans dans les camps de concentration de Syrie-Mésopotamie”. Special edition of Revue d’Histoire Arménienne Contemporaine, Tome II, 1998. Raymond H.Kevorkian. p.15

[12] In « Chrétiens d’Orient : ombres et lumières », by Pascal Maguesyan, Éditions Thaddée, September 2013, latest edition 2014, p. 260 260

Map of the Dominican Mission to Mesopotamia, Kurdistan and Armenia. Mosul, seat of the mission, is shown in the middle of the map
© Mosul Collection Inventory IV-N22-11-2. Archives from the Saulchoir Library (French Dominican province)
Map of Nineveh and Mosul by the geographer Carsten Niebuhr, 1766
© In "Les chrétiens de Mossoul et leurs églises pendant la période ottomane de 1516 à 1815", Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p. Mossoul-Ninive,1983, p.93 C.
Street scene in Mosul in 1923.
Photo Agence Rol © French National Library, department of prints and photographs, EI-13 (969)
The destroyed old city of Mosul in the process of being cleared.
June 2018 © Pascal Maguesyan / MESOPOTAMIA

History of the Mart Meskinta Chaldean church in Mosul

The Mart Meskinta church is attested to in a Gospel book dating from 1199 or 1212, conserved by the Chaldean patriarchate[1]. It is also mentioned in several manuscripts owned by the Chaldean patriarchate dating from 1667, 1681, 1708, 1766, 1827. [2]

Up to the mid-19th century, Meskinta was a small church. It was totally renovated and transformed in 1851, at the instigation of the Chaldean Patriarch Joseph VI Audo. After the Chaldean patriarchate of Diyarbakır (in Turkey) was transferred to Mosul in 1830, the first patriarchal church was Sham’ûn al-Safâ, followed by Meskinta. At this time it required renovation and embellishment work. The Audo patriarch had the new, large Meskinta church built but did not destroy the ancient church which it is still twinned with.

At the very start of the 20th century, in the period 1904 – 1907, the Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel II Thomas in turn extended the building.

After the Chaldean Patriarchate was transferred from Mosul to Baghdad in 1950, Meskinta remained the Chaldean cathedral in the city before Monsignor Georges Garmou, Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul (1980 – 1999) decided to transfer it to al Tahira.

The Iraqi archaeologist Narmen Ali Muhamad Amen visited the Meskinta church in the year 2000. Unfortunately, the political chaos that ensued in 2003 marked the beginning of a period of anti-Christian persecution in Mosul which led to a mass population exodus, before the war against ISIS from 2014 – 2017 resulted in the mass destruction of heritage monuments. Meskinta also suffered this dual punishment of being abandoned then destroyed.

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[1] Souce Catalogue Bidawidh, cod. 124 cited by J.M. Fiey, 1959b cited in “Les églises et monastères du Kurdistan irakien à la veille et au lendemain de l’islam”, PhD thesis by Narmen Ali Amen, May 2001 Saint Quentin University in Yvelines, p.258.

[2] Mixed sources by Jean-Marie Mérigoux and Narmen Ali Muhamad Amen

Nef de l'église Mart Meskinta de Mossoul, en 1975
© In "Monuments chrétiens de Mossoul et de la plaine de Ninive", Slideshow, 2018, Slide 54, Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p.

Description of the Mart Meskinta Chaldean church in Mosul

Full description and citations in “Les églises et monastères du Kurdistan irakien à la veille et au lendemain de l’islam”, PhD thesis by Narmen Ali Amen, May 2001 Saint Quentin University in Yvelines, p.260.


Before 1851, the Mart Meskinta church was a small single nave church measuring 10 metres by 3 metres, with an entrance to the west, aligned with the axis of the nave, at the end of which is an altar, and, just to the right a baptismal font. There are also numerous graves of bishops.

The large, modern Mart Meskinta is 36 metres long and 18 metres wide. It aligns differently from north-west to south-east, where the sanctuary is found. The church is also “deeply buried below ground level.” Two side doors, one for women, one for men, in the north-east allow access to the church from the left side aisle. Its style is characteristic of 19th century sacred Assyrian-Chaldean architecture. Its structure is basilica-style with a triple nave and five bays. Its barrel vault is supported by four pair of thick, freestanding, square-cut pillars and embedded pillars. “The sanctuary is mounted with a cupola on semi-spherical squinches.” The bema (tribune for readings) is elevated by a step and is found in the first bay of the central nave, right in front of the royal door.

In addition to the altars found in the sanctuary, there are two other altars under the arcosolium against the wall in the middle of the right side aisle.

Two Chaldean patriarchs are buried in Meskinta: Pierre Élie XII  Abbolyonan, who died in 1894 and Emmanuel II Thomas, who passed away in 1947.

There is also a unique decorative feature in this church[1]: the calligraphy paintings in Garsuni Arabic sculpted and painted, hung all along the length of the cornice above the arches of the nave.

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[1] There is a similar type of decor in the the Mar Touma Syriac-Catholic church in Mosul, built several years after the new Meskinta.

Entrance door to the Mart Meskinta church in Mosul in 1975
© In "Monuments chrétiens de Mossoul et de la plaine de Ninive", Slideshow, 2018, Slide 53, Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p.
Decorative feature in the Mart Meskinta church, in 1975. Calligraphy paintings in Garsuni Arabic along the cornice above the arches of the nave de l'église Mart Meskinta de Mossoul, en 1975.Tableaux calligraphiques en langue arabe garsuni le long de la corniche au dessus des arches de la nef
© In "Monuments chrétiens de Mossoul et de la plaine de Ninive", Slideshow, 2018, Slide 55, Fr. Jean-Marie Mérigoux, o.p.

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