Skip to comments.Ancient church awaits restoration in Iraq desert
Posted on 12/27/2007 7:58:04 AM PST by NYer
AIN TAMUR, Iraq (AFP) - No-one celebrated Christmas in Al-Aqiser church on Tuesday, for what many consider to be the oldest eastern Christian house of worship lies in ruins in a windswept Iraqi desert.
Armed bandits and looters rule in the region and no one can visit the southern desert around Ain Tamur unescorted, local officials say.
But 1,500 years ago, the first eastern Christians knelt and prayed in this barren land, their faces turned towards Jerusalem.
The remains of Al-Aqiser church lie in the windswept sand dunes of Ain Tamur, around 70 kilometres (40 miles) southwest of the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, forgotten by most.
But some Iraqis are determined to restore the ancient edifice -- which some say preceded Islam in the region -- to its past glory.
"It is a place of worship, a church, and without doubt, the oldest church of the East," said Hussein Yasser, the head of the antiquities department of the province of Karbala.
"According to our research, it was build 120 years before the emergence of Islam in the region," Yasser said as he took an AFP correspondent on a tour of the site.
Islam emerged in the Arabian peninsula in 622, or, by Yasser's account, 15 years after Al-Aqiser was built in a region teeming with Christian tribes.
In time, Karbala overshadowed it and became a key Muslim Shiite pilgrimage destination, while across the region Christian communities began to recede.
Deserted by its worshippers, Al-Aqiser slowly sank into the sands and would have been totally forgotten had it not been for a team of Iraqi archeologists who stumbled on its ruins in the 1970s.
The foundations of the church jut out of the desert, forming a perfect rectangle 75 metres (yards) long by 15 metres wide.
The nave is clearly visible as well as the central part around the altar where masses were celebrated.
"The church was built facing Jerusalem," said Yasser, who has been struggling since 1993 to attract funds and interest to restore the church and carry out excavations in the area.
His efforts were briefly rewarded some years ago when the authorities agreed to finance a brief excavation that lasted six months.
The work revealed an archway which he believes probably belonged to an underground crypt, bearing inscriptions in Syriac -- the language spoken by the first Christians.
"I am sure there is a city underneath the sand," said Yasser, a Shiite Muslim.
"Even then the city was known as Ain Tamur and stood at a major trading junction between Persia, the Arabian peninsula and the Roman empire," he added.
"There used to be a vast lake. People made their livelihood from fishing," he said, adding that the site was more archeologically, than religiously, significant.
A sand embankment indicates the location of the outer walls that protected the church, and Yasser is convinced that the uneven terrain that surrounds the church hides a wealth of archeological evidence.
"There are certainly houses beneath it all, and inside I am sure we can find cooking utensils, inscriptions," he said.
In the past Catholic Chaldeans, the largest single Christian denomination in Iraq who follow an eastern rite but recognise the Pope in Rome, used to pray in Al-Aqiser on Christmas Day but the faithful have not returned in a long time.
According to official figures, the Christian community in Iraq has slumped from around 800,000 in the 1990s to between 400,000 and 600,000 now.
The church "is part of out country's memory, part of the great civilisation that the Iraqis have built and it must be saved," said Yasser.
Ain Tamur police chief Mahfoud al-Tamimi said he agreed that Al-Aqiser must be saved.
"The church does not belong to the Christians only or to the Muslims. It belongs to the world," Tamimi said.
"The world must help us save it," he said, calling for the church to be added to UNESCO's world heritage site list.
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How long until the Muslims claim it as an Islamic site?
Calling an Iraqi Francis of Assisi . . .
Well, maybe I’m not but you get my point.
I hope they are able to excavate that. There is so much ancient history in Iraq. And Iraqis tell me that Christians were there first. There doesn't seem to be any animosity to Christians among the regular Iraqi people - just the fanatics and terrorists (which tend to be one and the same.)
Yes - these would be the Chaldean Catholic Christians. The name Chaldean comes from one of the ancient groups that lived in Mesopotamia, an area now known as Iraq.
Chaldeans are not Arab. They have been Christians since the first century. Chaldeans traditionally spoke Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Aramaic is still chanted in parts of their Divine Liturgy, as in that of the Maronite and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches.
I didn't make my point well - what I was trying to express is that the Iraqis acknowledge that Christianity was there first. And they respect that.
I say this to get points across to the "all Muslims are evil terrorists" crowd.
Now, that’s what you call a “fixer-upper”.
“Chaldeans are not Arab. They have been Christians since the first century. Chaldeans traditionally spoke Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.”
There were also many Jewish-Christian congregations (also Aramaic-speaking) which existed in the region, up until the Islamic invasions.
And, at one time, the Kurds are thought to have been Christian (prior to a forced conversion to Islam).
“And Iraqis tell me that Christians were there first.”
“Yes - these would be the Chaldean Catholic Christians.”
I think the Assyrian and Syriac churches would rightly take you to task on this assertion.
Chaldean Catholics did not exist until the 15th Century. There were and are Nestorian and Non-Chalcedonian churches in the region. They did not generally have particularly strong ties to Rome. Most in the 5th Century had strained relations with the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.
Chaldean Catholics are members of a sui juris church in communion with Rome. This sui juris church was not formed until much later, officially in, I believe, 1830. Hence, the Chaldean Catholics were *not* the earliest Christians in the region, nor were they likely to have built the church in question. Considering the date, I would assume it was built by a group more sympathetic with the Nestorians.
Some think He spoke Hebrew.
Although it is not widely known in our Western world, the Catholic Church is actually a communion of Churches. According to the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, the Catholic Church is understood to be "a corporate body of Churches," united with the Pope of Rome, who serves as the guardian of unity (LG, no. 23). At present there are 22 Churches that comprise the Catholic Church. The new Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II, uses the phrase "autonomous ritual Churches" to describe these various Churches (canon 112). Each Church has its own hierarchy, spirituality, and theological perspective. Because of the particularities of history, there is only one Western Catholic Church, while there are 21 Eastern Catholic Churches. The Western Church, known officially as the Latin Church, is the largest of the Catholic Churches. It is immediately subject to the Roman Pontiff as Patriarch of the West. The Eastern Catholic Churches are each led by a Patriarch, Major Archbishop, or Metropolitan, who governs their Church together with a synod of bishops. Through the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the Roman Pontiff works to assure the health and well-being of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
While this diversity within the one Catholic Church can appear confusing at first, it in no way compromises the Church's unity. In a certain sense, it is a reflection of the mystery of the Trinity. Just as God is three Persons, yet one God, so the Church is 22 Churches, yet one Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this nicely:
"From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God's gifts and the diversity of those who receive them... Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions. The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church's unity" (CCC no. 814).
Although there are 22 Churches, there are only eight "Rites" that are used among them. A Rite is a "liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony," (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 28). "Rite" best refers to the liturgical and disciplinary traditions used in celebrating the sacraments. Many Eastern Catholic Churches use the same Rite, although they are distinct autonomous Churches. For example, the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Melkite Catholic Church are distinct Churches with their own hierarchies. Yet they both use the Byzantine Rite.
To learn more about the "two lungs" of the Catholic Church, visit this link:
I love the way AFP handles this "inconvenient" part of the story.
The Christian communities didn't "recede"; they were killed off. That's always been the muslim way.
"Deserted by its worshipers"= dead people can no longer attend.
I just thought I'd clear that up.
I'm afraid you have gone native and are ignoring the obvious: the number of Iraqis who acknowledge that fact are so minuscule as to be irrelevant.
No, not all muslims are evil (actively or by acquiescence). Just 99.995% of them.
When this church gets rebuilt and I am proven wrong, let's talk. I will humbly admit the error of my ways.
(I am not holding my breath.)
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Christianity became perverted into a tool of empire by the Romans. Islam was specifically created as a tool of empire.
That’s one of the issues that gums up the moral equivalencers who can’t figure out how Christianity was able to reform but Islam isn’t.
Man. That’s cool.
What a rude, insulting, ignorant, uninformed and stupid thing to say.
I hope you're proud of yourself.
Personally, I'd be ashamed if I were you.
Thank God I'm not.
There are articles in the Religion Forum detailing that Baghdad churches were PACKED on Christmas Eve, including many Muslims who attended with their neighbors as a sign of respect and unity.
Nice to see you, and I hope you had a wonderful Christmas!
What does a discussion of the “sui-juris” Catholic churches have to do with this article? They were *not* around when the church was built. It would be like someone trying to say the Assemblies of God built the church.
The entire Middle East was predominantly Christian for a long time before Islam. I’m not disputing that. They were also quite different from and often in disagreement with the Bishop of Rome.
It is also quite possible that this particular church was built by those who rejected the second ecumenical council. We don’t know because they haven’t done the dig. *That’s* the point of the article.
If you want to discuss the “sui juris” churches, do it in a post about those churches. As interesting a topic as it may be for some, it’s not the topic of this article.
Wow! I’d love to dig there...it appears to be very significant, I’d say...
Yes, that poster is obviously one of those idiots who thinks the entire Middle East is like Saudi Arabia and he issues his pompous "wisdom" from his armchair in the US, having never set foot in Iraq.
Or perhaps he thinks the entire country is comprised of Shia militia or al Qaeda and doesn't realize that most of the people detest the terrorists as much as we do. Most of them aren't fanatics at all and are glad the Christians are beginning to return home.
I've also met a good deal of Christians in Iraq and they are starting to come out of hiding as al Qaeda is defeated and the Shia militias are being reined in.
Or maybe the poster is just a jerk and like Harry Reid, is disappointed that the good guys have this under control. ;-)
You’re most welcome! Good way to start off the new year.
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