The Monastery of St. Elian the Hermit "Whispers of the past and visions of the future"

Part II


Excavations in the Monastery

Excavations began with a stock-take of all the archaeological finds (including fragments of glassware and pottery) and a geophysical survey. The collapse of the church in 1938 was a genuine catastrophe in that it was one of the oldest churches in Quryatein, especially one where holy rites were still performed. However it did lead to the discovery that the church stood on the ruins of an older one from the 17th century, which itself was also built on the foundations of yet another church from the 16th century.

Another key discovery was the frame of a cover of an ammunitions storage chest.

This bore some similarity to the cover of the sarcophagus of the grave of St. Elian, both of them having been constructed from marble. The frontispiece consisted of two discs which were pierced to allow the extraction of holy oil from within the chest. This is since relics from the saints (a piece of bone, a finger or other bodily part) would be placed in the chest and then immersed in oil which was subsequently believed to become blessed.

Behind the western wall of the church were chambers set aside for storage, confirmed by the discovery therein of jars of various sizes. Also, a cemetery for the burial of monks was discovered next to the door of the church. This was discovered accidentally during the course of the dig, as was a structure that appears to have been used as living quarters for the monks. There appear to have been numerous guest chambers for visiting pilgrims needing shelter whilst they performed their devotions. Animal bones were also found, scattered amongst the rooms from calves, lambs and camels, as were several grindstones. Each room contained a fireplace and a collection of pottery and glassware fragments, pots, pans and several coins. There is evidence that ritual slaughter was carried out here, which demonstrates that religious rites were undertaken in the place during the Ottoman and Mamluk periods.

Continued excavation in the courtyard revealed a Byzantine church which would appear to have to been used during different periods of history from the Ayyubid and the Abbasid periods onwards. The discovery of this simple structure symbolised the very spirit of the area and perpetuation of monastic life and religious rites throughout the Byzantine, Abbassid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and even the Ottoman periods, saying a great deal about Christian architecture and religious practice during a period of predominantly Islamic rule.

Most significant was the discovery of a church that ran concurrent with the life of St. Elian in the 4th century A.D. This confirms the accuracy of the 17th and 18th century manuscripts stating that St. Elian was buried in this monastery. Also there is evidence from this period (St. Elian’s tomb and the doorway of the church which dates back to the 17th century A.D.), underlined in the texts carved in stone of the inside of the small monastery door dating back to the 14th century A.D. This text was intended to protect the monks of the time and reaffirms the existence of monastic life in this period. It all clearly confirms that there was indeed an old monastery in Quryatein during the lifetime of holy St. Elian.

Adopted by: Haifaa Mafalani