The Monastery of St Moses, Syria: The Cave Survey

Posted: July 11, 2014 - 12:20 , by Robert Mason
World Culture, Archaeology, Research, From the Field | Comments () | Comment
This cave would have been a home for one of the monks of the Deir Mar Musa community, the wall at the front of the photograph shows that they had a small terrace outside the cave, either for a living area or for growing food.

The first field-walks took place in 2004, but recorded survey of the area began in 2005 with a rapid series of transects across the catchment of the valley.  Some of the caves were clearly situated in locations which were now difficult to get to, and I rather suspected that if I did not have a look in them, then they possibly contained something important, like the Holy Grail for instance. Also, it occurred to me that the common way of disposing of refuse from the monastery in former times was simply to throw it off of the terrace. Looking down from the terrace I could see patches of soil in crevices in the escarpment below the monastery, but it is a very precipitous drop. So I knew that I would need to bring out highly skilled climbers to investigate these locations, which I did in 2006.  Further data was added in the 2009 season, but the cave survey was never really completed, and it would have been preferable to have another look at all of the caves before a proper publication of the findings. To date 34 features have been recorded in the survey which are thought to have a possible association with the monastery.

Map of the northern part of the surveyed area around Deir Mar Musa (red area). The red dots all show locations of features which can be associated with the monastery, including a well in the extreme northwest (F33), a building (F21), lime kiln (F22) and weir with cistern (F23) in a cluster up the wadi to the west, and the cluster of features around the monastery, which are all caves. Note that in this entire area, only near the monastery were caves found.

Members of the community often accompanied us on our surveys, especially Br. Jens Petzold, a previously unbaptised Swiss/German, who originally came to the monastery as a back-packer and stayed. He is presently leading a new monastery of the Khalil order in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The monastery of Deir Mar Musa would not have just consisted of the main buildings during the mediaeval period, but the entire landscape would have been a part of the complex. This is especially so as Deir Mar Musa was actually a type of monastery known as a laura, in which the monks lived in hermitages spread around the landscape and only came in to the main buildings on Sundays. To date surface reconnaisance of the area has covered the catchment of the Wadi Deir Mar Musa, and the region of 2-3 km around the monastery buildings. Apart from a well some 2km distant from the monastery, only features within the Wadi Deir Mar Musa were found. This would have been the main route for travellers to the monastery, coming from the nearest large town of al-Nabk to the west. The westernmost features include a building (F21), a weir and a cistern in the stream-bed (F23) and a lime-kiln (F22), collectively in an area I called "Euphorbia valley". I later found out that this invasive species is associated with agricuture in the region. So perhaps this small complex was an area where support-workers to the monastery were active, growing food and creating lime for the plaster.

Each of these recorded feature locations has a "C" added to the number, being caves. They include some important ones such as the "Cheese Cave" (C30), the "Cave of the Weaver" or al-Hayak (C26), the "Cave of the Seven Sleepers" (C34) a very deep cistern, and the Mortuary area (C32).

The survey has located over 30 caves, all within 1 km of the monastery, and several of them are currently occupied by the present community (none of the presently-occupied caves were properly recorded). Typically, the caves do not seem to have formed naturally, certainly not to their present extent, since they all have rough angular walls, are most often situated on on the south-facing side of the valley (suggesting that they were winter quarters), and are typically about 2 m in each dimension. The recorded traditions of these types of monasteries are that monks are expected to create their own cells unless one has been made vacant.  The size of each of them would have been just right for a monk to sit alone and pray, with enough floor space to lie down on a mat (monks were even known to sleep sitting), while the rough niches in the walls and benches would be perfect for placing an icon, a week’s supply of meager food (collected from the central buildings on Sunday), illumination (some niches had soot blackening from candles or lamps), and other property (a Bible or Psalter and work tools are recorded as being the personal property of monks).  Although laura are considered typical of the 6th century, in one of the caves at Deir Mar Musa that had been partly cleared by a recent novice in 2005, several artifacts from the 14th century were found, including two jars (one of which would certainly have contained water) and two bowls. One of the things we looked for was modification of the caves. This included terrace walls to create a flat floor for the cave, or extend the floor out onto a terrace in front of the cave, and in one case a plaster cross was affixed to the cave wall.

Mapping the caves, here in Cave 1, included creating a plan, taking a GPS reading, and recording any human modification of the cave.


Archaeologist Joëlle Chartrand in the 2006 season recording a typical South-facing cave (C18 east).

A number of observations could be sxtracted from the plans made of the caves. One is that they are all about the same size, although some of the sheltered parts of the cave were probably larger than they are now (a roof extended Cave 4, while fresh rock surfaces above Caves 5 and 9 suggests they were once larger). There are a couple of larger caves which were not surveyed properly, such as the Cheese Cave (C30), which is probably mostly natural in origin, and some which have been planned, such as Cave13, which is lined with plaster and was probably a cistern. Cave 11 is quite large, and when the western half of it was surveyed in 2006 there was a wall dividing it (the eastern half was closed by a door and has been planned from memory). It is possible that this cave was over-large for any one monk, and so the wall was put up, and the entrance labelled the "window" on the plan was hammered out of the solid rock. 

Plans of the surveyed caves, shaded area is covered, dark shaded parts are walls. Of these, only C13 is entirely lined with plaster, and was probably a cistern.

A number of things were not recorded properly at first, for instance it was only noticed after a while that many caves had flat areas outside the cave, and these terraces were probably an integral part of the living space. They would have allowed sleeping outside in good weather, and may have harboured some desert plants that provided food, such as wild almonds. That soot was found on the roof was noted, but only after all of the plans were drawn together in the correct orientation has it been noticed that almost all of the soot is on the eastern side of the cave. This soot is almost certainly from candles, which were originally thought to be a source of illumination, but given the eastern orientation it may be that it was actually a spiritual illumination, as the east is the direction in which the Syrian christians prayed and the candle or lamp is often a metaphor for the Light of the Divine. Of the two caves for which there is evidence of soot elsewhere than on the eastern side (C16 and C25) the soot is recorded as being at the highest point of the cave, and further inspection may reveal that the source of the soot, the lowest point it is found, is actually on the eastern side (indeed, looking at the phot of C25 this appears to be so).

In 2009 my team (including l to r, Julia Tugwell and Whitney Hahn) and I surveyed to the east of the monastery buildings, and recorded this cave (C25) high up overlooking the valley approach to the monastery. This is one of the few North-facing caves, but the water-worn walls would suggest it is completely natural. This is one cave in which soot-blackening is recoded being found somewhere other than on the eastern side of the cave, but if you look at the left of the cave, the eastern end, it looks like that may be the source of the soot on the eastern side after all, but the smoke "pooled" in the highest point of the cave.

A view of the eastern and recent part of the monastery buildings, photographed from the other side of Wadi Deir Mar Musa over the old monastery buildings. Apart from the buildings to the left a number of caves can be seen in this photo, including the Cheese Cave (C31) which is behind the range of windows peeking out underneath a rock escarpment just to the right of the free-standing buildings. This very large cave is probably natural, forming on a weak  point in the limestone that was probably once the surface of the earth (a number of other caves exist along the same line behind the buildings to the left). The Cheese Cave would have been a very significant part of the landscape and probably was part of the spiritual landscape of the region from earliest times. To the right and top left can be seen caves which are now containing monastic cells once again.


This large cave, C32, was known as the cemetary of the monastery, and human bone was found scattered over this area when Fr Paolo first arrived. The small cave above it was completely inaccessible except for proficent climbers (who you can see approaching it), and I knew that if I didn't take climbers out to have a look, the lost Ark of the Covenant would probably be in there. But they got up there, and it wasn't. Above it on the hill behind can be seen C1, which seemed a habitable cave, and above that is C2, a cave inhabited at the time by a horned viper, so recording was very limited.

The known mortuary area is a shallow cave (C32) which has too little soil to be properly called a graveyard. As part of the refoundation of the monastery, the surficial human bone of the site was collected into an ossuary by Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, whose impression was that human bone disturbed by fresh interments were originally collected, wrapped in textile, and placed in niches in the cave. Typically in other monasteries the more “important” members of monastic communities (the founder, abbots, priests) are buried within the monastic buildings, while most of the monks are buried outside of the building.  So it may be that the graves of the founder and the subsequent monastery superiors have not yet been found. A possible location is below the altar (a not uncommon location for the crypt), which is the only area within the current buildings that is not over bedrock or a cistern.

In the 2006 season climbers Francesca Scorsone and Tiago Varella-Cid came out to provide safe access to certain features, one of these was the cliff below the monastery, and If you look carefully you can see them part of the way down.

Examination of the cliff below the monastery was less productive. After the climbers went down in 2006, I went over the side too, and examined the niches in the rocks that I had hoped contained finds that had been disposed of in the easiest manner possible, simply throwing them off of the terrace. I thought that this might explain the total lack of ceramics from any period other than the 14th century. However, the soil had entirely been deposited during the restoration, and so any refuse that had been deposited in earlier times had been lost.

I thought I had better have a look, too. You can see a patch of dirt where Tiago is standing, but all I could find in it was debris from the restoration.



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