The Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah was a Syrian Orthodox monastic complex situated just south of Mosul and east of the ancient city of Nimrud. The site was expanded and modified over time, with the earliest parts of the complex dating back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though use of the site is thought to extend back to the fourth century. While widely known for its associations with the Christian saints Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah, children of Sanherib, the fourth century king of Athor who arranged for the murder of Behnam and Sara upon their conversion to Christianity, the site also shares ties to Khidr, a legendary figure in Islam whose narrative evokes rebirth and renewal and is associated with numerous sanctuaries throughout the region. Though it has been suggested that the connections to Khidr were fabricated by medieval monks seeking to secure the monastery's longevity in the region, Wolper has argued that the site's ties to Khidr may have predated Mar Behnam's. Renowned for both its Christian and Islamic significance as a place of healing and veneration, the site has been continually held sacred by Muslim and Christian visitors, and has been heralded an example of medieval Muslim-Christian syncretism.
The monastic complex, often described as 'fortress like', is comprised of several buildings, the most important being the monastic church and the mausoleum of the martyrs. The mausoleum is held to have been the oldest structure of the complex and was situated above a pit within the hill of Tell al-Khidr, which is believed to have served as the saints' original tomb. An octagonal, domed structure, its interior featured an elaborate stone carved niche to indicate the resting place of Mar Behnam. Early writings of Muslims and Christians have also referenced the location on which the mausoleum was constructed as the site of a curative cistern.
Scholars have suggested that the church, developed after the construction of the mausoleum, initially served as a hostel to host pilgrims visiting the saints. The church, a long, oblong structure, includes several chambers, serving various functions essential to the monastery. An exterior side gallery flanked by two gates offset a tripartite niche that served as an external oratory. The interior of the church contains a large nave, featuring two apses, each with individual side chambers and chapels. Passage through the church's interior is punctuated by egress through the church's elaborately carved gates. Included among these are the Western gallery gate, the northern and southern exterior gates, the Gate of the Two Baptisms, and finally, the 'royal gate', allowing access from the nave to the altar.
Stylistically, the monastery's iconography bears the hallmarks of traditional Islamic sites in medieval Mosul, demonstrated by its robust carvings. Sculptural reliefs are abundant in both the church complex and the mausoleum, particularly around the portals and tomb. Frequent among the site's visual vocabulary are figural depictions of lions, fantastical serpents, Christian and clerical figures, horsemen combining the attributes of Mar Behnam, al Khidr and St. George, and non-figurative vegetal and geometric patterns. Excluding the Christian figures, much of the figural work is consistent with Islamic ornamentation throughout medieval Mosul, as well as the broader Turkic Islamic region. Wolper has noted the striking similarity of the serpent carvings at Mar Behnam with the dragons and serpents found Baghdad, Amid, and Kayseri, in addition to the illuminations of early Christian manuscripts, and their shared significance in symbolic Christian and Islamic narratives of transformation and the battle between good and evil. Inscriptions within the complex are as varied as the ornamentation; texts in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Uighur populate the church and mausoleum walls, evidencing the complex's wide range of architects, craft men, patrons, and visitors. The Uighur inscriptions, held to be among the only Uighur inscriptions in Mesopotamia, have been a source of scholarly debate, particularly those dually dedicated to Khidr, while appearing atop the tomb of Mar Behnam.
Though the exact date of construction of the monastery is unknown, inscriptions within the monastery note that it was restored in 1146/541 AH, evidencing its existence prior to this date and significant building activity thereafter. Further construction and sculptural work within the monastery depicting Mar Behnam suggest additional building activity in the mid-thirteenth century. Uighur inscriptions dating to 1295/694 AH note the restoration of elements of the monastery after looting carried out by the Mongols. Additions made to the complex over time include an underground tunnel connecting the monastery and mausoleum. The complex was targeted in 2014, during which the monks residing on the premises were expelled. The mausoleum containing the tombs of Mar Behnam and Mart Sara were destroyed by explosives the following year, with the remainder of the complex receiving severe damage.
M., B. "Targeted by Islamic State." Art Newspaper no. 269 (June 2015): 4.
Wolper, Ethel Sara. "Khidr and the Politics of Translation in Mosul." In Sacred Precincts: The Religious Architecture of Non-Muslim Communities Across the World. edited by Mohammad Gharipour and Mattia Guidetti, 379-392. Leiden, the Netherlands : Brill, 2015.
Snelders, B. Identity and Christian-Muslim Interaction: Medieval Art of the Syrian Orthodox from the Mosul Area. Leuven : Peters, 2010.
Wolper, Ethel Sara. "Khidr and the Changing Frontiers of the Medieval World." Medieval Encounters 17, no. 1/2 (March 2011): 120-146.