FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – Dating back only to 574 A.D., the crumbling walls of the Monastery of St. Elijah a few hundred yards from the mess hall here, are relative newcomers.
FOB Marez borders Mozul, Iraq’s second largest city. Mozul was once known as Ninevah, where Jonah came to preach after spending three days in that big fish. His remains are said to be in one of the city’s elegant mosques. Abraham passed through here en route from Ur to Haran, just over the border in Turkey around 2200 B.C. Iraq is seen by many as the traditional site of the Garden of Eden and the place where Adam and Eve were buried. The apostle Thomas is said to have spread His word here.
Both local Muslims and Christians believe this part of Iraq to be the place where Satan landed when cast out of heaven, although Rev. James Gazaway, chaplain of the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineers and something of an expert on Mosul history notes, “This isn’t the only place that claims them.” And, he says, “since everything was destroyed in the flood, there wouldn’t be any evidence anyway.”
Says Gazaway: “This area has influenced world history. The influence is immeasurable. This is part of the seat of world history.”
Gazaway notes that the ancient Assyrian Empire, which lasted from about 800 B.C. to about 600 B.C., was based here. It included areas now known as Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, hailed from Haran, as did Jacob’s wives, Rachal and Leah. Daniel preached here.
During the heyday of the Byzantine Empire, this area was sort of a frontier. It was on the edge of civilization, Gazaway says, but not so far that you didn’t have contact. It became a melting pot of cultures, trade and religion.
The local Chaldean Church bishop says the monastery is the oldest in Iraq. Gazaway notes that several other clerics make similar claims about ruins in their areas. “It has been battered and demolished several times,” says the chaplain. “The last time was when the last shah of the old Persian Empire, in 1753 or 1754, came through and completely destroyed the site and butchered the monks. It was rebuilt and remained active until Saddam Hussein installed a military base here at Marez in the 1980s.
“Saddam Hussein put it off limits and then let if fall into a state of disrepair,” Gazaway says. “It was an insurgent stronghold in the last Saddam Hussein war.” The 101st Airborne Division changed that, and used if for a while as a base of operations. Sadly, there is now a firing range nearby and the concussion associated with the big bangs is taking its toll.
Restoring it would be “a nice gesture,” says Gazaway. “It would be a world archeological dig site – one of the few areas where you could actually protect an archeological team.” The current structure is all that remains of what was once a much larger community. It features local marble for which Mozul is famed and a mix of local Islamic art, Christian symbolism and Chaldean script. Saddam’s troops defaced it with graffiti.
Fifty miles south of here lies the city of Hatra, which Gazaway says is among the most historically significant sites anywhere. It was a major crossroads of trade routes. There, the cultures, languages and religions of Greece, Rome, Persia, Babylon blended. He hopes to visit the place some day. Roman emperor Trajan, the man who prevailed at Masada, tried to conquer Hatra but was denied in 116 A.D., as was Septimus Severus in 198.
With tongue only partly in cheek, the chaplain notes that some of the first chemical and biological warfare took place at Hatra when poisoned arrows and jars filled with scorpions rained down from the ramparts onto Roman soldiers.
In 1980, Hollywood filmmakers got permission to enter the site and film an archeological dig there. The footage was used in the opening scenes of “The Excorcist.”
Gazaway sees tourist potential here. “There is as much historical and archeological draw here as the Pyramids of Egypt,” he says. “It is just staggering.”
Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.