Cells: Clue to Monastic Site

In my book on the Monks of Mt Izla (2004) I translate three Syriac manuscripts found at the monastery of Mor Gabriel. The manuscripts refer to monks who came from Egypt and colonized the Tur Abdin region. They brought with them not only new ideas about monasticism (cenobitic forms) but they also brought their architectural influences. Monastic cells began to appear in the region in the 5th century. Often they were double cells with an outer cell and and inner cell. The outer cell usually housed a servant monk who went on errands, shopped for food in the village, brought word and notes to the monk in the inner cell. Usually it was a younger and older monk relationship. In the inner cell was the older and more saintly monk. Often this monk would seal himself up in this cell and only allow a small window through which he would communicated with those who came for prayer, confession, or to provide communion. After a period of time another monk would attach a cell to this one where he would stay for long periods of time.

This type of monasticism was an advancement over the open air wild monks of the Syrian kind who often were naked, ate uncooked grass and plants in an attempt to imitate the Angels and the state of Paradise before the arrival of sin.   (see Voobus, History of Asceticism, Vol. I). The arrival of the monks of Egypt in the 4th and 5th centuries brought these monks into caves and clusters of cells where they lived in community.  Still there were monks who lived in limited community as solitary monks sealed in cells. This was not done in complete isolation because it required a nearby community to provide support to these saints.

We have a wonderful story in the Sogitho of Abraham where we are given a description of a monk, Abraham, who lived in this type of cell. He is served by his neice Mariam who functions as a nun. This was a kind of double cell relationship we find in the Tur Abdin region in southeast Turkey. The double cell described in the Sogitho was located outside the city of Edessa, a city famous for  King Abgar who wrote a letter to Jesus.

Mariam runs away and become a prostitute in a roadside tavern. Abraham, her uncle, disguises himself as a Roman soldier and leaves his cell and hunts down his neice. After talking to her her in the tavern, he reveals his identity and she repents and returns to her cell and serves her uncle Abraham for the remainder of her life.

This Sogiotho is one of the very earliest Syriac literary forms from the time of St. Ephraim. Its author lived in the same city, Edessa (Orrhoe) where Ephraim lived the last years of his life. Miriam was a contemporary of his and died only three years after his departure. In the introduction of the Sogitho we are told that Miriam was the niece of Abraham of Qidun, a suburb of Edessa..

This is no doubt this is the same Miriam who lived as an ascetic with her uncle in a cave-cell outside the city. In the History of Abraham of Qidun we read about how Mariam left the ascetic life for the life of an harlot. She returned after two years and extreme repentance. For this reason her Sogitho is included in the various Night Offices of the Great Fast (lent) especially within the theological context of repentance.

If Mariam wrote this poem she wrote it from her outer cell.

Mariam of Qidun:

translated from Syriac by Fr. Dale A. Johnson

Let me sit and weep and groan about my life,

Woe is me.

What happened to me and how I fell,

Lord have mercy upon me.

I was the niece of the famous Abraham, Woe is me!

Through the counsel of Satan I fell,

Oh because of you Evil One

what have you done to me?

The son of the king chose me to rejoice in his wedding banquet, Woe is me!

I loved the ones of earth more than him,

Oh Lord have mercy upon me.

I did wear a beautiful habit, woe is me!

I cast it off and I wore the habit of an harlot,

Oh Lord have mercy upon me.

All those who knew me, they shall give woe to me.

I abandoned my Lord and I loved the world,

Oh because of you Evil One, what have you done to me?

I did wear the armour of the Holy Spirit, woe is me!

I hurled it from me and I fell backwards,

Oh my Lord have mercy on me.

I was loved and with the Messiah I did work, woe is me!

Because I listened to Satan he ruined me,

Oh because of you Evil One, what have you done to me?

I strayed from the study of books which I did read, woe is me!

and the sound of musical instruments was sweet to me,

Oh because of you Evil One, what have you done to me.

I was a pure and innocent dove, woe is me!

and in the traps of Satan I fell,

Oh because of you Evil One, what have you done to me?

An hair garment I wore wept for me, woe is me!

because I took it off then the Messiah left me,

Oh because of you Evil One, what have you done to me?

A harbour of peace I had found for myself and I abandoned it, woe is me!

ands between the turbulent waves I was dashed,

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

From the hymns of the Holy Spirit I turned away, woe is me!

and lewd songs pleased me,

Oh because of you Evil One what have you done to me?

The harsh fire of hell waits for me, woe is me!

The hope of my life is perished,

Oh because of you Evil One

what have you done to me?

I have a good treasure for myself

and I lost it, woe is me!

The Evil One stole it, where can it be found?

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

The cloud of debts and sins covered me

woe is me!

Embarrassment surrounds my misery,

Oh because of the Evil One

what have you done to me?

The door of God is always open for sinners like me, woe is me!

My debts are many I am afraid to draw near,

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

I am in your image and your form

O Compassionate One, woe is me!

and I abandoned my freedom and I loved slavery,

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

The Lord received me back through your many mercies, woe is me!

I was defiled and I am ashamed to call upon you,

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

The high one descends and rescues the drowning ones such as me,

he draws me up from the pit of guilt’s in which I fell,

Oh my Lord have mercy upon me.

May heaven and earth persuade you on account of me Lord:

forgive my sins for the sake of your mercy,

Oh Lord have mercy on me.

May my soul confess, worship and praise God always:

which was saved form the hands of the Evil One

Oh my Lord have mercy on me.

Monastic cells of Da Qin

My recent exploration and analysis of the excavation sites of Da Qin, near the village of Lu Guan Tai in central China has led to an hypothesis that an excavated site 50 yards northwest of the pagoda is one of these type of monastic cells from  Syria. Nestorian Christians who migrated to China along the Silk road would have brought their architecture to China. If the site at Da Qin was once a monastic site then these cells lend evidence to the thesis that this was a monastic site from western Persia (Syrian province).

The cells are almost identical to cells in the Syrian Orthodox monastery in Salah (Tur Abdin, southest Turkey. This site was visited by Gertrude Bell and photographed by her. I have published her photos in my book Gertrude Bell in Tur Abdin (2007). In the early 1990s I visited Salah many times. Near the monstic church is a cell attributed to Daniel of Salah from the 6th century. Although half buried, it has a similar structure to to ones on Da Qin. There is an outer and inner cell.  A small window in evident for passing food and other things between the cells.

At Mor Gabriel monastery there was a tiny window between the male monastic area and the nuns. Whenever I needed a button sewn or I was passing a request from the Bishop, I used this tiny window. This tradition built into the architecture on monasteries in the Middle East can be seen in the cells of Da Qin.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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