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A view of the Mosul Plain from the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A view of the Mosul Plain from the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A view of the Mosul Plain from the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A view of the Mosul Plain from the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Sant Hormizd Monastery is perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mosul Plain in nothern Iraq.

The Sant Hormizd Monastery is perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mosul Plain in nothern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Police guarding the Sant Hormizd Monastery can see the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on a clear day. On a hazy afternoon, April 7, 2016, they could still see villages occupied by the extremists below their mountain perch.

Police guarding the Sant Hormizd Monastery can see the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on a clear day. On a hazy afternoon, April 7, 2016, they could still see villages occupied by the extremists below their mountain perch. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq was once home to dozens of monks, living a Spartan existence in caves hollowed out of a massive rocky amphitheater. In April 2016, they were gone, and the monastery was guarded by police.

The Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq was once home to dozens of monks, living a Spartan existence in caves hollowed out of a massive rocky amphitheater. In April 2016, they were gone, and the monastery was guarded by police. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq was once home to dozens of monks, living a Spartan existence in caves hollowed out of a massive rocky amphitheater. In April 2016, villages occupied by Islamic State militants could be seen from the monastery.

The Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq was once home to dozens of monks, living a Spartan existence in caves hollowed out of a massive rocky amphitheater. In April 2016, villages occupied by Islamic State militants could be seen from the monastery. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A steep road full of hairpin turns leads to the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A steep road full of hairpin turns leads to the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A steep road full of hairpin turns leads to the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A steep road full of hairpin turns leads to the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Sant Hormizd Monastery is perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mosul Plain in nothern Iraq.

The Sant Hormizd Monastery is perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mosul Plain in nothern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A statue of the Virgin Mary inside the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A statue of the Virgin Mary inside the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A statue of a monk looks toward Mosul from the walls of the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq.

A statue of a monk looks toward Mosul from the walls of the Sant Hormizd Monastery in northern Iraq. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

IRBIL, Iraq — Kurdish police guarding the Sant Hormizd Monastery can see the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on a clear day.

On a typically hazy afternoon this week they could still see villages occupied by the extremists dotting the green expanse of lush pasture below their mountain perch.

The police are Assyrian Christians from the nearest town, Alqosh, which sits at the foot of a mountain range about 30 miles from Mosul.

They’re the only ones left at the monastery, which was founded by a Syriac monk, Rabban Hormizd, in 640 A.D. It was once home to precious Chaldean Christian manuscripts and dozens of monks living a Spartan existence in caves hollowed out of a massive rocky amphitheater.

To reach the caves, visitors must negotiate a series of hairpin turns on a steep road and then climb up hundreds of steps.

Beneath the monastery there are more caves with chambers where the monks once sought enlightenment. In one chamber, there’s a cross chiseled out of the wall. Locals say the monks used to close their eyes and walk the length of the chamber with one hand outstretched. If your hand touches the cross it’s supposed to be good luck.

robson.seth@stripes.com Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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