Fleeing ISIS Into Exile, Syriac Christians Sing the Oldest Music on Earth

A Syrian monk swings incense durring mass in the monastery Mar Musa al-Habashi in Nebek, north of Damascus Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty

The last time they came along the road to the monastery of Mar Mattai in northern Iraq, it was September. Then, there was a queue of cars stretching back to Mosul. There were little girls in white dresses with curly hair tied up in ribbons. Mothers carried sponge-cakes in boxes on their knees. Their husbands, moustaches combed and blazers brushed, were looking forward to an aniseed tot of arak when they arrived.

As they left the city behind, the road climbed into the mountains, dusty, sandy and dotted with oleander bushes. The stickiness of the plain gave way to a cool, dry breeze.

At the end of the road, the monastery was overflowing: this was one of the great festivals for Syriac Christians in Iraq and beyond. There was feasting and prayers, and the singing of Syriac chant, perhaps the oldest extant music in the world, a sacred and archaic call and response in a language that would have been understood by Jesus.

This time, eight months later, they drive by night while, behind them, Mosul burns. The fathers stay eyes-front, following the rear- lights of the car ahead. Children are quiet but awake. There is no laughter and no singing, no cars toot their horns. The monastery is dark, lit only in flashes from the headlamps. Otherwise, it is only by the smell of the oleander, and the steady cooling of the air, that they know they are on the road to Mar Mattai.

Among them is Sarmad Ozan, formerly a young deacon in the cathedral in Mosul, where he sang the daily liturgy. When ISIS captured the city, the cathedral clergy thought they would stay. In a few days, however, ISIS issued its infamous decree: convert to Islam, pay a tax on unbelievers or die. Sarmad, his fellow clergymen and this band of 50 Christian families fled to find sanctuary in their mountain stronghold.

They leave behind the bodies of brothers and fathers, and the shelled--out ruins of their shops and houses. They also leave behind much of what it meant to be a Syriac Christian.

The ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh that they visited proudly to show their children the glories of the Assyrian empire from which they claim descent – soon these will be bulldozed by ISIS. They leave behind the treasures of Assyria in the Mosul museum – ISIS will loot the smaller antiquities for the black market and smash the statues too big to sell. And on the way to Mar Mattai, they pass the monastery of Mar Behnam: its gates are already barred by ISIS. From the steeple flies the black flag. In a few months, it will be destroyed.

What they carry with them is their liturgical music. It preserves strains of the earliest religious chants of Mesopotamia and of court songs sung for Assyrian emperors 2,000 years before Christ. Its antiquity is matched by its simplicity: clergy and congregation sing together, dividing between boys with high voices and older, bigger men who sing more deeply. Beyond this there is no distinction of note or pitch, and no melody. The call and response format is thought to enact a conversation between man and God.

Tonight, they will again sing the old songs. They make for the inner rooms: the hermits' cells burrowed into the cliff--face; the Saints' Room, with its reliquaries set in niches in the rock; the chapels dug deep into the holy mountain.

There, crammed into the rough caves, Sarmad and the other deacons push to the front and stand in a line. They are joined by the old monks and the priests, in black cassocks and embroidered skull-caps. The priests start the singing in deep voices, then the deacons and younger men answer at a higher pitch. Now the other men in the congregation fall in, back and forth, call and response, as it has been for millennia.

It grows quicker, and louder, filling the small rooms in the belly of the monastery. But Sarmad hears something else – the congregation are weeping as they sing. Because tomorrow, or soon after, they will leave for the Kurdish territories, for the refugee camps and then for abroad, in Sarmad's case for Newcastle in the north of England, where he was when I spoke to him; and they may never hear this music again.

You can listen to the Syriac liturgical music here