Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms — Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East
Simon & Schuster
Trying to understand the turmoil throughout the Middle East is a hugely difficult task. Experts have wrestled with day-to-day developments, the origins of the conflicts and predicting what may happen in the coming years (and, I fear, decades) since the start of the Arab Spring nearly four years ago. Yet they are still taken unawares when a particular factor, present yet overlooked, comes suddenly to the forefront.
Such was the case recently with the Yazidi ethno-religious community, when the assault on their homeland by the fanatics of ISIL raised the horrendous possibility of their wholesale slaughter.
They are not yet saved: tens of thousands have fled for what one must hope is temporary refuge in Kurdistan, but thousands more are still in great peril and hundreds have been sold into slavery. However, until ISIL’s advance across northern Iraq, few had heard of the Yazidis, followers of a pre-Islamic, pre-Christian religion and part of the mosaic of ethnic and religious groups that have made up the Middle East for more than 2,000 years.
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a timely introduction to some of that mosaic. Its author, Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat who has served throughout the region, is a worthy successor to the great British Arabists of the past, passionately interested in the area and its people.
Many of these groups are thousands of years old, preserving the vestiges of ancient civilisations and ideas. As Russell notes: “Very often Islam is presented as an intolerant religion … (yet) the existence of the minority religions described in this book shows that image of intolerance to be untrue, for they survived under Islam.” In Europe, in contrast, pre-Christian beliefs faded away long ago. Russell ascribes this in part to the fact that “there were religions in the Middle East that were more sophisticated than the pre-Christian religions of Europe and which had common roots with Christianity and Islam” and also to the fact that “though the Prophet Mohammed certainly wanted to put an end to the traditional religious practices of the Arabs, which involved worshipping multiple deities, the Quran was by contrast relatively benign to religions that were monotheistic and had religious texts”.
The author’s approach is both geographical, for he has visited each group, meeting their leaders, and historical, delving into ancient sources to trace their place in history, from their origins to the present day. Of the book’s seven chapters, the first two are on the Mandaeans of southern Iraq, and the Yazidis, followed by others on Iran’s Zoroastrians and the Druze of Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel/Palestine. These are followed by one on the Samaritans, still living in small numbers on the Palestinian West Bank as they did 2,000 years ago, and one on the Copts of Egypt, with a final chapter venturing beyond the region to the pagan Kalashas in the mountains of northern Pakistan, surviving in an area that has been largely Muslim for more than a thousand years.
Over millennia, these faiths have shrunk, partly the result of a natural process of conversion to Islam, although there has been repression too. Religious tolerance was not always universal. Thus, Russell writes, the Yazidis recall 72 different persecutions over the centuries while in the 13th century AD, the Muslim cleric Ibn Taymiyyah, whose teachings still inspire the fanatics of groups like ISIL today, “was issuing every execration and encouragement to violence that he could against sects such as the Druze and Alawis”.
Some survived by taking refuge in mountains, like the Yazidis and the Druze, or marshes, like the Mandaeans, in areas effectively beyond the reach of the governments of the past.
Today, Russell argues, the collapse of nationalist and other secular political movements, like “Arab socialism”, along with the lack of moral authority among state institutions — Iraq and Syria being prime examples — has meant that religious identity has become more important. “Outside attempts by a secularised Christian West to interfere in the Middle East have strengthened this religious tension,” he notes, adding: “If people in the Middle East fight about their beliefs more than Europeans and Americans do, it is partly because those beliefs are so precious to them.” Is there something, he asks, that the West has to learn from the people of the Middle East?
His opening chapter commences: “In the faded cafeteria of Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel, the Mandaean high priest, his brother and his cousin all looked at me, asking for my help. They did not know how honoured I felt to meet them.” Only a few hundred Mandaeans then remained in Iraq, and their request was for all to be granted asylum in Britain. That proved to be impossible and they are now in Australia.
Elsewhere in Iraq, Russell visited the holy places of the Yazidis at Lalish, while in the West Bank, he attended the Passover of the Samaritans. His descriptions of his visits to Lebanon’s Druze leaders and to Coptic monasteries in southern Egypt offer fascinating insights into these peoples and their way of life, as do those of his encounters with the Kalasha.
Most interesting is Russell’s attempt to delve into the beliefs of these little-known communities.
Some were eager to explain; others more cautious. The head of the Druze religious clergy, the Sheikh Al Aql, claimed that they were orthodox Muslims, and refused to explain their belief in reincarnation, although another, secular, Druze leader, Talal Arslan, emphasised “we do not believe in death at all … Three things are important in our beliefs. Reincarnation, respect for all heavenly religions and a belief in the Universal Mind”, the latter harking back to the teachings of the Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, still widely known when the Druze first emerged in the 10th century AD.
Yazidi beliefs have some similarities with the now-vanished religion of Mithraism, which spread as far as northern England. They, like the Druze, believe in reincarnation. The focus of their faith is the Melek Taioos, the Peacock Angel, who, they believe, is “the true ruler of the world, God’s lieutenant in the knowable universe and the closest figure to God that our limited human minds can grasp”.
Only a few thousand Zoroastrians still live in Iran, out of the 100,000 or so remaining followers of the faith, with the great 6th to 4th century BC palace at Persepolis offering mute evidence of the power they once enjoyed. The faith’s founder, Zarathustra, was the first, around 1,000BC, to introduce the notions of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell into religious thought in the Middle East, a fundamental part of the beliefs of Muslims, Christians and other People of the Book today.
Even less numerous are the Samaritans, who separated from Judaism in the 8th century BC and who accept only the first five books of the Old Testament. Reduced to 150 in the 1920s, they now number around 750, a few in Tel Aviv, but most in the village of Al Loz in the West Bank.
Apart from the Druze and the Copts, and perhaps the Samaritans, all now face threats to their continued existence, at least in their Middle East heartlands. Many have fled into exile. In his epilogue, Russell visits another community not accorded its own chapter, the Chaldean Christians of Iraq, of whom more than 100,000 live in Detroit.
Throughout the book, there are tantalising references to vanished faiths whose own beliefs had an impact on the communities to which Russell refers. I would like, for example, to have learnt more about the Harranians, also believers in reincarnation, whose worship of the gods of Babylon survived until the 10th century AD, or about the Manicheans, one of whom almost became an Emperor of Rome in the 4th century AD. What is it, I’m left wondering, about the Middle East and its people that has, over thousands of years, prompted so much in the way of religious thought?
Other communities also survive today, who, sadly, receive little attention. Among them are the followers of the Church of the East, tiny in numbers, but whose ancestors founded the pre-Islamic Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas. More important, in a numerical and political sense, are the Alawis of Syria or their close cousins, the Alevis, who may make up as much as 20 per cent of Turkey’s population. What do they think, for example, of the Turkish government’s drift towards the Muslim Brotherhood?
This, though, is a mere quibble. Heirs to Hidden Kingdoms is informative, thought-provoking and timely. It provides fascinating insights into the mosaic of religious beliefs that can be found throughout the Middle East, and also into how that diversity emerged and survived. Eschewing discussion of modern politics, it presents a challenge, nevertheless, to those who bear the responsibility for how this diversity can be preserved in the years to come. All humanity will be the loser should it disappear.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture
Updated: November 27, 2014 04:00 AM