To many Americans the Middle East is commonly known as the heartland of Islam, a large region of the world ravaged by war, embedded with terrorism, and inhabited by a mostly monolithic Islamic people. However, far from being religiously homogeneous as many radical Islamic groups would have the world think, the Middle East has historically been home to a medley of religionists. It is a region of great historic importance and the motherland of the three Abrahamic faiths, but because of continuous fighting only small remnants of Christians remain alongside an ever-endangered Jewish state of Israel.
Just two years ago many people had never heard of the Yazidis, Mandaeans, or Druze. But, when in August 2014 Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of the Mosul Dam and in the heat of the summer drove Iraqi Christians and Yazidis out of their homes, forcing them to take refuge on the top of desolate Mount Sinjar, the whole world was alerted to their existence. These and other brutal acts of terrorism have unveiled the hidden non-Muslim religious minorities of the Middle East. Coptic churches in Egypt are burned to the ground; Yazidi men, women, and children are beaten and raped; Iraqi Christians are brutally attacked and churches bombed; Jews, Samaritans, Mandaeans, Druze, and others driven from their homes. It is these ancient religions which are on the brink of complete dissolution. And it is their perilous journey of survival which Gerard Russell chronicles in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.
Gerard Russell was a British and UN diplomat who fell in love with the Middle East nearly twenty years ago, a love which in many ways was an unrequited love. For Russell, his love story was often plagued with news of anguish and pessimism during his years of service in Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Jeddah, and Kabul. Nevertheless, his love for the people and culture of the Middle East remained and sparked a deeper interest in the vanishing and often overlooked minority religious communities of the Middle East. In his book Russell chronicles his intimate interactions with the Mandaeans and Yazidis of Iraq, Zoroastrians of Iran, Druze of Lebanon, Samaritans of Israel, Copts of Egypt, and the Kalasha of Pakistan.
Russell displays the hidden life of centuries old religious communities and beautifully brings to life historical research in his part-travelogue, part-documentary highlight on the ancient religions of the Middle East. With his vast knowledge and personal experiences, he captivates his readers into learning more about the Middle East through the eyes of its oldest inhabitants. While the world and political powers that be look and see only Arabs and Islam, Russell portrays a more keen awareness of these ancient faiths which predate Islam, and he provides a voice for the forgotten and presents a picture from the past of hope for peaceful religious diversity. His writings may be the last anthropology on these faiths which in all likelihood will disappear in our generation.
Whereas these ancient religions are silenced and on the brink of disappearance today, they were once great kingdoms which had large influence on the history of Western society. It is these ancient faiths and their cousins who preserved scientific knowledge when Islam sought to destroy it, introduced the handshake which is now the normal greeting in many developed nations, and many other aspects of society we now see as normal. Despite their great contribution, these religions have continued to be persecuted and isolated, further dwindling their numbers and impressing upon their community greater secrecy and sense of identity.
Persecution has driven these communities to the brink, even though “rather like Christianity, Islam has sometimes been uncompromisingly oppressive but other times strikingly lenient and broad-minded.” Despite this reality and the occasional tolerance of different Muslim rulers, non-Muslims communities have faced the brunt of religious and ethnic persecution. Russell informs us that according to the Yazidis they have survived a succession of 72 massacres, perpetrated because of their religious identity. Russell comments, “Despite their resilience, it will not be easy for these religions to keep their faith alive outside the Middle East. Ultra-secretive groups such as the Yazidis do not easily pass on their traditions.” The same is true for the Druze and Mandaeans, whose religious rituals and identity are tied not just to sacred teachings or texts but to location and community.
Consider, for example, the Mandaeans, who number merely a few hundred thousand and whose faith can only be passed on by the father. One of their most sacred ceremonies is baptism which can only be facilitated by a Mandaean priest in the Tigris River. Because of secrecy and geographic restrictions, the Mandaeans and many others will eventually fade away. Although the Mandaeans have thus been able to survive by isolation tactics, their fate will soon come. Russell recounts the caution given by one Jewish Iraqi exile to a Mandaean friend, “We were on Saturday, and you are on Sunday. Now your Sunday has come.”
As terrorism by radical Islamists continues to gain ground and tear apart the fragile tapestry of the Middle East, Russell’s work reminds us of the rich religious and ethnic history which once was. We can only hope that the perilous future of the minorities of the Middle East are marked more by their past experience than by their present.
Barton Dempsey is a contributor for Providence and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He currently lives and works in DC.
Photo Credit: Samaritans’ Passover pilgrimage on Mount Gerizim, West Bank in 2006. By Edkaprov (Edward Kaprov) via Wikimedia Commons.