Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East by Gerard Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For countless centuries the Middle East has been home to a variety of religions that do not fall into the mainstream. People will find it hard to believe that non Muslim minorities could survive so long in the Middle East. Fact of the matter is that the Muslim Middle East was more tolerant than Christian Europe . That does not mean that life was easy for non Muslims in the Middle East, as these minorities have undergone persecution. Islam bespeaks tolerance and protection for people of the book ie Christians, Jews and sometimes Zoroastrians and Samaritans. Many of these minorioities survived by hiding out in hard to reach places like high mountains or marshlands. These minorities have also been tenacious.
Now things are changing. In ancient times the Muslim governments did not wish to route out followers of other faiths, after all Muslims profited from the extra jizya tax. THe Muslim governments did not have the power to get at people in those hard to reach places. Now they do. While life in the past was relatively stable, modern times has proven lots more precarious.
In Iraq you have the Mandaeans and Yazidis. THe author Gerard Russel is a British Diplomat who decided to travel and visit these people who are holding out and clinging to their traditions. In the south he visited the Mandaeans. THe Mandaean liv e in the sourthern marshland of Iraq and Iran. Thanks to blind fanaticism and the fact the that the marshlands are no longer a safe haven, many of the Iraqi Mandaeans have let their native Iraq. The faith of the Mandaeans is a gnostic faith. This means that the material world was created by an evil deity meant to imprison souls. THe Mandaeans hold that they are descended from Seth , Adam's third son. John the baptist is the Messiah and Jesus was a rebel against the order. They are most known for having baptisms for every occasion and their sign is a cross dressed in a white sheet. The white sheet stands for purity and the cross symbolized four directions. THe evil Goddess Rouha created the world to trap souls. Mandaean thought had an impact on Manicheism.
THE second group in Iraq live in the Northern part of the country. Many live in Sinjar, while others live in Qunitra. In the past the Yzidi have been much left alone. Now things have changed with the onslaught of ISIS. Many have fled to Lalish the place where a founding member is buried. Many do not know the fundamentals of their faith. There is a learned group and an unlearned group. Most Yezidis fall into the unlearned group. Yezidis have been thought of as devil worshipper. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Much like earlier legends, Satan or Melek Taus, was God's head angel. The head angel loved god but refused to bow down to man. For that he was flung into Hell.But while in Hell he repented. His tears quelled the fires from Hell. He tasted redemmpfion and he rules the the world. AS GODS lieutenant he is revered along with the sun and the moon. It is believed that there were 7 peacock made only two survive.
THe third group takes us to Iran, coincidentally enough to the Iranian city of Yazid. This is the central place of their faith. Their number are in decline because of increased persecution. Zoroastrianism was the official
Iranian religion prior to accepting Islam. Islam had a debate as to whether Zoroastrians were people of the book. While maintaining a belief in monotheism they do believe in a dualistic world. Ahura Mazda is the god of life and light while Angra Mainyu was the evil god always going against him. It should worthy of note that all thrtee faiths discussed thus far read the stars and allow their dead to be eaten by birds before being buried.
The next two groups have a presence in Israel. They are the Druze and the Samaritans. The Druze live in three countries and they are Lebanon, Syria and Israel. On principal they fight for the county they live in. Druze get a lot of their ideas from Pthagoras. They believe in the Universal mind which gave rise to the Universal Soul and Intelligence. THey also believe in reincarnation and that all Druze will bve born into the body of another Druze. Sometimes they have souls that go to China. Much like the Yazidi they have two groups of people, the learned and the unlearned. The Druze religion is not a very demanding religion.
The Samaritans live in Colon, Israel and in the Palestinian city of Nablus upon the hill of mount Gerizim. THe Samaritan are very similiar to Jews. In fact they claim to be remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel left over from the Assyrian conquest. THe Jews in the past have thought that they were descended from settlers transferred to Northern Israel by the Assyrians. THe two groups have not always gotten along and in New Testament times they were at each others throats. THe Talmud says contradictory things about the Samaritans. Now relation are improving and the Samaritans might be a bridge between the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews. But Samaritan number are dwindling. IN terms of history it is only recently that they have allowed wives from outside the community to convert into the Samaritan society. Every year at Passover tourists flock to the Samaritan celebration.
Lately the Samaritans have opened up even more. Now they are putting out literature for those who want to live the Samaritan way. This may help bolster their decreasing numbers. I think they should allow men to convert into their community for marriage just like they do for the women.
THe final two groups that the author visited are the Copts and the Kalasha. The Copts are located in Egypt and were introduced to Christianity via the apostle MArk. For centuries they were tolerated but recent history has shown that things are turning against them. unbar Pasha increased many of their opportunities and allowed for them to have positions in the government. This pretty much happened under King Farouk. With the over throw of Farouk the era f Sadat was ushered in .Under his leadership the Muslims brotherhood got increased power. This was bad for the copts. Increased fanatical presence on university campus has led to aN ISLAMIFICATION of curriculum. Christianity is not taught at all. Also it has been harder since Sadat to build neddw churches or repair the older ones. under Mubarak things went on like before with few improvement . Mubark still worked with the Brotherhood. Since things have gotten bad many Copts have choses to get closer to the church . It must not be forgotten that Muslims and CHristians helped overthrow Mubarak and that Muslims and Christians formed human chains to prevent the destruction of CHurches. in the south the fanatics are a lot more ruthless. Then again the Copts are more numerous in the South and have the ability to fight back.
The Kalasha live in the Hindu Kush mountain bordering in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They worship old gods from Pagan times. they have solsticee celebrations for Spring and and Winter as do the Zoroastrians. The author arrived in the winter. The Kalasha have their pantheon o0f gods and they get on with their Muslim neighbors. Like many Middle Eastern groups women during their menstruation have stay separated .There are also laws that demand ritual purity that only they can do.
THe book finished in Detroit where in discussion venters on how emigres from the Middle East are coping. Many do not know their religion so it is hard to maintain the faith. assimilation is a problem and each group is trying to come to grips with it. Many Christians find that they are befriending and even marrying Jews. Several Palestinians have. In a lll this is a timely work. It does not include all of the minorities in the Middle East. A good book to complement this work is "Minorities in the Middle East" by Mordechai Nissan.
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