Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East

  • By Gerard Russell
  • Basic Books
  • 320 pp.

An informative, compelling analysis of the world’s vanishing faiths.

“In the landscape of recorded history,” Gerard Russell writes, “Iraq is Everest: just as Everest makes other mountains seem small, Iraq makes even ancient history seem recent by comparison.”

The pyramids? “Spry youngsters” compared with the ancient cities of south central Iraq, some of which were founded as early as 5300 BCE. The biblical Moses was closer in time to the iPhone than to the founding of these cities.

And yet, in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Russell brings us face-to-face with people today who practice some of the same religious rites that were practiced in Babylon.

Take the Mandaeans, who have lived in isolated areas of the Iraqi Marshes for thousands of years and still preserve some of the beliefs of the Manichaeans, the gnostic group which St. Augustine left for Christianity. They believe themselves to be “sparks of the cosmic light that have detached themselves from it and become trapped in a material home. When liberated by death from their bodily prisons, these sparks of light can ascend back to the great light from which they once came.”

Strange, right? But the plot thickens. Mandaeans preserve a culture which is, in certain ways, far older than Gnosticism. They move about the Iraqi Marshes in belem, a type of boat which may pre-date Babylon itself, and they believe much of what the Babylonians believed about the stars and planets — that they are divine beings, recipients of humans’ prayers. 

If Iraq is Everest, Russell didn’t neglect to climb K2. The Yazadis, Druze, Zoroastrians, Copts, Samaritans, Kalasha — minority religions and cultures from every nook and cranny of the Middle East — are sought out, and their ancient roots discovered.

Russell knows enough about the 3rd-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus and the Pythagoreans to trace Druze roots to their work, and enough about the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to paint a moving picture of the Samaritans’ misfortunes.

But Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms isn’t another pedantic tome destined to live in the basement of university libraries, and Gerard Russell isn’t some professor emeritus of Obscurantist Philology. Instead, upon opening Russell’s book, one finds it to be part travelogue, part ancient religious history, and part treatise on modern Middle Eastern politics. Russell — an Oxford-educated British diplomat who now splits his time between Harvard’s Kennedy School and the Foreign Policy Centre in London — has been to the places he writes about. He knows many of these people.

He was an election observer in Mosul and a political counselor at the British embassy in Kabul after the U.S. invasion. He was U.K. public spokesman on Arabic news channels. He calls up the Palestinian governor of Nablus in order to get through roadblocks and gets an audience with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the most intriguing men in Syrian politics.

Yet Russell himself never becomes the subject of Heirs. In fact, it’s easy to forget his jet-setting and lose oneself in the political intrigue, the odd twists and turns of religious history, and the big personalities which bind them together. The reader is caught up in Russell’s own fascination with his subject — the disappearing religions of the Middle East.

And it’s no wonder. Modern-day Gnostics and Neoplatonists are only the tip of the iceberg. The Yazadis, a people whom Islamic State has intensely persecuted in recent months, are worshippers of Melek Taoos, a “peacock angel” identified with the biblical Azazel — whom many, including several of the Yazadis' Muslim and Christian neighbors, believe to be Satan.

The Kalasha are ancient pagans living on the mountainous border of Afghanistan and Pakistan who, despite two centuries of Western invasions and Muslim attempts at conquest and forced conversion, have somehow held on to their ancient ways. The Samaritans, in spite of being whittled down to just 750 adherents, continue to claim what they’ve claimed for more than 2,000 years — that they, and not the Jews, are the true Israel.

Part of the interest for Russell and for his readers, however, is that each of these people and their religions are on the verge of extinction. In some cases, the danger is relatively minor. Young Coptic Christians are drawn away to Cairo to find jobs and then convert to Islam or become secularized.

The Druze, a million strong in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, are caught between competing political interests. The Zoroastrians, though few in number, are seen as part of Iran’s heritage. They are part of the warp and woof of the multicultural societies they inhabit. But in other cases, the peril is more acute. War, persecution, or the realities of late capitalism could send the Samaritans, Yazadis, Mandaeans, and Kalasha into the sands of time within a generation or two.

For this reason, many of the people Russell encounters in his travels have left their homes in the Middle East and put down roots in Western cities. Some, certainly, are grateful for the religious freedom they have here. But others have found the experience disorienting.

One Palestinian Christian whom Russell visited in Detroit put it like this: “Coming here was the worst decision I ever made…I thought it would be like a salad, every ingredient taking on flavor from the other. It’s more like a blender — everything ends up gray.”

One senses that, for Gerard Russell, this may be the greatest tragedy of all.

Joel Looper teaches literature and religion at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, TX.

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