By Ed Simon
“Who was it that settled the inhabited world and propagated cities, if not the outstanding men and kings of paganism? Without the gifts of paganism, the earth would have been empty and impoverished, enveloped in a great shroud of destitution.”
- Thabi ibn Qurra (826-901)
Sabian mathematician and philosopher in the Court of Baghdad
By the waters of Babylon the Mandaeans believe that there once lived a demon named Dinanukht who took the form of a book and who sat on those banks reading himself. By those same rivers the Mandaeans have lived since the time of John the Baptist, making his sacrament a daily practice and regarding him as the savior of the world and his cousin a mere usurper. The Mandaeans are perhaps the last of the Gnostics. It is from a related group that the prophet Mani arose, founder of that eponymous Manichean religion where the Buddha and Christ first met and which tussled with the Nazarene over the soul of the young Augustine. If the Roman claimant Sebastanius had become emperor rather than Constantine then perhaps today the whole West might be Manichean. It is not known if this alternative history is in the pages which constitute the flesh of Dinanukht – the papyrus his sinews – the words his organs – the logos made flesh. Perhaps Dinanukht is like the Mandaeans’ holy book, the Ginza Rabba, which can be read in two different ways: the conventional one, and then again turned upside down and read in the opposite direction, creating a totally different yet comprehensible religious text. It is this book after all that ensured the survival of this small sect for two millennia (and with rituals going back to ancient Mesopotamia), for that upstart faith called Islam categorized these Gnostics as “People of the Book,” ensuring that a remnant of Mandaeans would survive, no matter how small.
It is like a magical realist parable from Borges, yet the Mandaeans are real, as the British diplomat Gerard Russell recounts in his magisterial 2014 book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. As are the Yazidis who pray to Melek Taus. This deity, often conflated with both Satan and Iblis, is a formerly malevolent peacock god who redeemed himself in an act of divine apocatastasis, his tears quenching the flames of hell which elevated him to the most beloved in the eyes of God. Or the Druze who dwell among the cedars of Lebanon, the secrets of their faith preserved for initiates and the mystical gematria of their divine mathematics traceable to Pythagoras whom they revere as a prophet. Or consider the Christian Copts, who number the months in the language of the pharaohs (the month Thout deriving from the baboon-headed god Thoth, inventor of writing). And of course the Zoroastrians who saw reality as a ceaseless battle between Ahura Mazda the lord of light and the malevolent Angra Mainyu god of darkness. This binary mythopoesis supplied succor to the intangibilities of theodicy, definitively and logically solving the problem of evil, while the Zoroastrians immolated their dead to the vultures on towers to the sky dotting the Persian mountains and plains. In the process they invented western conceptions of good and evil, morality, and apocalypse, every bit as crucial to modern religious reality as the Jews or Greeks.
To recount the details of seemingly obscure sects does not make this a book of European orientalist projections on an exoticized east. Such an assumption would be a profound disservice to Russell’s accomplishment: a book that respects members of these “forgotten kingdoms” and provides means for them to tell their stories to the western public. Russell is not a simple Burtonesque interloper in foreign lands. Humanists have sometimes obscured themselves in Theory more hermetic and substantially less beautiful than the theologies delineated in this book, while Russell writes in the grand philological tradition that was the original Queen of the Humanities. Yet where it’s true that the nineteenth century origins of Middle Eastern studies were often imperialist, racist, condescending, patronizing and exoticizing, Russel avoids those same sins. He has an awareness of the conflicted history of this particular field of study, and has absorbed the lessons of those past mistakes. In short, he may be a British diplomat but he is no nabob reclining on Afghan rug smoking shisha and watching dancing girls; rather he is a cultural interpreter who listens to disappearing voices so that we may listen as well. Daesh threatens to bear down on many of these ancient communities in Iraq and Syria; the possibility of their extinction in our lifetimes is very possible. When members of our pundit class like the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (writing about the ethnic, cultural, and religious complexities in the middle east) sneer that it is “confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis” you see the value of Russell’s deep humanistic (and humane) learning. His erudition and bravery are important now more than ever, as groups like the Mandaeans, the Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts, and the Kalasha, which have survived millennia, may not see the conclusion of the twenty-first century. For many of these groups, not only a people, but an entire world-view, an entire version of reality, are threatened with extinction. If the differences that constitute our world are demolished, than we suffer as well, for no religion is an island, entire of itself. Every faith is a part of the continent. Modernization and fundamentalist intolerance may yet put out the sacred fires that have sustained Zoroastrian temples since the era of the Magi and drain the marshes where the Mandaeans have baptized since the Gnostics.
Russell’s travels are wide-ranging, his learning immense. Among the Druze in Lebanon he discovers members of an ostensibly Islamic denomination who may be able to trace themselves back to the Pythagoreans who once sailed the wine-dark Mediterranean sea, preaching a gospel of reincarnation and a reality structured on mathematics. When he is remembered, if remembered at all, it is as the eponymous discoverer of his celebrated theorem. A pre-Socratic philosopher so distant his very existence is sometimes questioned, he may have been the first of the Greek Axial Age thinkers to promote the idea of abstraction, that there are barely tangible rules which structure all of our reality that are nonetheless available to some through study and training. In that sense his work lays the bedrock for both science and religion.
Near Nablus, in the West Bank, Russell enjoys the charred meat of a sacrificed Pesach lamb, slaughtered by a priestly Samaritan kohan at the ruins of their Temple at Mt. Gerizim, which may predate Solomon’s in Jerusalem. This specific Passover ritual involving the sacrifice of the lamb has not been practiced in Judaism since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70CE, but travel only a few miles to the east and the Samaritans have been continuously and annually marking the exodus for more than two millennia just as their ancestors have. For Christians the Samaritans are semi-mythic, a people mentioned in Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37, but through the haze of half-remembered Sunday school classes most probably didn’t pause to reflect on the fact that the Samaritans not only were a real people, but remain so. They claim to be a remnant of the ten lost tribes who constituted the northern Kingdom of Israel and who returned after being conquered by the Assyrians; the Jews maintained that they were a pagan people who henotheistically took to worshiping Yahweh (whose name they utter without prohibition) in imitation of the Judeans. The Samaritans practice what is closest to biblical Judaism; they recognize only the Torah (theirs is slightly different and was only translated into English by Benyamim Tsedaka in 2013), repudiating the prophetic and wisdom writings as well as the Talmud.
Russell then travels a reverse exodus into Egypt.There he attends services among the Coptic Christians who first contributed the concept of monasticism to Christianity, who adapted the depictions of the goddess Isis with her son Horus into icons of Mary and Jesus. He listens to antiphonal chanting whose melodies once rang out in temples to Osiris and now ring out in cathedrals to Christ. Finally he travels to the perilous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to “Kafiristan” (or “Land of the Infidels”) where the Kalasha endure, possible the last remnant of Greek and Macedonian soldiers who traveled east with Alexander the Great, their polytheism a brand of Indo-European paganism, and perhaps the closest to the faith of Homer, Socrates, and Plato on Earth.
Every one of these ancient sects survives, however barely, into the twenty-first century, and as Russell shows in his travelogue amongst them they are no simple remnants, no living fossils, but rather dynamic faiths which demonstrate the endless sublime creativity which still smolders in the religious imagination of humanity. An American-born British diplomat who has been stationed variously in Egypt, Iraq, and Israel among others, Russell is that rare example of someone who not only combines a genuinely palpable love for the ancient religions he studies with profound courage (he after all journeys repeatedly into active war zones), making him not just a scholar but an explorer. His book is an example of Horace’s ancient injunction that the first duty of instruction is to delight, and indeed like an explorer stuffing a Wunderkammer full of the rare and beautiful objects of the Earth Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms acts as a stimulus to understanding the rapidly decreasing diversity of human culture. He sails the muddy marshes of southern Iraq where farmers paddle in boats (identical to those built by the Sumerians) through Eden’s Tigris and Euphrates delta, but he also meets adherents at cafes in Manhattan; he journeys from the cragged peaks of the Hindu Kush to a grocery store in suburban Detroit. He hears (and understands) snippets of languages spoken by few tongues today, the Aramaic of Christ still sacred to the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian churches, and the ancient Babylonian that Mandaean priests still use to whisper secret names in the ears of initiates on the day of their first baptism.
One day soon these priests may no longer perform the rituals of their mystery religion. Russell writes, “Mandaeans were exposed to kidnapping, forced conversion, and murder. Between 2003 and 2011, the Mandaean Human Rights Group documented 175 murders and 271 kidnappings. In 2004 the group reported thirty-five Mandaean families living in Fallujah were forced to convert to Islam.” What is happening to members of Middle Eastern religious minorities is unequivocally genocide. As daesh besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani many western observers heard of Yazidis for the first time, the contested indigenous religion of the Kurdish people (both groups sometimes dispute this). Yazidi men were slaughtered and women were sold into sex slavery by jihadists. As men and women are murdered or forced to convert they do not just die, but a culture, an entire mythopoeic system of belief and theology, dies with them. Who kills a person in part destroys an entire world. From the Greek root for the word “holy” it could be called “hierocide,” that is the destruction of an entire belief system as well as an ethnicity.
And what is in the process of being lost are religions of incomparable strangeness and stunning beauty, part of the poetic and cultural system that is all of our shared human inheritance. Russell writes that the Mandaeans believe that they are “sparks of the cosmic light” which has detached itself and is now imprisoned in our bodies, but he continues by explaining that “When liberated by death from their bodily prisons, these sparks of light can ascend back to the great light from which they once came.” The Druze are a few hundred miles to the west, buffeted by the Mediterranean to the west and hemmed in both politically and geographically between Israel to the south, and Hezbollah and Hamas to their north. They believe that “the world is part of God in the same way as the dream is part of the dreamer.” These are not obscure philosophies, these are beliefs every bit as worthy as those expressed in the major Abrahamic faiths, and they are beliefs that in their metaphors, their poetry, and their beauty can still save the world if only those of us in the West will first try to save their faithful.
In linguistics there is a much-disputed conjecture called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that posits that the unique grammar of every language creates a mental world that is different for each culture. Some have taken this as an example of how precious individual subjectivity can be, for the loss of a language means the loss of a whole world. How much more true is this for the loss of an individual religion, for we know that each faith produces a singular reality, a unique world? The loss of the Mandaeans would mean that emanations of the universal soul would no longer return to the good upon death, the extinction of the Yazidis would mean that Melek Taus would no longer spread his magnificent lapis-lazuli blue and emerald green plumage, the silence of the Kalasha would signal that Apollo’s chariot had finally stalled. Religion (a uniquely western word, and a particularly Protestant concept) means many things, but not least among these is a completely immersive literary system, a mutually reinforcing poetic fiction in which the individual mind can dwell and measure their lives against the ineffable, apophatic, noumenal mysteries of ultimate reality. Every religion is a world, every person is a world, and the destruction of either is a type of irredeemable apocalypse.
Will the funeral pyres of the Zoroastrians still alight the dusks of Iran and India? Will the Copts still maintain the well where Mary and Joseph quenched Jesus’ thirst upon the flight into Egypt? Will the Samaritans still smear the blood of the lamb upon their lintels as their ancestors in bondage did? Will the wooden idols of the Kalasha look out at the unforgiving and cragged landscape of the Kush? What of the Yazidis who believe that God is so benevolent that even the devil can be saved? Or the Mandaeans who whisper secrets in the language of the Magi and the Chaldean wizards? In 1711 an English traveler wrote of the Samaritans (but it has been said of all of these groups) “the Place where they have so long continued will in a little time know them no more and that their Name is shortly like to be found nowhere but in History.” In 1910 there were only 146 Samaritans in the entire world, and yet today there are 750. When a Druze man asked Russell what the title of the book he was writing was, the man responded to the author’s answer with “Forgotten kingdoms?… We have not forgotten.”
Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Religion Dispatches, the Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for the Study of Heresy.