Rare glimpses inside isolated pockets of ancient settlements in the Middle East, revealing fragile yet tenacious religions.
During his years in the British foreign service in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon over the course of the 2000s, peripatetic British diplomat Russell visited many of these remote peoples, studying their vibrant religions—e.g., the Ezidis of northern Iraq, who experience persecution to this day. A speaker of Arabic and Farsi, he was especially attuned to the nuances of history and sensitive to the particular vulnerabilities of each group. Though not a scholar, he makes erudite assertions regarding these “intellectual cousins in unexpected places,” who share with us Indo-European roots and have been preserved due to their remoteness or usefulness to the reigning political forces. Some of the religions are ancient offshoots of the three Abrahamic religions (“people of the book”) and have retained a more “pure” form. The Mandaeans of Babylonian Iraq claim descent from the son of Adam, Seth, and revere John the Baptist as the greatest prophet. The Samaritans of the West Bank, Palestine, are cherished as a lost tribe of Israel that has been “keeping to the letter” of ancient traditions that the Jews abandoned—e.g., revering Mount Gerizim as God’s sacred mountain. The descendants of those first converts by Mark the evangelist in Egypt in the first century are still thriving as Copts. The highly secretive Ezidis, though they speak the same language as the Kurds, Kurmanji, are not Kurds but share some tenets of Christianity and Islam and believe in reincarnation and the earthly manifestation of Melek Taoos, in the form of a peacock. Russell penetrates the secret workings of these religions tolerated throughout the ages by Christian or Islamic rulers, even pursuing his research to immigrant churches in Dearborn, Michigan.
A pertinent work of history and journalism. As armies again march in the Middle East, these communities are at new risk.