Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East


By Gerard Russell

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Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.

In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. Historically a tolerant faith, Islam has, since the early 20th century, witnessed the rise of militant, extremist sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.

Drawing on his extensive travels and archival research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.


Foreword by Rory Stewart

By the early eighth century, Muslim rulers controlled most of the land between Afghanistan and the edge of North Africa. But Islamic states—which developed in Europe a reputation as fierce and exclusive—proved ultimately more tolerant of other religions than Western Christianity. In Europe, "pagans" were eliminated so completely and so rapidly that the details of the pre-Christian religion of somewhere like Britain can barely be recovered. In the Muslim world, however, complete "pagan" religions were allowed to survive intact into the twenty-first century, and it is still possible to interview their believers.

There are the Yazidis of northern Iraq, whose temples include a statue of a peacock, somehow associated with the devil. There are the Kalasha of the Afghan-Pakistan border, whose faith incorporates wooden statues of ancestor-heroes. From Lebanon to Iran religions survive—some with a special relationship to fire, others that center on immersion in water, others with focus on the sun and the moon. Some of these faiths long predate the birth of Christ.

The subject is wonderful. These groups are not just symbols of religious sensibilities and possibilities now faded. They suggest a great deal about the origins and evolution of the major world religions. And they are challenging components of a modern world: intricate compressed identities, rooted in history and landscape, but also systems of belief that have changed dramatically over time, incorporated rival religions, and been exported to new lands.

But the subject is almost impossible. These religions are formidably difficult to access, understand, or describe. They survived partly because they are located in some of the most remote, mountainous, and dangerous regions of the Middle East. The believers sometimes speak obscure, archaic languages. The archives and scholarly accounts of the faiths are intimidating. In some cases the religions are esoteric: it is forbidden to record, discuss, or reveal their beliefs. In other cases, the religions are persecuted, and believers have had to learn to conceal the details of their faith, to avoid being murdered. They rarely can or will speak to outsiders. It is, therefore, very difficult to imagine someone qualified to address the subject.

Gerard Russell is one of the few people able to write a book of this kind. Born in 1973 in America to British parents, Gerard Russell studied classical languages and philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He then joined the British Foreign Service, which sent him to Cairo to learn Arabic. His Arabic became sufficiently fluent for him to become the UK public spokesman on Arabic news channels. He was posted to Iraq after the US invasion, became consul general in Jeddah, and then was political counselor in the embassy in Kabul. In those posts, when many diplomats remained isolated from the local populations, he developed strong friendships with Arabs and Afghans outside the compound, aided by his linguistic skills, and became an ever greater expert on the countries and people with whom he lived. In 2009, he joined a group of Afghan specialists at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School.

He is so modest that it can be tough to remember just how difficult it must have been to produce this book. He presents himself again and again as simply a bemused tourist, clattering around on rural buses. But he is an erudite scholar with patience and a very nimble mind. He has an extraordinary capacity for synthesizing and presenting complex information. He has a great knack for winning the trust of interviewees. When he interviews people in Iran or Lebanon, he is doing so in fluent Arabic or Farsi. When he traces the influences on the Yazidis or the Mandaeans, he does so with a deep knowledge of Islamic history and Christian doctrine. When he writes about the bombs and attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, he writes as someone who has worked and lived through the politics and violence of those insurgencies. The network of friends on which he relies to move through dangerous areas or gain access to religious leaders has been developed over years. This—his first book—is the fruit of two decades of experience and reflection.

Each of these religions has been shaped by a dozen other religions, living, evolving, and vanished. Theology is a subtle and tough discipline, where apparently "trivial" disagreements prove to have vast and often fatal consequences, frequently provoking sectarian killings. Many of the most basic facts about these faiths are still subjects of fierce debate, some driven by new data, some simply by new politics and fashions in anthropology or world religion. Thousands of books and articles demand to be read. Unpublished manuscripts in archaic languages need to be consulted. Some of the best accounts are a century old but need to be filleted for the prejudices of their authors. Much of this information is—inconveniently—relevant and good.

And "modernity," conflict, and "the West" overshadow everything. Many of the religious homelands of these faiths are today in active conflict zones—Iraq, Afghanistan, the edge of Syria—that have been swept up in the fortunes of regimes supported or toppled by the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar. "Pagan" families have experienced occupation, proxy wars, honor killings, kidnappings, and giant truck bombs. The "pagans" are now clean-shaven men in suits or young professional women. In the last three decades, unparalleled numbers have left their rural homes, lost their links to their original landscape and extended family, and begun to marry out and forget their old religion. And perhaps the majority of believers have now fled as refugees to the West. So an honest portrait of a contemporary faith requires a description not only of a three-thousand-year-old temple and its ancient priest but also of a converted cinema in London or a community center in Detroit, all surrounded by the juddering fantasies and pressures of contemporary Western culture.

Russell navigates all of this, creating an almost effortless narrative, so that twenty years of dedication, study, imagination, and care are left very much in the background. It is tempting at times to hope for a more romantic account, more focus on his own emotional responses, a clearer glimpse of his own faith or views on God. There could have been space for Wordsworth's fascination with paganism as another energy or possibility:

­—Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

But Russell resists this, just as he resists the temptation of boasting about his discoveries or of turning the story of the decline, persecution, and scattering of these religions into a prolonged lament.

Instead, he achieves something perhaps ultimately more valuable and more lasting—a careful chronicle. He truthfully and exactly records encounters with these religions in the twenty-first century. He introduces us in detail to his informants, gives us their context, and hints at their prejudices. He is never afraid to admit ignorance, uncertainty, or contradiction. He hints at a deep problem that the theologies of some of these religions no longer exist, if indeed they ever did. Some worshipers appear to continue their rituals without clear doctrines of sin or redemption; without clarity about the meaning of the words, or the objects and symbols in their temples; without any remaining memory of the stories of their gods. He links all his discoveries to contemporary landscapes.

This combination of linguistic skill, deep cultural understanding, courage, classical scholarship, and profound love of foreign cultures was once more common. Russell is in the direct tradition of British scholars/imperial officers such as Mountstuart Elphinstone, Macaulay, or even T. E. Lawrence. But it is now very rare. It is not an accident that Russell has now moved on from the British diplomatic service and Harvard University. Academics seem to be absorbed in ever more intricate internal arguments, which leave little space or possibility for a project of this ambition and scope. Foreign services and policy makers now want "management competency"—slick and articulate plans, not nuance, deep knowledge, and complexity.

Russell instead brings older, less institutionalized virtues to bear. This book is a patient and nuanced challenge to grand theories and abstract ambitions. He is rigorous in his focus on the details of culture and history. He uncovers and helps to preserve the diversity and bewildering identities and commitments under the surface of a "global world." He demonstrates how the autonomy, dignity, and ability of alien cultures can challenge Western vanities and preconceptions. And above all, he manages to link his love and his learning to living landscapes and living people. There is much to learn from this book.


c. 2560 bc Great Pyramid built in Egypt

c. 1900 Indo-Europeans arrive in India, perhaps including ancestors of Kalasha

1842 Babylon emerges as an independent city-state

c. 1000 Date of composition of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta

740/722 Assyrians attack Israel, take the Ten Tribes into captivity

597 Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem, deports leading Jews to Babylon

331 Alexander the Great conquers Persia; shortly after, he passes the Hindu Kush

ad 70 Sack of Jerusalem by the Romans and destruction of the Second Temple

274 Death of Mani, founder of Manichaeism; Mandaeans already exist in Iraqi Marshes

313 Constantine issues Edict of Milan, granting recognition to Christianity

529 The Byzantine emperor Justinian closes Plato's Academy

634–654 Arab Muslims conquer all lands from Morocco to Iran

635 The first Christian missionary arrives in China from the Middle East

1017 The Druze faith is first taught openly in Cairo

1095 Pope Urban II preaches the First Crusade

1160 Death of Sheikh Adi, a key figure in the Yazidi religion of northern Iraq

1258 Sack of Baghdad by Genghis Khan

1263 Birth of Ibn Taymiyyah, conservative critic of Druze and other heterodox Muslims

1501 Beginning of the reign of Shah Ismail I of Iran, who converted the country to Shi'a Islam

Map of the Forgotten Kingdoms


As the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley was patiently excavating the ruined city of Ur in southern Iraq, he uncovered by chance a breathtakingly beautiful carved wooden panel. It had survived nearly five thousand years in the dry sand and was as fragile—as Woolley put it—as the plumage on the wings of a butterfly. Even as he looked at the panel, a rare thing happened: in the middle of the Iraqi desert, it began to rain. Before Woolley could even take a photograph of the carvings to record them for posterity, they had turned into featureless mud. They had survived for more than four millennia, and they dissolved in front of his eyes.

It was with a similar feeling that I wrote this book—a feeling that I was seeing survivors from the ancient world, as beautiful in their way as Woolley's carved panel, being destroyed even as I struggled to discover them. The Mandaeans, for example, lived until recently in southern Iraq, where they kept alive the Aramaic language of Babylon along with the ancient city's belief in the supernatural powers of the stars and planets. Mandaean magicians, as late as the 1940s, called upon the gods and goddesses of ancient Babylon in their conjuring. The Alawites of Syria believe in the possibility of God adopting human form, a teaching that was popular across the region before the spread of Islam. The Yazidis pray toward the sun three times a day, perpetuating a custom of the region's ancient sun worshipers. Some of Syria and Iraq's Christians, known as Assyrians, see themselves as the inheritors of the ancient Assyrian civilization, and are fiercely proud of this heritage. It is almost as though the worship of the goddess Aphrodite still continued on a remote Greek island, or the Druids still inhabited their ancient holy island of Anglesey off Wales.

I fell in love with the Middle East when I first went there more than twenty years ago, but it can be a hard place to love. News from there is often anguished; pessimism has been an invaluable tool for predicting its politics; its most beautiful aspects—love of language, of history, and of God—have been sullied by hatred and prejudice. The Middle Eastern mosaic of religions and peoples, a monument to the region's immense and glorious history, is being dismantled. Our generation may be among the last who can encounter the diverse faiths of the Middle East while they still remain in their homeland.

In 1987 Iraq's Christians numbered 1.4 million, which was 8 percent of the country's population. Now they are down to 1 percent. Sanctions impoverished their country and forced many to flee in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, beginning in 2004, more than sixty Christian churches were bombed. Christians were attacked—sometimes out of religious hostility, sometimes out of greed for their homes, which gangs would seize once the owners had left. No wonder the Christian Iraqi population of metropolitan Detroit has swelled by at least a hundred thousand.

The Syrian civil war is not a straightforward battle between different religious sects—there are people of all religions on both sides—and it has made Syria, one of the Middle East's most diverse countries, a far more dangerous place. Tens of thousands of Syrian Alawites, who are mostly loyal to the country's Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad, have died in the fighting; the community has also attracted much more attention and hostility from its neighbors. And it is the ongoing conflict in Syria that gave birth to the region's newest and nastiest manifestation of intolerance, the terrorist group ISIS.

ISIS seized control of Sinjar and the Nineveh plains, parts of northern Iraq that were still rich in religious diversity, in 2014. They then slaughtered and raped the area's Yazidi inhabitants and drove out its Christians. About a third of the Christians who remain in Iraq are homeless, because ISIS occupies the towns and villages where Christianity was traditionally strongest.

ISIS calls itself "Islamic State" because it claims to be imitating the original Muslim community, who spread their new religion through stunning successes on the battlefield. ISIS's followers want to re-create what they imagine that early community to have been—one united in rigid obedience to a caliph, absolutely intolerant of different opinions about religion, oppressing Christians and Jews and exterminating idol worshipers. They reject what they view as a later weakening of the faith, in which the tough penalties laid down by the Koran were diluted, Muslims were divided among different states and governments, and diversity of belief was tolerated.

ISIS's supporters are in fact wrong about early Islamic history, which involved far more compromise with other religions than they imagine. When they chose to focus on the fact that early Muslims spread their religion through force of arms, they forget that it took a lot more than violence to build a state. Islam's golden era was in reality one in which Muslim rulers made liberal use of the talents of the other religious communities who lived under Islamic rule. By contrast, Islam's greatest period of intolerance toward those other faiths, during the late Middle Ages, was also its greatest period of poverty and backwardness.

In the modern era, a similar pattern has unfortunately recurred. In the first half of the twentieth century, Muslim-majority countries were progressive in their treatment of minority faiths. For many of those countries, this was also a time of hope, as they sought to liberate themselves from the dominance of their onetime Muslim imperial rulers while also fending off attempts at colonization by Christian governments. In the past few decades, religious narrow-mindedness, cultural decay, and other forms of backwardness have also gone hand in hand. ISIS is the culmination of that trend.

ISIS is equally attacking Islam's own past. It wants to erase the memory of the many Muslim caliphs who licensed and patronized non-Muslim communities under their rule, and Muslim clerics who tolerated those who held on to older faiths or half-merged them with Islam to form hybrid heterodoxies. It wants to erase, too, the great pride that modern Muslims often feel in the religious diversity of their homelands and their ancient pre-Islamic history. Such pride and open-mindedness were what enabled so many diverse religions to survive in the midst of Islam—and what has allowed more than ten million of their followers to remain there today. I hope that this book will remind people of the truths the terrorists want us to forget.

I hope, too, to show readers how the cultures of the Middle East and the modern West, ostensibly so different, are in fact closely linked through numerous historical ties. Twists of fate drew us apart, nothing more. Had it not been for the invasions of the Mongols and Tamerlane, which devastated the Middle East between 1240 and 1402, Baghdad might still be a world center of Christianity. For there was a time when the Iraq-based Church of the East had bishops and monasteries as far east as Beijing, and its Syriac script was adopted by Uighurs and Mongolians.

In the middle of the fourth century, a follower of the austere vegetarian preacher called Mani almost became emperor of Rome. Had he done so, the Roman Empire might have spread Mani's teachings, not Christianity, across Europe; instead of journeying to Bethlehem, European pilgrims might head instead to the Iraqi Marshes, where Mani first preached, and where the Manichees' close cousins the Mandaeans still live.

This did not happen; instead these religions retreated in the face of Christianity and Islam, finding havens in mountains and marshes and remote villages. That was where I found them when I traveled the Middle East as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat. I was alternately intrigued and baffled: What were these religions? Where did they come from? How had they survived? These were mystery religions, whose followers might not even know what the religion taught. What was it like to belong to such a community? Why did the Yazidis refuse to eat lettuce or wear the color blue, and why was it taboo for them to trim their mustaches? Why did Mandaeans practice baptism, which I had always imagined to be a Christian ritual? Why did the Druze believe in reincarnation? What was the point of their secrecy? These riddles continued to puzzle me long after leaving diplomacy. Eventually they led me back to the Middle East, to research this book.

I found that though they might be little known today, these religions have had an influence on the history of Western society. We owe Western monasticism partly to the Manichees, who impressed St. Augustine with their ascetic and celibate lifestyle. The handshake was popularized in Europe by followers of Mithras, who were forerunners of the Yazidis (the Yazidis still practice the handshake in its original form, with a lump of sacred earth clasped between the two hands). The people of Harran, pagans who died out in the Middle Ages but bequeathed many of their customs to still-existing religions in the Middle East, played a major role in preserving the scientific knowledge of the ancient Greeks, which was eventually returned to Europe after the fall of Byzantium and helped inspire the Renaissance.

I found also that these communities, as minorities in the Muslim world, had endured fourteen centuries of legal discrimination, oppression, and danger. Some early Muslim rulers were prepared to condone the continued existence of non-Muslim and even pagan communities. But later ones were not. As military technology improved, governments slowly gained the ability to invade even the remotest places. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Arab world from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, put this technology to awful use when it massacred the Yazidis and infamously exterminated most of the Christian population of what is now Turkey. Yet these heterodox religious communities survived. They stubbornly refused every inducement to abandon their traditions. When need came they hid in the mountains or fled into the desert.

The Yazidis, for example, survived a succession of massacres—seventy-two, by their own count. Only a few among them understood what their religion's teachings were or the logic behind its arcane rules, but they preferred to die rather than abandon their ancestral faith. Similarly, many groups of Iraqi Christians have endured slaughter and exile numerous times in the past century, from death marches enforced by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 to the actions of ISIS today.

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. For the Yazidis, as also for the Druze and Mandaeans, priests are essential for the rites that keep the religion alive—and in their home villages are never far away. When Yazidis emigrate, though, they do not always get to choose where they end up; they may find themselves hundreds of miles from the nearest priest. Persecution in some ways preserved these ancient communities, giving them a strong sense of identity, limiting their contact with the outside world, and keeping them in villages where their customs were seamlessly integrated into their everyday lives. In a way they were fossilized. Now they are exposed to the elements.

What is more, when they move to the West, they find themselves living in a society that does not easily understand them. In the West, religion is a matter of public debate and secularism is the norm—so how to explain a religion that is heartfelt but secret? Sometimes these smaller Middle Eastern faiths seem similar to Christianity or Islam or (most of all, perhaps) Judaism, but they are from a wholly different tradition. They are the last heirs to once-vast kingdoms and civilizations whose history, beliefs, and ways of life have otherwise died out and been forgotten. Yet they deserve to be better understood, not least because of their valiant efforts to survive. The main purpose of this book is to give them a voice and a memorial.

It also highlights, I hope, the value of religious diversity. The Arab world declined when it rejected religious tolerance and began to enforce orthodoxy. Beginning in recent centuries, the West has flourished by doing the opposite. A country that values its minorities is one that can benefit from their talents and their connections with other communities around the world.

Finally, it says something about Islam. I hope to give a nuanced picture of Islam's interaction with other faiths. Some writers present Islamic history as one of irreproachable tolerance; others, as fourteen hundred years of uninterrupted persecution. In fact, rather like Christianity, Islam has sometimes been uncompromisingly oppressive but other times strikingly lenient and broad-minded. After all, these extraordinary and ancient faiths survived under many centuries of Muslim rule, while none did so in Christian Europe. Yet there are those who prefer to ignore the subtleties and say instead that the extremists speak for all of Islam. They want either to condemn all Muslims as extremists or to condone the extremists, suggesting that their ugly views must be tolerated since they speak for a billion Muslims. Both approaches miss the mark. I hope this book can give a truer picture.

1: Mandaeans

In the faded cafeteria of Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel, the Mandaean high priest, his brother, and his cousin all looked at me, asking for my help. They did not know how honored I felt to meet them. Here, in front of me, were the representatives of one of the world's most mysterious religions. Because they worshiped one God, practiced baptism, took Sunday as their holy day, and revered a prophet called John, the Mandaeans had been mistaken by sixteenth-century European missionaries for yet another of the region's many and varied Christian sects. In fact, their religion is wholly separate from Christianity. They believe in a heaven, but it is called the Light-World; in an evil spirit, but one that, unlike Satan, is female, and called Ruha; and in baptism as a necessary condition for entering the Light-World, though for them it must be in running water, while babies who die unbaptized are comforted for eternity by trees bearing fruits shaped like their mothers' breasts. Their John is the Baptist, not the Evangelist, and although the Baptist is presented in Christian texts as a follower of Jesus, the Mandaeans see him as a greater prophet. After hearing the Christian gospel in which John the Baptist says he would be unfit to undo the strap of Jesus's sandals, one nineteenth-century Mandaean convert to Christianity became indignant. "Aren't Isa and Iahia"—the Arabic names for Jesus and John—"cousins, and therefore equal?" he demanded of the priest after the service. "Aren't they in the Light-World together?"

A Mandaean baptism in the River Tigris. © Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images


On Sale
Dec 1, 2015
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Gerard Russell

About the Author

Gerard Russell is a Senior Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre in London and a Senior Consultant at Quiller Consultants. A former British and UN diplomat, he served for fifteen years throughout the Middle East. Russell is a member of the Order of the British Empire and lives in London.

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