The Vanishing

Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets


By Janine di Giovanni

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The Vanishing reveals the plight and possible extinction of Christian communities across Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine after 2,000 years in their historical homeland.
Some of the countries that first nurtured and characterized Christianity – along the North African Coast, on the Euphrates and across the Middle East and Arabia – are the ones in which it is likely to first go extinct. Christians are already vanishing. We are past the tipping point, now tilted toward the end of Christianity in its historical homeland. Christians have fled the lands where their prophets wandered, where Jesus Christ preached, where the great Doctors and hierarchs of the early church established the doctrinal norms that would last millennia.
From Syria to Egypt, the cities of northern Iraq to the Gaza Strip, ancient communities, the birthplaces of prophets and saints, are losing any living connection to the religion that once was such a characteristic feature of their social and cultural lives.
In The Vanishing, Janine di Giovanni has combined astonishing journalistic work to discover the last traces of small, hardy communities that have become wisely fearful of outsiders and where ancient rituals are quietly preserved amid 360 degree threats. Di Giovanni's riveting personal stories and her conception of faith and hope are intertwined throughout the chapters. The book is a unique act of pre-archeology: the last chance to visit the living religion before all that will be left are the stones of the past.



6–4 BCE: Founding of Christianity Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem in the modern-day West Bank, leading to the formation of Christianity. The new religion spreads quickly in the region, reaching Syria, Iraq, and Egypt in the first century CE.
313: Edict of Milan The Roman emperor Constantine issues the Edict of Milan, which establishes religious tolerance across the empire. Christianity becomes Rome’s official religion a decade later, including in its Middle Eastern provinces.
610: Founding of Islam The Prophet Muhammad receives his first revelation. Within half a century, Muslim rulers from the Arabian Peninsula control much of the Middle East. Christians are considered a protected but second-class community.
1839–1876: Tanzimat Reforms The Ottoman Empire, which controls much of the Middle East, introduces the Tanzimat reforms. Christians are deemed equal citizens under the law, opening up new opportunities but also fostering resentment among Ottoman Muslims.
1914–1923: Armenian Genocide In the years during and following World War I, the Ottoman Empire carries out a genocide against ethnic Armenians. The genocide results in over a million deaths and leads many Armenian Christians to flee south to the Levant.
1916: Sykes-Picot Agreement The United Kingdom and France agree to divide the Ottoman provinces in the Levant between them. The British establish mandates in Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, while the French take control over Lebanon and Syria. Christians often receive preferential treatment from the European powers but nevertheless play an active role in nationalist movements.
1948: The Nakbah Israeli forces defeat a joint army from the surrounding Arab states, consolidating the establishment of the state of Israel. Around seven hundred thousand Palestinians—including Christians—are forced to flee their homes to live in refugee camps in neighboring countries, where many of their descendants still live today.
1952: Gamal Abdel Nasser Coup Gamal Abdel Nasser stages a coup against King Farouk in Egypt. His socialist reform policies strip wealthy Egyptian Christians of their land, and his Arab nationalism leads many Christians to emigrate or turn inward to their communities.
1970: Hafez al-Assad Coup Hafez al-Assad, a member of the secular nationalist Ba’ath Party, stages a coup in Syria. As a member of the Alawite minority, he relies on support from Syrian Christians. His son Bashar takes over after Hafez’s death in 2000.
1971–2012: Papacy of Shenouda III Pope Shenouda III serves as head of the Coptic Church in Egypt. During his tenure, both the power of the papacy and the size of the Coptic Church grow significantly.
1979–2003: Saddam Hussein Presidency Saddam Hussein, a member of the secular nationalist Ba’ath Party, comes to power in Iraq after forcing his predecessor to resign. He institutes a brutal dictatorship that targets the country’s Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but his regime protects Christians in exchange for loyalty.
1981–2011: Hosni Mubarak Presidency Hosni Mubarak takes over as president of Egypt after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. He develops a close relationship with Pope Shenouda III, who demands increased rights for Egyptian Copts in exchange for their support.
1987–1991: First Intifada A series of massive Palestinian protests against the Israeli state, the intifada, or “uprising,” takes place in the West Bank and Gaza. Almost two thousand Palestinians are killed.
2003: American Invasion of Iraq American forces help overthrow Saddam’s regime in 2003, leading to a decade-long armed conflict in Iraq. As a result of the violence and rising sectarian tensions, the vast majority of the country’s Christians emigrate.
2006: Election of Hamas Hamas, a militant group deemed a terrorist organization by several Western countries, wins a majority in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. The election leads to a rift between the Fatah party in the West Bank, backed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and Hamas in Gaza. Conditions deteriorate even further in Gaza, and the few Christians left believe that Hamas does not adequately protect their rights.
2011: Arab Spring in Egypt Massive protests in Egypt—part of the Arab Spring that started in Tunisia—lead to Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011. In spite of Pope Shenouda III’s relationship with the president, many Egyptian Christians join the protests.
2011–Present: Syrian Civil War The Arab Spring inspires protests in Syria against the Assad regime. Assad cracks down quickly and violently on the dissenters, leading to a civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, either internally or as refugees abroad. Many Syrian Christians flee the country.
2012–2013: Muslim Brotherhood Rule in Egypt The Muslim Brotherhood wins the first election after Mubarak’s ouster, and Mohamed Morsi becomes president. Most Egyptian Christians strongly oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, and violence against Christians increases.
2013: Rise of ISIS The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni terrorist group, attempts to build a caliphate based on a fundamentalist Salafi doctrine. The group manages to take over territory in Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom and launches an ethnic cleansing campaign against the region’s Christian communities. The group loses the vast majority of its territory within a few years.
2014–Present: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Presidency The Egyptian Armed Forces overthrow Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi takes over as president, installing an authoritarian and oppressive government.




IN THE DYING MONTHS OF SADDAM HUSSEINS REGIME IN IRAQ, THE MINISTRY of Information, which controlled the movements of the press, granted my request to travel the country by car.

That long and melancholy voyage, shadowed by the coming American invasion, began in 2002. I usually had two companions on this trip: a driver, the kindly Munzer, a transplanted Palestinian Sunni whose family had emigrated to Iraq in 1948; and a translator, Reem, a woman from Babil Province, home of the capital of ancient Babylonia.1 On some parts of the journey, there was also a bad-tempered minder accompanying us, graciously provided by the ministry. He was tasked with spying on us and taking detailed notes about where we went and whom we saw. But I only found that out later. He filed a daily report on our activities. Occasionally there was another translator as well. Ali moonlighted as a Martin Scorsese–worshipping film scholar. He and Munzer had a tumultuous relationship and sometimes came close to blows, so we tried to keep them separated.

Munzer had a 1987 Oldsmobile, nearly the same model that Hillary Clinton said she drove from Little Rock to Washington when her husband became president. I would load the car with fruit and water, a medical kit, and emergency supplies, and we would begin driving up and down, north and south, east and west across the country.

For me, these trips were accompanied by a sense of mournfulness because I knew even then, as we were traversing the endless highways constructed during Saddam Hussein’s regime—Basra to Baghdad, Baghdad to Mosul—that I would never take those routes so effortlessly again. Although the invasion had not yet happened, the trip took place at a time when it was predictable, and everyone knew it. The highways, the villages, the way of life in the cities and in the countryside—all of this was sure to change.

But the war to come turned out to be worse than many expected. With the invasion of 2003 and the insurgent war that followed, Iraq itself would virtually disappear. The land of date trees, oases, and deserts would end up being marked by checkpoints and graves. But although I could not know then the extent of the anguish that would fall on this beguiling place, I was sure as we drove through those biblical ruins in the ancient land of the prophets, through languid farming villages and dusty cities, that they would be forever altered once the bombs started falling.

Part of what I had set out to do was to search for the descendants of ancient Christians. The biblical stories I had grown up with all seemed to begin in Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, in what would become modern Iraq: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abraham’s flourishing birthplace of Ur, the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and Ezekiel in Babylon.

My childhood Bible had drawings of the Garden of Eden, full of immense trees with a man and a woman nearly naked, shaded by foliage. In the pastel children’s Bible I was given for my First Communion, there were drawings of the couple fleeing the garden after tasting the forbidden fruit. The beautiful garden, sensual in its lushness, disappeared from their grasp forever. Then came yet another punishment, the flood.

The Garden of Eden was believed to have been in what was ancient Mesopotamia because of the description of four ancient rivers that kept it green and fertile. In the Book of Genesis, these rivers are clearly named: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon.… The name of the second river is the Gihon.… And the name of the third river is the Tigris.… And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” Tracking biblical geography is complex, and I am not a biblical scholar. Modern locations remain uncertain. For instance, two rivers I know well, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which today run from Turkey through Iraq into the Persian Gulf, may not be in the same geographic location as the biblical rivers. The locations of the Gihon and the Pishon are unknown. After Genesis, they are never mentioned again in the Bible. And rivers are famous for changing their course over time.2

The biblical Eden might have been in any number of places other than Iraq—including Turkey, which also has portions of the ancient rivers running through it. And there are a legion of Eden-seekers, people who spend their entire lives searching for answers about where the garden may have been and what might actually have happened in it. They include scientists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and crackpots.

Gihon might be the Nile, although some scientists have mentioned the Indus or the Ganges as possibilities. The Bible actually does not refer to the “Tigris”; it refers to “Hiddekel.” Most Bible translations connect this to the Tigris and translate it as such. But some who have studied the issue maintain that they are quite different rivers. Some have even suggested that the biblical rivers were actually canals. The truth is, we know very little of the geographical features of the earth before the alleged devastating flood.

For certain, Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, came from Ur of the Chaldees, a Sumerian city-state in Mesopotamia. Nowadays, Ur is called Tell el-Muqayyar, and it is near Nasiriyah, a town in Iraq about 225 miles southeast of Baghdad. It is here where, thousands of years after Abraham’s death, in the last weeks of March 2003, US forces would fight Iraqis in a bloody effort to occupy their land. As we drove south of Baghdad several months before that war began, I was lost between both worlds. I would imagine life along the Euphrates in the time of Abraham, the swaying date trees, the merchants, the scribes and the temples, and then I would be brought to reality with thoughts about the upcoming war: how I was going to survive, what the landscape would look like once American troops arrived. This was part of the lure of Iraq for me: the certainties of its ancient past were wreathed by the imminent uncertainties of a chaotic present.

I was a war reporter who was supposed to be immune to fear, but that was not the truth. I was anxious, frightened, unnerved. I tried to hide it from my small team of travelers by taking notes, poring over maps—ancient and modern—and speaking to as many people as I could, most of whom were too terrified to speak, sensing the looming war. Like Adam and Eve’s days in Eden, it was a time before a fall, and people were all too aware that the Iraq they knew, like Eden, could soon be out of their grasp—perhaps lost forever.

Still, the grandeur of the ancient places stunned me. Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, was once the center of an affluent empire. Considered by many to be the world’s first great cosmopolitan city, it dominated southern Mesopotamia after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. Civilization reached a height in Ur around 2000 BCE, in the days when Abraham is thought to have lived.

The city had great wealth and nearly sixty thousand inhabitants. There were merchant ships, weaving establishments, and factories that produced wool clothing and carpets, which were exported. The Great Ziggurat, a massive four-thousand-year-old pyramid whose remains were rediscovered in the nineteenth century, rose above the city.

There were foreign quarters in Ur for traders, who came to the city from as far away as the Mediterranean, 750 miles to the West, and from the Indus civilization, called Meluhha by ancient Iraqis, 1,500 miles to the east. The marketplace was full of curiosities and the sounds of exotic languages. There was plenty of innovation. The creators of one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, came from Ur. I slept in houses that were not so different from the ones that existed in ancient times—flat, square buildings with ladders to the roof, where we would sleep in summer to avoid the stifling, airless heat. In Abraham’s day, men would gather in the courtyards to chat, bargain, and gossip, drinking from large urns with straws. In 2002, I saw men very much like their ancestors. They sat in the rooms drinking tea and smoking hookahs, while the women stayed in the kitchen or outside with the children. Technology, electricity, and medical science had come to Iraq, but traditions and society had a way of holding on.

Other prophets were said to have roamed across the region as well—or stayed there for a time unwillingly. Daniel, a heroic Jewish youth, most likely came from Jerusalem, but he was brought to Iraq in the time of the Babylonian captivity in the early sixth century BCE along with many of his fellow Jews. The Book of Daniel depicts the city under the Babylonian king, and later in the time of the Persian conqueror Cyrus, but also shows Daniel’s righteousness and wisdom in the face of oppression, and depicts how God continues to work his plans when all seems to be lost. Some modern scholars argue that Daniel never existed; others claim he is buried in what is now modern Iran or Iraq.

Ezekiel, another Hebrew prophet in exile in Babylon, also lived during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, around the time the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built. He called himself a “sentinel for the house of Israel,” sending messages of hope to the exiled Jews while warning them against idolatry. In his visions, he saw the rebirth of Jerusalem, but he also stressed the need to preserve Hebrew traditions in preparation for the day when God would lead them back to Israel, reporting how God spoke of the day that he would “[bring] them back from the peoples and [gather] them from their enemies’ lands, and through them [vindicate] my holiness in the sight of many nations.”3 Ultimately, the prophecies of Ezekiel were about redemption. As I drove through Iraq in those final prewar days, what people seemed to seek most was solace. “Tell me a war is not coming,” they would say to me. There was very little comfort I could give them without telling bald-faced lies.

The American invasion was planned for the early spring of 2003, but there was little solid information about it. We knew it was coming, though we were not sure when or how, what day, what hour. Rumors circulated through Baghdad before we left about how Saddam would light the city on fire, or how foreigners would be rounded up and put in Abu Ghraib prison.

It was with a kind of resigned relief that I heaved my bags and a few blankets and pillows into the trunk of the car as we set out. We were cut off from the world on those road trips. The Internet in Baghdad was carefully controlled, and there was no cellphone service. I did have a smuggled satellite phone, but it was illegal to use it, and the level of paranoia I felt from months of living under the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police, was fierce. I dressed in the dark, knowing that I was being filmed. Maids searched my room and went through my notebooks. If I had guests in my hotel room, I turned up the volume of the television to make it more difficult for anyone to hear us when we spoke. Most of all, I never really knew who I was talking to and what they might report back to save their own skin. I had to assume that every word was being monitored. Every night when I left the Ministry of Information, an official sealed my satellite phone with sealing wax, and every morning he removed the wax. This was so he could tell if I opened it or not and used it illegally overnight. The penalty for that was certainly deportation, but it could have been worse—jail. That was the way we lived in Saddam’s Iraq—there was uncertainty, fear, and paranoia at an uncomfortably high level.

Throughout the trip, my goal was to meet people and write about all that I encountered. Although occasionally, Reem and I would watch Iraqi TV, mostly we talked to people and immersed ourselves in local gossip. There are rumors that inevitably come with the end of a regime. It was an overbearingly tense and claustrophobic time.

“What will happen when the Americans come?” I would ask Reem and Ali. In Baghdad, children were digging trenches, and sandbags were being piled on street corners. But no one wanted to look too far ahead. Reem usually stayed silent. Once, Munzer answered, “We will fight!”

We drove south to the sacred Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala. We drove north to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, where we watched immense, pompous military parades. We spent Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, with a farmer, who proudly slaughtered a goat in front of us in an alleyway—a gruesome killing—and then served it to us for lunch. Once, Reem and I went to the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala. Reem went inside and came back with a green ribbon for me. “It means,” she said solemnly, “you get a wish.”

Reem knew what I wanted. I was getting married in August. I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and wished for a happy marriage, for safety, and for a healthy child someday.

Along the way on our long days of traveling, we met Iraqis from many different sects and tribes. Iraq is an extraordinarily diverse country. We stayed with Yazidis and with blue-eyed Assyrians, and we met Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Circassians, Armenians, Jews, and Kurds.

All of these groups had reason to fear the coming American invasion, but the fear among the Christians was particularly acute. The Christian community has been present in Iraq since the time of Thomas the Apostle, whose finger bones were said to be discovered in Mosul in 1964 during the restoration of a church. Thomas reportedly brought the religion there in the first century CE. The Assyrians of the time quickly adopted Christianity, making the Eastern Aramaic speakers still living there one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It coexisted with the local religion for a few hundred years until the latter began to die out. The Christians themselves, however, began to be persecuted in the seventh century with the arrival of Islam.

The community persisted despite massacres by the Mongols and Mamluks in the thirteenth century and the widespread destruction ordered by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane approximately one hundred years later. In recent years, persecution has triggered an exodus. Before the war, when I was living in Baghdad, there were nearly 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, mainly Catholic Chaldeans. Today, there are between 250,000 and 300,000 left, according to a report published by Samuel Tadros, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC. But no one really knows the correct figure, because there hasn’t been a census for thirty years.

On most Sundays in the Saddam era, I would worship at the white-stoned St. Mary’s Chaldean Church in Shorja district. Sitting with people meditating and singing quietly in an ancient language was a respite for me from the madness of prewar Iraq and from my dank hotel room in the Al Rasheed, where everything was watched and recorded. Everywhere I went, there were the Mukhabarat in their leather jackets and furry mustaches. They always looked the same, shamelessly conspicuous. Journalists and diplomats all feared the compromising films, often of a sexual nature, that were said to be taken of visitors. After the war, a British security official found an entire building of such films—the Mukhabarat had kept them in storage in the event they needed to blackmail someone. On nights when Saddam’s crazed sons, Qusay and Uday, visited my hotel, everyone spoke in a whisper. I would stay locked in my room.

After Mass, my Palestinian driver and I would have lunch at a Christian restaurant, Saj Al Reef. They served delicious chicken sandwiches on toasted saj, dough placed on a hot griddle and baked over a wood fire, something like an Iraqi pizza. I frequented a Christian grocery store that sold alcohol and other rare and pricey provisions. When I could get permission from Iraqi officials, I would drive north to Mosul and Nineveh to meet with Christian communities. Staying in people’s homes, I would get to celebrate holidays and talk to the priests and bishops.

“In five years, we will be no more,” one priest told me in 2003. Seventeen years later, I think back on what he said. He was not entirely correct—Christians still exist in Iraq. But their numbers dwindle with each passing year, and their position is precarious. At the time, his prediction seemed alarmist. But he was not far off.


  • “The book illustrates the fine balance in which many of these communities now hang, examining how violence, economic instability, persecution, and emigration are leading to the dissolution of cultures forged both by land and by religion.”—The New Yorker
  • “The individuals di Giovanni interviews provide a rich portrait of these threatened communities, and of the wider societies they inhabit.”—Harper’s Magazine
  • The Vanishing, a mosaic of oral histories, paints a picture of the religion almost lost but preserved through collective memory in the Promised Land where Jesus Christ once walked.”—Vanity Fair
  • “In the hands of a skilled storyteller, this is a sad and moving account of a historic change.”—Financial Times
  • “[W]ith beautiful evocations of the power of faith in trying times…it’s refreshing to hear from a correspondent who participated in, rather than merely observed, one of the most fundamental aspects of life in the Middle East: religious practice…di Giovanni does Middle Eastern Christians a service by highlighting their recent struggles.”—The Wall Street Journal
  • The Vanishing is neither a chronological record of Christian withdrawal nor a geopolitical analysis of religious trends. Instead, di Giovanni offers a kind of requiem for a disappearing religious culture, a tale rendered all the more heart-wrenching for having been written during some of the worst months of the COVID-19 crisis. The book skillfully manages to combine an overview of the rise and precipitous fall of Christianity in its ancient homelands, moving accounts from believers sticking it out there, and a deeply personal grieving over the withdrawal of the faith from its birthplace.”—Christianity Today
  • The Vanishing is unique because di Giovanni is not seeking a solution, and indeed knows there may not be one. As a war reporter for 30 years she knows the reality of man: There will always be another war, there will always be slaughter and destruction. She writes because this is the twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity, because just maybe we’ll remember their stories.”—First Things
  • “With grace and deep reporting, Janine di Giovanni, an acclaimed author and war correspondent, has captured the often overlooked plight of the dwindling Christian communities of the Middle East—specifically in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. The Vanishing is a tender if deeply disturbing travelogue, filled with stories told by Christians about the ferocious politics and desperate economics that shattered their communities. She writes in an elegiac tone while marveling at the resiliency of the few who remain… The Vanishing is an unexpected gift, preserving the story of the last remnants of Christian communities rooted in the region of the faith’s birth.”—Sojourners
  • “There could scarcely be a better person than Janine di Giovanni to write about the disappearing Christians of the Middle East. An award-winning war correspondent, she brings compassion, experience, and expertise to the subject.”—Lara Marlowe, The Irish Times
  • “Di Giovanni's mesmeric narrative is an elegant balance of journalism and history that also includes semi-autobiographical reflections of the role faith plays in her own life. Seeking to illuminate those ‘worlds and communities of people who might, in one hundred years' time, no longer be on this earth,’ di Giovanni grants life forever on the page to those vanishing now… This is a rewarding, thoughtful and somber journey into the Middle East to find the last ‘holdouts’ of the Christian faith in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Egypt.”—Shelf Awareness
  • “[DiGiovanni] writes with poignant authenticity as she weaves her own deeply personal faith experiences with those of a parade of Middle Eastern citizens who populate the history she recounts of Iraq, Gaza, Syria, and Egypt, places foundational to early Christianity… Di Giovanni’s many interviews and own observations detail heartrending circumstances that have wreaked irreparable harm to families, towns, and countries. The words of one Syrian expat, ‘Our present is a failure, but our past is glorious,’ illustrate di Giovanni’s difficult, essential undertaking.”—Booklist
  • “In this informative work of journalism and memoir, war reporter Di Giovanni (Ghosts of Daylight) recounts her travels through the Middle East with a focus on rapidly shrinking Christian minority groups…The propulsive account is marked by the author’s keen eye for detail and the stories of the people involved… perfect for anyone interested in the Middle East, or in how humans live through war.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “In her latest poignant book, veteran war correspondent and Guggenheim fellow di Giovanni focuses on Christian communities struggling to survive in the region where the religion had its birth… The author presents a distinctly personal and subjective account full of empathy and humanity amid upheaval.”—Kirkus

On Sale
Oct 5, 2021
Page Count
272 pages

Janine di Giovanni

About the Author

Janine di Giovanni is the winner of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2020 was awarded the Blake Dodd Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her lifetime achievement in non-fiction; it has previously been awarded to Alexander Stille and Elizabeth Kolbert. She has won a dozen other international awards. She is a Senior Fellow at Yale University, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the former Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York. Her accolades are well-deserved; she has written and reported from the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East, where she witnessed the siege of Sarajevo, the fall of Grozny and the destruction of Srebrenica and Rwanda in 1994, as well as more than a dozen active conflicts.

She lives in Paris, France.

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