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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East
by gerard russell
basic books, 354 pages, $28.99

We were on Saturday, and you are on Sunday. Now your Sunday has come.” So goes an oft-quoted warning from the Jews of Iraq about the fate of the country’s minorities. “Saturday,” of course, refers to the Jewish Sabbath, but also to the period in the mid-twentieth century when Iraq’s ancient Jewish community disappeared under the threat of mob violence, social discrimination, and the prospect of emigration to Israel. “Sunday” refers to the Christian Sabbath, but also to the bloodletting that has rocked Iraq since 2003, leading to the sudden shrinking of the country’s historic Christian population. The meaning of the maxim is clear: What happened to Jews in Iraq decades ago is finally and inevitably catching up to the country’s Christians. They, too, shall soon be gone.

Minorities face a grim future in the Middle East, and above all in Iraq, a place Winston Churchill once referred to as an “ungrateful volcano.” The rise of the Islamic State over the past year has only accelerated a long-term process of cultural and religious homogenization that has been going on for the better part of a century. Until recently, it was possible to find in the great landmass stretching from Morocco to Iraq a stunning variety of peoples, languages, and beliefs. Christians made up roughly 20 percent of the Arab world at the start of the twentieth century. Jews were a vital presence in metropolitan centers as varied as Tunis, Cairo, Sana‘a, and Aleppo. Sunnis and Shi’ites lived cheek-to-jowl in mixed cities such as Beirut and Baghdad. Sadly, at the start of the twenty-first century, the landscape of the Middle East looks very different. Christians are 5 percent of the population and shrinking. Jews have completely disappeared, relocating to Israel, Europe, and the United States. And historically mixed areas are now self-segregated as Sunnis and Shi’ites seek shelter from ­sectarian attacks.

The dwindling of the Middle East’s characteristic diversity is a complex and bewildering phenomenon. Gerard Russell, a retired British diplomat, explains these changes well in his new book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Part travelogue and part history lesson, the book devotes each of its seven ­chapters to a different group in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is by ­living among these small, little-known ­communities that Russell finds his voice.

These include the Mandaeans of southern Iraq, who regard John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets and who baptize their adherents in the waters of the Tigris. Never a large community, they have suffered mightily over the past fifteen years, to the point that 90 percent of their members have either been killed or fled the country. Russell also takes us to Iran, where 25,000 Zoroastrians still live, heirs to the imperial religion of the Sasanian kings, and visits the Shouf Mountains south of Beirut, the homeland of the Druze, practitioners of a secretive religion that regards an eleventh-century Fatimid caliph as divine.

In the final three chapters, he profiles the Samaritans of Mount Gerizim in the West Bank (a tiny community closely related to the Jews, but who preserve their own distinctive version of the Pentateuch); the Copts (the beleaguered ­Christians of Egypt, whose ancient church gave rise to the monastic movement in the fourth century); and finally the Kalasha of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, adherents of the last pagan religion in a ­predominantly Muslim land.

Russell—a fluent speaker of Arabic and Dari, with years of experience across the region—is an ideal guide through these fascinating, yet often closed, religious ecosystems. He is part of a proud tradition of English travel writing, in line with the likes of ­Colin ­Thubron, William ­Dalrymple, and Tim ­Mackintosh-Smith, who blend memoir, ­reportage, and scholarship to bring life and humanity to their exotic-seeming subjects.

One of Russell’s most interesting points concerns geography, especially the manner in which the rugged, inaccessible terrain in many parts of the Middle East has provided shelter to religious nonconformists over the centuries. These include the southern marshes of Iraq—a “maze of rivulets” cut off from the outside world—which incubated the Mandaean faith; the mountains of Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, long home to numerous heterodox Muslim groups, including the Druze, Alawis, and Zaydis; and the rural periphery of southern Egypt and northern Mesopotamia, which remained majority Christian until the twentieth century.

Russell’s insights make one wonder whether nonconformist religions survived in remote areas simply because these provided sanctuary from persecution, or because remote populations tended to be drawn to religions that freed them from the control of cities. The latter seems to be the case in several parts of Iran, where, in the Middle Ages, revolutionary forms of Shi’ism took root among remote populations that, long before, had also adopted dissident forms of Zoroastrianism; or the striking coincidence that Kharijism, the earliest of Islam’s sectarian movements, lives on in much the same part of Algeria where the Donatist church thrived during the time of St. Augustine.

The other great theme that Russell explores is the tension between survival and assimilation. Indeed, the most poignant chapter of his book, the epilogue, introduces us to minority communities that have settled in the American diaspora. These include groups of Chaldeans, Mandaeans, Yazidis, and Druze who sought safety and prosperity far away from their war-torn homelands. While these groups may no longer live under the specter of sectarian attacks, they live under a different kind of existential threat: the loss of their identity in the great American melting pot. Without like-minded people around to sustain their beliefs and customs, Russell asks, how can Middle Eastern minorities hope to carry on as distinctive communities in places like Detroit, Boston, or Lincoln, Nebraska? Despite obvious short-term gains, is it in the interest of these groups to settle abroad, considering that it often comes at the cost of losing much of what makes them unique? It is a dilemma that Russell lays out with great sympathy and ­understanding.

Given Russell’s long years of experience in the diplomatic corps, I only wish he had addressed one of the most important, but complicated, dilemmas facing minorities in the Middle East, especially Christians: To what extent have their long-standing connections to and cultivation by the West made them vulnerable in their own societies? Starting in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present, Western governments often nurtured minorities as commercial and political middlemen. This ­enhanced the status of many groups, giving them access to education, wealth, and influence. At the same time, it also made them suspect in the eyes of their neighbors, who ­increasingly came to see them as agents of the West and practitioners of ­Western religions.

The story of persecution is not only about the internal dynamics of Middle Eastern countries. It is also about the tendency of foreign powers to unsettle relations between minorities and majorities from without. What does Russell make of this aspect of recent history, given the two hats he wears—those of civil servant and historian? The question is all the more pressing given the tragedy that unfolded in Iraq in the wake of the American-led invasion. Although the United States, Britain, and their allies certainly did not plan for it, an unintended byproduct of the war was the uncorking of mass violence against minorities, leading to the near complete disappearance of many in the years since. Today, we live with another unintended side effect of the war with the rise of the Islamic State, a group that has threatened the ­existence of many fragile religious groups across Iraq and Syria. To what extent are outside powers complicit in this collapse?

As the Middle East divides itself up into sectarian cantons dominated by Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, and others, Gerard Russell prompts us to ask a crucial question: Is there any room left for the smaller communities? Sadly, as of now, the answer ­appears to be “no,” but Russell’s book provides a moving testament to all that stands to be lost once the dust settles.

Christian C. Sahner is author of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present and a research fellow in history at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

Image by Israel Preker licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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