Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East
Basic Books, 2014
352 pp., $28.99
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms
When the Americans rained fire from the sky around Mount Sinjar, suppressing, later destroying, Islamic State fighters, the world's eye was drawn to that remote corner of the Middle East that is the home to some of its most obscure and apocryphal peoples and religions. The Ezidis (Yazedis), hasty research assistants for television networks quickly told us, were one of several of such groups: a reclusive, non-missional, but highly spiritual people. Some accused them of Devil worship, a confusing charge for the often magically purged faith of American Protestants to make sense of.
Ezidis revere Melek Taoos, whom they identify with Azazael or Iblis; in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions, these are names for great angels who rebelled against God and were cast down. Unlike Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the Ezidis believe these angels were not evil but misguided; moreover, they believe God's saving grace not only will, but has already, covered these angels, restoring them to favor.
These are jarring extra-canonical conversations for most secular Christians, more at home on our big screens than in our Bible studies, and ones that expose latent elements of the tradition of Christian faith that have been, for North American purposes, lost, but which remain very alive in the Middle East. Gerard Russell, in writing his magnificent travelogue of the Middle East's disappearing religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, wanted to capture some of that magical-historical dissonance for an English-speaking audience. Ezidis, but also Mandeans, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Kalasha, and Copts, provoke, for Russell, at least three things: "humanity's collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of narrow-minded atheists and literalists."
Ignorance of the past is, of course, a special fetish of historians, but interestingly Russell illustrates its peril more through ambling conversation and present-day relationships than a bird's-eye-view of the past. The stories he tells are history and religion, but he tells them through the voices of people he befriends; these are tales of dusty bus rides, generous hospitality, slow sunset conversations. He tells history, in other words, at ground speed, the pace of a pilgrim, which is not only part of the charm and grace of the book but also what makes it relatable and engaging.
It's also what makes the work of this book very hard. Almost every religion covered in Russell's catalogue of disappearing acts is explicitly non-missionary, reclusive, and extremely secretive, to the point that in the case of some—like the Ezidis, Mandeans, and Druze—the secrets of the faith are not even shared with most of its own adherents. One Mandean neophyte, described by a priest as "a dear sister in faith," only managed to see the group's holy texts after nine years of asking. And when the head priests of the community discovered she had indeed deciphered some of the scriptures, they reacted, according to her, with "resentment and anger. These scrolls, they said, contain 'secret,' knowledge imparted to priests only at ordination and never to laymen and outsiders." The manuscripts themselves were inscribed with magical curses on anyone who revealed them to the uninitiated.
The Ezidis, far from being anxious to communicate their inner truths to the world, also have strict rules about secrecy. The Alawite doctrine of secrecy is so thoroughgoing that it was recorded by Jacob de Vitriaco, a Crusader bishop of Acre in the 13th century, that: "If any son were to reveal the law to his mother, he would be killed without mercy." The Druze, some of whom argue they are the descendants of Solomon's original temple builders, had enough in common with the Freemasons that when globalization brought the two in contact, there was a theory the Masons were a lost branch. Even in early Islam, Russell reports, a period that we associate with conquering, coercive conversion, it was said that Caliph Omar (r. 634-644 AD) wept openly when he heard non-Arabs were converting to Islam.
This is part of the reason no scholar knows the full history of many of these religions. There are speculations that the Ezidi religion, for example, has affinities with the cult of Mithras, a powerful sect at one time in the Roman Empire, and from whom the ritual bonding of a handshake has made its way into Western practice. But their relative isolation in the marshes of Iraq and their reclusive guarding of the secrets of their religion means that speculation is all we have. Academic study of the Ezidi faith, even as Ezidis lie under physical siege in the marshes and mountains of Iraq, is its own kind of intellectual and spiritual siege of a tradition that highly prizes its long history of secrets. There are no "anthropologists to the rescue" in these marshlands. Westerners are not meant or allowed to know, and though we may drop bombs and foreign aid, we cannot guard their secrets.