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Inside the Middle East’s vanishing ancient religions

Former diplomat Gerard Russell journeyed to meet the Yazidis, the Mandaeans, and more

Members of the Sabean Mandaeans take part in a bathing ritual on the Tigris River in Baghdad.Karim Kadim/Associated Press/file 2012/Associated Press

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have dominated the Middle East for centuries, with results more often bloody than harmonious. But the region has also birthed many smaller religions, with beliefs and practices vastly different from those of the big three Abrahamic faiths. Some date from long before Jesus; they preserve rites of empires lost and cultures often thought extinct.

Gerard Russell, a British-American ex-diplomat who lived in Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Kabul, is interested in the religions that have survived even when the big three have been at their most destructive. For years, he traveled to villages and shrines to meet with priests and ordinary adherents, even during the expansion of the Islamic State.

In the resulting book, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East” (Basic Books), Russell describes encounters with several of these groups, including the Yazidis, a Kurdish sect recently targeted for slavery and extermination by the Islamic State; the Mandaeans, who cast magic spells passed down since the Babylonians; and the Druze, a politically savvy group of philosopher-mystics in Israel and the Levant.


These minorities make up only a few million people out of the 300 million in the greater Middle East. Their remarkable survival, sometimes in continuous form for thousands of years, shows a forgotten side of a region more diverse than it appears. And their presence today also suggests that this was historically a place whose rulers were curious and open-minded, and seemingly less threatened by alternative views than their modern-day counterparts.

Yazidi men enter a shrine at the top of Mount Sinjar, northwest of Baghdad.Jacob Silberberg/Associated Press/file 2005

Russell spoke to Ideas from London.

IDEAS: Why are these minorities important?

RUSSELL: These disappearing religions connect us to ancient elements of human history, tell us things about ourselves that we didn’t know, and help us to understand that the Middle East is not just a place of conflict, but a place where people have coexisted more successfully than they do right now.

IDEAS: You begin by writing about the Mandaeans. Who are they and what do they believe?

RUSSELL: The Mandaeans have survived from thousands of years ago, and they come from the Iraqi marshes. They have Babylonian customs, including magical spells, but they practice baptism—for them, a sort of encounter with life-giving forces of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates—and they believe in John the Baptist, not Jesus, as a prophet. They believe in one god, but their god is a distant figure, more like the god of the philosophers than like the God of the Old Testament.


Their spells have been handed down faithfully through generations and make reference to the gods Baal and Astarte. Some of the pages of their books are mottled with damp: they will wet a drawing of something sacred, or of sacred words, then drink the water, which has become sacred by contact.

IDEAS: The Yazidis were briefly on the front pages of newspapers due to their being attacked by the Islamic State. In Iraq they are known as “devil worshipers.” Do they really worship Satan?

RUSSELL: The idea that they are devil worshipers is a complete fantasy. Every minority religion in the Middle East is accused of secret sex rites, worshiping false gods, having secret idolatry that happens between closed doors. What puzzles people is that they don’t believe that Lucifer is evil. They agree that the archangel Azazel rebelled against God, but they say he repented and was restored to favor. They call him the Peacock Angel, and they see him as good and benevolent.

IDEAS: We think of the Middle East as a rough neighborhood for religious minorities. How have these people managed to survive?

RUSSELL: If you look at aerial photographs of Iraq’s marshes, you can see that it is an archipelago, and would have been very difficult for an army—whether the Romans or the Persians—to invade. Religions or cults [like the Mandaeans or Manichaeans] could exist there for centuries free from interference. And governments have tended to be weaker in that part of the world, which is part of the reason for the diversity but also a reason for conflict. There isn’t anyone setting or enforcing rules. You had a whole culture in the countryside where pagan beliefs were still prevalent. In Europe, their counterparts did not survive.


But also, we have to remember that the [intolerance of] the Islamic State or the Ottoman Empire in its late stages are not typical of the sweep of Islamic history. You have times when the rulers in Baghdad wanted to learn from other religions. A famous pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, came from the city of Harran in southern Turkey, and was a mathematician, neither Christian nor Muslim, who prayed toward the sun three times a day. This man was invited to be a scholar at the court of the Caliph. It was a much better time, for openness to others’ ideas, than it seems we are in today.

IDEAS: Several of these religions are very secretive about their beliefs and practices. Why?

RUSSELL: If you have beliefs as the Druze or some Sufis have—that God took human form and the whole world is made of God—they can be easily and dangerously misunderstood. Some of these religions insist that holy books are to be read only by initiates who have earned the right to read them. If you want to be a Mandaean and read the holy books, you must become a priest. To do that, you must stay awake and not eat for seven nights and seven days and learn ritual words that are written for you by your bishop. He writes it for you on the ground with a stick, in the dust, which is then kicked over so no one else can read those words.

IDEAS: Why are these religions so small, relative to Christianity or Islam?

RUSSELL: Every major faith in the world today has at some point become a state religion, or adopted by an emperor, king, or other ruler. These [minority] religions generally have not. But also, they don’t believe in making converts, and in any case they couldn’t convert Muslims if they wanted to, because in the eyes of Islam a person who leaves the religion deserves death. They’ve learned to preserve their identity and live carefully, but at the price of remaining small and not putting their heads too high above the parapet.

IDEAS: You’ve worked in government and are now traveling and writing as a private person. What can you see now that you couldn’t see in an official capacity?


RUSSELL: Most governments don’t think religion is terribly important to discuss. One feels massively constrained from saying anything that’s interesting. But if you are not a person talking to them as a government representative, and you can prove that you are there to understand, then they will talk more openly. With the Druze, the icebreaker was Greek philosophy, because they have Greek philosophers as heroes, almost prophets, of their religion. As a student of Greek philosophy, it was fascinating to find kindred spirits in the Lebanese mountains. They could see that I understood and grasped some of the things they cared about.

IDEAS: What do we, and perhaps especially our governments, misunderstand about religion in the Middle East?

RUSSELL: When I look back on my own career and the history of British and American diplomacy, one of our biggest mistakes has been to underestimate religion’s huge galvanizing power. We should not try to reduce religion to politics and economics and assume that people are doing things for reasons we immediately understand. We tend to think that fundamentalists will compromise, because they want more power. But some people don’t want power: They want to go to heaven! We underestimate the sincerity of their beliefs, and for that reason we underestimate the threat they can pose to the kinds of societies we might want to see.

These religions really matter. I care about the Middle East, I love the people and the cultures. And they are multifarious and diverse, not monochrome, and that diversity and old spirit of tolerance is something we should work to preserve, and that Muslims should be proud of.


Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.


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