|by Dr Siam Bhayro|
JewsIt is estimated that there are currently less than one hundred Jews remaining in Iraq. There are around forty in Baghdad, where there is still one functioning synagogue, and the rest live in the Kurdish con-trolled territories in Northern Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan. At its height in the seventh century, the Jewish community in Mesopotamia, the land of the two great rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates – numbered approximately two million. If the present rate of decline continues, we shall witness in our lifetime the cessation of a Jewish presence in Iraq. There will still be physical reminders of the Jewish presence in Iraq, such as the tombs of Ezekiel, Jonah and Ezra, which are important shrines for both Judaism and Islam. The Iraqi government renovated these sites and Saddam Hussein ordered that guards be posted to protect them from looting.
If the Jewish presence in Iraq ends, it will bring to an end over twenty-seven centuries of continued Jewish presence in that region – the longest period of continuous Jewish settlement anywhere on earth! The significance of this settlement lies not simply in its duration, but also in its prestige – it could be argued that the Jewish presence in Mesopotamia has produced the most important innovations in Judaism.
Firstly, it was in Iraq that Judaism as a faith was birthed. Until the Babylonian exile at the start of the sixth century BCE, the Israelites and Judeans were distinct national groups with geographical realms. Religion was centred at national sites, especially Jerusalem, and was based around a calendar, lists of sacrifices and a formal priesthood. Once Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple and brought the Jews to Babylonia (Iraq), however, the Judeans were deprived of their nation, their land and their prime external means of religious expression. In a new environment, the Judeans and the Israelites were forced to innovate in order to remain distinct from their surroundings. This innovation developed a faith based upon the study of the Torah (God’s Law) and prayer. Thus it is in the Book of Daniel, in the land of Iraq, that we first see a Jew praying three times a day – something that is practised in observant Jewish households to this day!
When the Jews were permitted to re-turn to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple, most opted to remain in Babylonia, and it is this Babylonian Jewish community that has continued to the present day. In the year 425 CE, the last in the line of the Jewish religious leaders based in the land of Israel died, and in 429 CE the Romans abolished this patriarchal office effectively ending Jewish religious government from a Palestinian centre. Thus the centre of Jewish scholarship shifted to Babylonia, where it continued for many centuries. For several centuries, the Babylonian Jewish community was the focus of Jewish scholarship and religious development. The Babylonian Talmud, the voluminous scholarly discursive commentary on Jewish law, was produced by this community in the sixth century CE, and remains the focus of Rabbinic Judaism to this day.
It is often said that the great epochs in Jewish history can each be associated with a great Jewish translation of the Bible. For example, the first great Jewish translation of the Bible was into Greek. It was produced in the third century BCE for the Jews of Alexandria (Egypt) and the rest of the Hellenistic world. It was essential because most Jews at that time could not read Hebrew, and so they needed a Greek translation of the Bible. The most recent great Jewish translation of the Bible was the German translation produced in the eighteenth century by Moses Mendelssohn. But in between these two, we have an equally significant translation – that of Saadia Gaon into Arabic, produced in the tenth century in Sura (Southern Iraq). This Arabic translation was essential because most Jews at this time did not know Hebrew. But crucially, from our perspective, much of our present knowledge about the Bible comes from Arabic scholarship of this period.
ChristiansIraq is also of prime significance for the history of Christianity. As the main Jewish community of the dispersion was in Babylonia, it is not surprising that the early church made concerted efforts to preach the gospel there. The apostle Peter wrote his first epistle in Babylonia, and the apostle Thomas is said to have travelled through Babylonia on his way to India.
The ‘Church of the East’ expanded rapidly and split from Rome in the fifth century due to the Nestorian controversy (a dispute about the nature of Christ). Eventually centred at Baghdad, the Eastern Church was far more prolific than the Roman church in missionary activity, establishing Orthodox Christianity throughout Persia, the former Asian Soviet republics, China, Japan and beyond! It suffered greatly at the hands of the Mongols, and eventually most chose to return under the banner of Rome in the sixteenth century. Today, there are approximately 850,000 professing Christians in Iraq, which amount to three per cent of the population – a significant religious minority, especially in the Islamic world. Of these, over 600,000 are Catholic of various persuasions, and over 200,000 are drawn from the various Orthodox churches. There are approximately 5,000 “others”, which includes Protestants and various fringe groups.
Baghdad remains an important centre for Christianity in the East, and to under-stand the reason for this, we have to understand the significance of Baghdad as a city. Established as the capital of the Abbasid dynasty (eighth to thirteenth centuries CE), Baghdad was always meant to be an international city in which, under Is-lam, every ethnic group and religion (except paganism which was not particularly appreciated) was to be represented. The Abbasids established a centre for knowledge, both secular and religious, and Jews, Christians and Moslems participated in a unique program of transmission. The ancient Greek works of the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods (approx. fifth century BCE until second century CE) were translated into Arabic, often through the medium of Syriac. The significance of this is that Syriac was a “Christian” language, and hence Christians were needed to participate in this program.
Because of what happened in Baghdad, the Arabs were able to bring Arabic versions of important medical, scientific and philosophical texts with them into Europe. These were then translated into Latin, and the result was what historians call the European Renaissance (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries CE) – the rebirth of knowledge in the West.
So why is all of this relevant? It is relevant for several reasons. Firstly, in a time of war, it is not uncommon for each side to “demonise” the other – to present them as backward savages whose way of life exists purely to destroy our way of life. It is only after the war ends that people start to become reasonable again, and realise that this simply was not true. This is certainly the case with Iraq. Secondly, Iraq is the cradle of civilisation. It is the suggested location of the Garden of Eden. It is where mankind’s first city was built. It is where Abram, the first monotheist and father of those who have faith in God, first heard and obeyed His voice. It is where Jews and Christians alike can see so much of their heritage (if it hasn’t been blown up). It is a land filled with an educated people whose natural disposition is to modernity and religious tolerance. It is where civilisation was once centred, and the place to which civilisation will one day return.
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Appeared in Issue 16 Vanguard - May 2003
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