The Forgotten Religions

Rock Formations
The Mandaeans Of Iraq

Chapter 1: The Mandaeans

Originally Aramaic speakers, living in Iraq's southern Marshes and numbering a few tens of thousands, the Mandaeans practice baptism and look forward to an eternal afterlife in the Light-World. They preserve several of the customs of the last age of the city of Babylon, although their scriptures date from the second or third centuries AD. The chapter describes Mandaean life as experienced by an Iraqi woman who survived sanctions and war, but who could not endure Iraq's post-2003 chaos.

The Ezidis Of Lalish

Chapter 2: The Ezidis

Also known as Yezidis, even the name of this group is somewhat mysterious: speakers of a Kurdish dialect, numbering in their own estimates up to a million people scattered across the region, their practices and beliefs have much in common with the pre-Christian peoples of southern Turkey and northern Iraq. The cult of Mithras in ancient Rome shared many of their customs. Long unjustly accused of devil-worship, they believe that the lord of this world, Melek Tawus, known also as Iblis, repented of his sins and can rightly be revered in his form of a peacock. Right now, they are being slaughtered by the terrorist group ISIS which has just captured the Ezidi heartland of Sinjar.

The Zoroastrans

Chapter 3: The Zoroastrians

Followers of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra - who lived perhaps around 1000 BC, in central Asia - Zoroastrians are more common today in India (perhaps 70,000) than Iran (10,000). In Iran they endured centuries of marginalisation, and have maintained until recently their customs of revering the four elements (especially fire), and treating life as an active battle against the forces of evil.

The Druze

Chapter 4: The Druze

Numbering around a million, the Druze are followers of an esoteric form of Islam which stresses wisdom rather than conformity to law. Their elders pray and live austere lives, while the average Druze has almost no religious obligations. They believe in reincarnation, and revere the Greek philosophers as well as more conventional Muslim (and Christian and Jewish) figures.

The Samaritans

Chapter 5: The Samaritans

Numbering just over 750 people, the Samaritans are the smallest community featured in the book. They keep the customs of the people of Israel as they were before the fall of the Jewish Temple, including with an annual sacrifice of lambs at Passover. At the same time, they are not actually Jewish: they trace their ancestry back to the ten so-called "lost" tribes of Israel, have a special reverence for Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus, and hold Palestinian as well as Israeli ID cards.

The Copts

Chapter 6: The Copts

Numbering many millions, and famously devout, the Copts follow a specifically Egyptian version of Christianity which has preserved the early Christian church's rigorous fasts and its schedule of daily prayers. The Coptic language, which is undergoing a small-scale revival, is a version of pharaonic Egyptian (though influenced a great deal by Greek). The last few years' political upheavals led Copts to emigrate from Egypt in unpredecented numbers.

The Kalasha

Chapter 7: The Kalasha

Up in the valleys of Pakistan where it meets the border of Afghanistan, almost at the heart of the War on Terror, live Pakistan's last remaining pagans the Kalasha. Last remnant of a warrior people who for millennia resisted outside influences, including Islam, they still practise their traditions of dancing, wine-making and polytheism on snow-girt, hardscrabble mountainsides.

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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

ISIL wants to kill them, and Western history books have forgotten them. This book describes seven endangered religions in the Middle East that have roots in the distant past.

Gerard Russell - Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms