The Asian Age

The great­est melt­ing pot will soon be gone

- Tom Hol­land

As the fight­ers of the Is­lamic State drive from vil­lage to cap­tured vil­lage in their looted humvees, they criss- cross what in an­cient times was a ver­i­ta­ble womb of gods. For mil­len­nia, the Fer­tile Cres­cent teemed with a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of cults and re­li­gions. Back in the 3rd Christian cen­tury, a philoso­pher, Bar­daisan, was so over­whelmed by the sheer ar­ray of be­liefs to be found in Me­sopotamia that he in­voked it to dis­prove the doc­trines of astrol­ogy. “It is not the stars that make peo­ple be­have the way do but rather the di­ver­sity of their cus­toms.”

Bar­daisan him­self was a one- man mon­u­ment to Me­sopotamian mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. A Jewish con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, a Pla­ton­ist fas­ci­nated by the wis­dom of the Brah­mins, an in­hab­i­tant of the bor­der zone be­tween the Ro­man East and the Ira­nian em­pire of the Parthi­ans, he stood at the cross­roads where an­tiq­uity’s most po­tent tra­di­tions met and in­ter­min­gled. Just how far the process of blend­ing ri­val faiths could be taken was best il­lus­trated by a man born in Me­sopotamia a few years be­fore Bar­daisan’s death: a soi- dis­ant prophet called Mani. Brought up within a Christian sect that prac­tised cir­cum­ci­sion, held the Holy Spirit to be fe­male, and prayed in the di­rec­tion of Jerusalem, he fused el­e­ments of Chris­tian­ity with Jewish and Zoroas­trian teach­ings, while also claim­ing, just for good mea­sure, to be the heir of the Bud­dha. Although Mani him­self would end up ex­e­cuted by a Per­sian king, his fol­low­ers were not daunted. Cells of Manichaean­s were soon to be found from China to Carthage. Syn­cretic as their re­li­gion was, and global in its am­bi­tions, Manichaeis­m was a clas­sic Me­sopotamian ex­port of the age.

Nev­er­the­less, home of the cut­ting edge though the Fer­tile Cres­cent was through­out the first mil­len­nium AD, it simultaneo­usly nur­tured tra­di­tions of a fab­u­lous an­tiq­uity. Priests and as­trologers had been ac­tive in Me­sopotamia since the dawn of civil­i­sa­tion, and they still flour­ished even as the zig­gu­rats which had once dom­i­nated an­cient cap­i­tals such as Nin­eveh and Baby­lon crum­bled away into dust. In Harran, a city ly­ing on what is now the front­line be­tween Turkey and the Is­lamic State, the an­cient gods were wor­shipped well into the Christian era. Sin, the “Lord of the Moon”, con­tin­ued to be pa­raded ev­ery year through the streets and then fer­ried back to his tem­ple on a barge, while eerie fig­ures framed by pea­cock feath­ers stood guard over desert lakes. In a Fer­tile Cres­cent in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by monothe­is­tic au­to­crats, first Christian and then Mus­lim, the Har­ra­ni­ans clung stub­bornly to their wor­ship of the plan­ets.

Is­lam, rather as Manichaeis­m had done, fused el­e­ments drawn from nu­mer­ous tra­di­tions, and granted, in un­ac­knowl­edged recog­ni­tion of this, a high- handed tol­er­ance to those re­li­gions to which it stood in par­tic­u­lar debt. Jews, Chris­tians and a mys­te­ri­ous peo­ple named the Sabaeans: all were ranked in the Qu­ran as “Peo­ples of the Book”. Devo­tees of other gods, though, were re­garded with a stern dis­ap­proval. In the year 830, so it is said, the Caliph al- Mamun vis­ited Harran, and was ap­palled by what he found. The pa­gans were told to con­vert or face death. Most duly be­came Mus­lims; but a few, pulling a lawyer’s trick, de­clared them­selves to be none other than the Sabaeans. Only in the 10th cen­tury was their fi­nal tem­ple de­stroyed.

To this day, though, across the Fer­tile Cres­cent, there re­main com­mu­ni­ties which bear wit­ness to the ex­tra­or­di­nary an­tiq­uity of its re­li­gious tra­di­tions. There are the Man­daeans, who hold them- selves, as Mani did, to be sparks of a cos­mic light, and whose priests, like their Baby­lo­nian fore­bears, are ob­ses­sive as­trologers. There are the Alaw­ites, who re­vere Plato as a prophet, be­lieve in rein­car­na­tion, and pray to­wards the sun. There are the Yezidis, who re­vere the plan­ets, and like the Har­ra­ni­ans, hold a spe­cial place in their hearts for the pea­cock. Melek Taus, the an­gel whom they be­lieve to be God’s lieu­tenant here in the ma­te­rial world, wears the form of the bird; and back at the be­gin­ning of time, when the earth was noth­ing but pearl, he laid his feath­ers over it, and gave colour to its forests and moun­tains and seas.

Var­i­ous strate­gies were adopted by th­ese com­mu­ni­ties to sur­vive the dis­ap­proval of their Mus­lim over­lords. All of them kept the pre­cise de­tails of their faiths a se­cret; and all of them, when faced by bouts of per­se­cu­tion, would re­treat to marshes or moun­tain tops. The Man­daeans, copying the strat­egy of the Har­ra­ni­ans, were able to mar­ket them­selves as Sabaeans; the Alaw­ites, some of whom be­lieve Ali, Prophet Mo­hammed’s son- in­law, to have been the rein­car­na­tion of St Peter, took on a patina of Shi­aism. Even the Yazidis, who proudly keep a list of the 72 perse- cu­tions they have sur­vived over the course of the cen­turies, were some­times will­ing, when par­tic­u­larly hard- pressed, to ac­cept a nom­i­nal bap­tism from an amenable bishop.

It is hard to be­lieve, though, that they will sur­vive the 73rd per­se­cu­tion. Man­daeans, ex­posed to mur­der and forced con­ver­sions in the wake of Sad­dam’s over­throw, are now almost ex­tinct in Iraq. The fu­ture of the Alaw­ites is bound in­sep­a­ra­bly to that of their co- re­li­gion­ist, the blood- stained Pres­i­dent of Syria, Bashar al- As­sad. As for the Yezidis, tar­geted as they are for ex­ter­mi­na­tion by the slave- tak­ing, atroc­ity- vaunt­ing mur­der­ers of the Is­lamic State, how can they pos­si­bly sur­vive in their an­cient home­land? The risk is that all traces of what once, back in an­tiq­uity, made the area the most re­mark­able melt­ing pot in his­tory will soon have been erased. In cul­tural terms, it is as though a rain­for­est is be­ing lev­elled to pro­vide for cat­tle- ranch­ing. Not just a crime against hu­man­ity, it is a crime against civil­i­sa­tion. Tom Hol­land is the au­thor of In the Shadow of the Sword By ar­range­ment with the Spec­ta­tor

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