Gerard Russell: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

August 5, 2016

51XIUg+g1KL._AC_US160_I found this an absolutely fascinating read. Russell has travelled widely in the Middle East, including some extremely dangerous areas, visiting very small religious minorities whose faith, practices and very lives are now under threat, for a variety of reasons. He speaks local languages, and approaches his subjects with curiosity and an open mind, which is also a very well-informed one.

I think we tend to oversimplify things in the comfort of the West: here are Christians, there are Muslims, there are Jews, and so on. And we have a notion that there are many varieties of Christianity because that is our cultural background or origin; we have a vague awareness of Shia and Sunni Muslims and the fact that they currently don’t seem to get on; Jews are Jews…

In so many ways, the Middle East is the cradle and origin of much of what eventually became our civilisation. It is also the site of some of the very oldest civilisations on the planet. I find it desperately sad that so much of it is being wilfully destroyed, and so many people are being killed or enslaved in the name of religion. The more I read, the more I learn, and the more I come to realise that it was not always thus, that much of the warfare and horror is the product of Western interference and power politics. Historically, Islam has been a pretty tolerant religion, much more than Christianity; the Ottoman Empire permitted much religious freedom, too, although under threat and crumbling it also undertook the genocide of the Armenians in 1915…

Elsewhere I’ve written of William Dalrymple’s travels among the vanishing Christian groups in the Middle East, where communities are dying out or being driven out by increasing fundamentalism. Russell casts his net even wider, exploring the lives and beliefs not just of small Christian churches like the Copts in Egypt, but also small Jewish sects like the Samaritans – yes, they still exist, and I had no idea, and the Druze of Lebanon. I knew there were practising Zoroastrians somewhere but had little idea what they did or believed in; I’d never heard of the Mandaeans, or the Kalasha, a pagan sect in the Hindu Kush, living surrounded by Muslims…and we have all heard of the Yazidis of Syria and Iraq, driven out by the Islamic State, but do we know what they believe in?

The sadness becomes all the more pointed when, in an epilogue chapter Russell visits the exiled communities of a number of these churches in Detroit. Here they have their freedom, are not persecuted or killed, but they are many thousands of miles from their homelands, their roots, the places in which their religious practice is rooted and has its many hundreds of years of history; in a strange land they must make compromises, believers become assimilated, faiths ultimately will disappear.

I carry no card for religion as an oppressor of others, of non-believers; the freedom to believe and worship is also fraught with consequences, perhaps limiting the lives and opportunities of adherents, but equally something of the richness of our common past, our roots and our history is lost forever when fundamentalism and intolerance drives peaceable people away from their lands, beliefs and heritage.

An excellent book, written by someone who understands and cares.

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