Where Iraqi Jews and Muslims Once Made Joint Pilgrimages

March 13 2019

For centuries, Iraqi Jews made regular pilgrimages to a shrine marking the supposed burial place of the biblical prophet Ezekiel in the town of al-Kifl, located on the Euphrates River. Alex Shams relates the history of both the town and the tomb, which was venerated by Gentiles as well as Jews:

Ezekiel’s Tomb is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other, a reminder of the long Iraqi Jewish history on this soil. Inside the inner sanctum, Hebrew is engraved on wooden plaques and painted onto inscriptions on every side of the tomb. The coffin itself is covered in Arabic calligraphy wishing peace upon the prophet [Muhammad]. Ezekiel is mentioned in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures alike. . . .

The tomb is thought to date back to the 500s [CE], when Jews lived in a land that was [populated by] a mix of Christian, Zoroastrian, Manichean, Mandean, and polytheistic communities. When Islam arrived in Iraq, Ezekiel’s Tomb, like other shrines, added Muslim visitors to the mix.

This was a pattern across the Middle East, where Muslims—both from the Islamic armies and from locals who converted later—continued to revere local holy places, especially the graves of figures from the Abrahamic tradition. The same phenomenon can be seen at holy sites in neighboring Iran, too, like Daniel’s Tomb in Shush or the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan.

The historian Zvi Yehuda notes that the famed Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited [al-Kifl] in 1170, and at that time Jews would make a pilgrimage in the fall between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). . . . Yehuda argues . . . that the Jewish tradition of visiting Ezekiel’s shrine and prostrating before the tomb emerged after the arrival of Islam. . . . [Later on], in the 1800s and 1900s, Iraqi Jews made the pilgrimage—known by the Arabic term ziyara—to Ezekiel’s Tomb on the holiday of Shavuot.

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More about: Ezekiel, History & Ideas, Iraqi Jewry, Mizrahi Jewry, Muslim-Jewish relations


The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey