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


What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy