You might have heard of the Yazidis—they’ve been having some trouble, these past few years, from IS militiamen. You might even have heard of Zoroastrians, whose traditional burial rites involve leaving their dead in “sky towers” to be devoured by vultures (neither earth nor fire may be used to dispose of a body). But the Kalasha, or the Kam? The Copts of Egypt? The Samaritans? Ever heard of any of those? If not, don’t fret: Gerard Russell’s fantastically accessible and engaging book on minor religious traditions of the Middle East will tell you all about them. Russell is a former diplomat who has worked in Kabul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jeddah, amongst other places; he doesn’t make many appearances in his own book, so that the impression the reader receives is of a pleasant, somewhat diffident man. (A photo of him partaking of local drinks with some Kalasha men seems to bear this image out.) Although each chapter involves him visiting an area of the Middle East where the religion in question is still practiced—the book therefore constituting a travelogue as well as a theology and history text—Russell’s personal experiences are rarely foregrounded. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is about the heirs of its title, the men, women and children who still practice arcane, even archaic, religious observances, and about what their lives are like.
Inevitably, Russell must discuss diasporas, and the relative ease or difficulty of maintaining the practice of a very small religion outside of its native land. Several of the belief systems he discusses are characterised by their secrecy. Only priests or elite members of the religious hierarchy of the Druze, for instance, are allowed to know what the whole thing is actually about: their followers are not required to read holy books or to keep any particular form of observance in dress, diet, abstinence, or really any other way. What is required of a lay Druze is the willingness to say “I am a Druze”, and to accept that the full meaning of that allegiance will probably remain forever closed to you. One woman recalls moving to America as a child and trying to explain her suspiciously lax religion to her teacher, who assumed she was lying. Only when her mother was asked, and confirmed that indeed their faith required absolutely nothing of them, did the teacher (apparently, though I’m sure she still didn’t really) believe her. But, as Russell notes, this also means it’s very hard to maintain a community of Druze outside of Lebanon. How do you protect and cultivate an identity which has no identity markers?
Some of the oldest of these religions are dead ends of Christianity or Islam, versions of those religions that stayed put when the majority of believers moved on to different, centralised, or officially sanctioned forms of worship. The creed of the modern-day Mandaeans, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to that of the early Christian sect the Marcionites, as well as to the beliefs of the highly popular and influential Manichaeans (Saint Augustine was one, before becoming a Christian). To an extent, these likenesses seem unremarkable: all of these versions of belief were developing around the same times, and around the same places. It should not strain our credulity that the two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, appear in multiple different belief systems. But the idea that watching a Mandaean rite gets you closer to the experiences of Christ’s early followers than going to Mass does is an extremely enticing one. Moreover, it clarifies just how much major world religions have changed over the centuries, or millennia, of their existences. It’s hard to believe in the immutability of doctrine after reading Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.