KIFL, IRAQ - A prayer in Arabic resounds around the ancient shrine, seeming to ricochet off the walls with their faded Hebrew texts. Reciting loudly, a corpulent Iraqi soldier stands next to the tomb, which is covered with a green cloth featuring a Quranic text embroidered in gold. He is addressing the Prophet Ezekiel next to what used to be the synagogue of Kifl, a small town in the Shi'ite heartland of Iraq.
For centuries, the synagogue and the purported grave were a pilgrimage site for Jews from all over Iraq, but most of them fled to Israel in the early 1950s, and most of the rest left in the 1970s. Now the synagogue built around Ezekiel’s purported tomb, together with part of the old Jewish quarters attached to it, is part of the Shi'ite mosque of Al-Nukhailah.
But Ezekiel’s tomb is slowly becoming a site of pilgrimage again – this time by Muslims and even the tensions between the United States and Iran that are playing out in Iraq do not affect it. With the American drone attack on an important Iranian general in Baghdad, the retaliatory rockets fired by Iran and pro-Iranian militias at American troops in Iraq, and the thousands of protesters who have been on the streets since October demanding an end to corruption – the ancient shrine remains a quiet and magical place that is open for all visitors.
After a dip in the numbers in October, when people from outside the area were afraid to travel because of the demonstrations all over the South of Iraq, they are now back to normal again.
For Ezekiel is not only known to Judaism and Christianity: he is also one of 24 Christian and Jewish prophets listed in the Quran, says Ahmed Abdelrahman, 31. He was hired as a guide to inform visitors about the shrine and thus attract more pilgrims. According to him, the shrine’s building is over 1,800 years old.
In the Quran, Ezekiel’s name is Thel Kifl (though Iraqis call him Hidkel), and the town was called after him. Yet until the recent extension to the mosque, most Muslims considered the shrine to be purely Jewish. “They hesitated to come here,” Abdelrahman says, hence his appointment.
He also has a personal connection to the site: his grandfather Haji Thrab, who Abdelrahman points out in photographs from 1932 wearing Arab dress among a group of people in the old synagogue. “They are all Jews,” he says about the group, some of whom are wearing European clothes, others flowing robes and a fez. Because of his good relations with the Jews, Haji Thrab was appointed the synagogue’s caretaker when they left Kifl.
Exile to Mesopotamia
Jews and Iraq go back a long way. The relationship started in 740 B.C.E., give or take a decade, when Assyria began a series of assaults on the Kingdom of Israel. At least thousands of Jews were forcibly relocated to Mesopotamia.
It was Jews who settled in Babylon, just miles from Kifl, who would write the Babylonian Talmud (the Talmud Yerushalmi was written by Jews who remained in Israel).
Ezekiel ben-Buzi was born in Jerusalem to a family of rabbis in 623 B.C.E., according to the biblical account. He was 25 years old when he was deported by King Nebuchadnezzar after a protest staged against his reign.
Five years after his arrival in Babylon, Ezekiel predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. When that happened in 586 B.C.E., a new wave of deportations to Mesopotamia followed.
Ezekiel called on the Jews in exile to live in peace with each other and with God. His final vision told him that they would eventually return to Palestine, rebuild the Temple, and reunite the House of Israel. He was 52 when he made this prediction, in roughly 571 B.C.E.
The Book of Ezekiel is part of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout Jewish history, this promise of return would serve as a ray of light for Jews scattered around the world.
How historical is the figure of Ezekiel, anyway? “He probably did exist,” says Elon Gilad, an expert on Hebrew language and Jewish history. “He may well have written some of the Book of Ezekiel, around the first 15 chapters or so, or possibly a scribe was jotting down what he said.”
However, biblical scholars generally agree that much of the book consists of later additions, based on differences in style, language and interests, Gilad explains.
In any case, it seems the shrine to Ezekiel was built in the second century C.E., centuries after his death in 569 B.C.E., based on the tradition of where the prophet had been put to rest.
Gate to Palestine
Inside the shrine is the "Gate to Palestine," a shallow niche built into the wall and hidden behind wooden doors, which was recently secured with a blue mesh. People have attached green wish ribbons to the mesh, a traditional way of conveying wishes to saints of different religions.
“They did something here with their book and candles,” says Abdelrahman vaguely, referring to the use of the niche during the years when this was still part of a synagogue, “it was holy to them.” Possibly the Torah was kept there, but now the niche is empty.
Above it, a stone with Hebrew writing is attached to the wall. According to tradition, the stone used to be part of Ezekiel’s grave before his simple burial place was replaced with the covered tomb that holds his supposed remains today. However, the style of the Hebrew writing indicates that it is a relatively modern artifact; theoretically it could have been a copy of a more ancient plaque.
Although the shrine is now part of a Shi'ite mosque, it remains richly decorated with Hebrew texts.on all of the walls. One can still make out flowers and some painted three-armed candlebra at the base of the dome. But time has darkened the paintings, and the absence of change has also meant neglect, as the shrine needs cleaning, restoration and care. Possibly its Jewish roots are damping enthusiasm to come up with the funds required as it is part of a Shi'ite mosque now.
Perhaps the example an American cultural heritage organization set in the Kurdistan region could be followed here too. There, in the village of Al Qosh, the neglected synagogue holding the purported grave of the prophet Nahum is being restored with money collected from international sources. Nahum was a contemporary of Ezekiel and predicted the fall of the Assyrian empire.
This is the only synagogue in Iraq that is still standing and has not been converted into a mosque.
The Prophet Ezekiel would never see the land of his birth again. He died in 569 B.C.E. in Kifl, where tradition says he was buried.
It is not clear when his grave became the focus point for a yearly Jewish pilgrimage on the sixtieth day after Passover, but the custom persisted until recently, even though the dictator Saddam Hussein confiscated the building in the 1970s. The state kept the building and turned it into a mosque, but because of Saddam’s animosity towards the Shi'ite majority, it was only handed over to the Shi'ite endowment authorities in 2003, after his fall.
In 2008, the original synagogue building was demolished and a new mosque with the traditional Shi'ite blue tiled dome was erected. The shrine, its dome and an old leaning tower in which storks have nested for centuries, are all that remain of the original structure.
After over 2,000 years of cohabitation, hardly any Jews remain in Iraq today, following decades of anti-Semitism. There was a major wave of departures after Saddam began to target and execute Jews in the 1970s.
In the recent past, an Iraqi Jewish woman who wants to remain anonymous for her safety and went on the pilgrimage herself as a child recounts, Jewish pilgrims would dress as Muslims in an attempt to attract less attention when they came for their yearly visit. The pilgrimage only truly stopped when the country descended into violent sectarian struggle after Saddam’s fall.
Abdelrahman hopes that restoration works being done at the tomb now will reverse that.
The anti-Semitic mood never did reach Kifl, he says. Jews and Muslims in the town lived amicably: “The Jews allowed Muslims to visit the grave. It was for the whole community, they said.”
And now too, foreigners are welcome, says Abdelrahman. When asked indirectly if this goes for Jews, too, he says he hopes people from all over the world will come and visit, which is an indirect answer to an indirect question. Walking in the old Jewish souk, which has also been reconstructed and renamed ‘Daniel’s Bazaar’ after a well-known Iraqi Jewish businessman and benefactor, he points to an old door largely hidden between the stores. It leads directly to the shrine, and the plan is to restore this entrance “for foreign visitors.”
Female visitors visiting the site presently have to don a black chador to cover their hair and body, which would not be necessary if they didn’t have to walk through the mosque but use this separate entrance.
Abdelrahman personally appreciates the contribution of the Jews to Iraq: “They did so much for this country. I think they are Iraqi and want to come home,” he says.
Yet the stories he focuses on as he guides people around the shrine are mostly connected to Islam. Like the one about the imams who followed Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and met in Kifl in 680, before going to battle with the Omayyad caliph, Yazd—a battle that would end in their defeat just a few miles away at Karbala, and would split Islam.
Another story he tells is about the shrine itself: Abraham, a patriarch in all three monotheistic faiths, is said to have visited Ezekiel’s grave. He is supposed to have left a piece of rock behind, which became the reason people would visit the shrine for centuries in search of healing. Until the rock was stolen, that is, some 50 years ago. “By a woman, who borrowed it to heal a culturally sensitive part of her body,” Abdelrahman says with a smile. She never returned it.
In any case, by the time “Abraham’s rock” was expropriated, most of Iraq’s Jews had already left. The disappearance of the revered rock also removed another reason for people to visit the shrine. Now the Shi'ite authorities hope to give the ancient Jewish shrine a new lease of life by reviving and stimulating interest in the Prophet Ezekiel among their own believers and attracting foreign tourists. Perhaps, one day, that invitation will be overtly extended to Jews, too, so they can visit a shrine that is as much part of their history as it is part of Iraq’s heritage.
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