In Iraq, reverence for ancient tomb of a Jewish prophet

A Shiite Muslim worships at the tomb of Ezekiel, harking back to Iraq's shared heritage.

The bearded worshiper moved slowly round the shrine in his bare feet, uttering Muslim prayers and pausing every few steps to bend his head and kiss the golden cloth that covered the holy tomb.

The dome above him, though, bore the painted floral traces of a very un-Islamic past. And the script running around the walls also bore no relation to the flowing Arabic calligraphy that decorates most mosques in the Middle East.

It was in Hebrew. The body lying in the tomb that this devout Muslim was venerating is that of the prophet Ezekiel. And until just 50 years ago, the building sheltering it - first recorded by a 12th century Jewish pilgrim - was a synagogue.

I knew Muslims revered many Jewish prophets, and Jesus, too. But to see this Shiite Muslim paying respects at a site of Jewish pilgrimage more than two millenniums old was a striking reminder of how universal Iraq's heritage is.

Ezekiel, who preached to the Jews in exile by the waters of Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, lived here relatively recently, by Mesopotamian standards. At the time he wrote down his ecstatic visions in the 6th century BC, local people could already trace their history back 2,500 years, to the dawn of our civilization.

In contemporary terms, these last few weeks have been historic for the Middle East. And over the month and a half that I have been reporting from Baghdad, I have come to realize what an extraordinary privilege it has been to witness historic events in the land where mankind's recorded history began.

I have watched Iraqi society start to recreate itself, bereft of central authority, on the same soil where society as we know it first emerged 8,500 years ago - when nomadic hunters in northern Iraq stopped wandering and began to plant crops around the settlement of Jarmo.

Because for North Americans and Europeans it all began here, it is not surprising that the Garden of Eden was reputed to have been in Qurnah, near Iraq's outlet to the Persian Gulf. Abraham came from Ur, near Nasariyah.

The first human settlements, the first writing, one of the first-known legal codes, the first use of zero: the land now known as Iraq (which means "firmly rooted country") can boast them all. Those of us who saw the place through two-dimensional glasses that reduced it to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction have a lot to learn.

Not that we have not already learned. Few people superstitious about a black cat crossing their path know that they could trace their fear back to a Babylonian belief. Nor do many of us think of the Babylonians when we look at our watch faces, divided into 12 segments.

The average Iraqi, of course, is no more aware of his debt to ancient Mesopotamians than is the average Westerner, although Saddam Hussein's megalomanic propaganda made constant references to Iraq's glorious past.

But in Kifl, at any rate, the older people do remember the Jews, despite Mr. Hussein's efforts to obliterate and vilify their memory.

Until the early 1950s, when almost all Iraqi Jews moved to the new state of Israel, Ezekiel's tomb was a popular pilgrimage destination, attracting Jews from as far away as Calcutta.

The Muslims coveted it, too: 20 yards from the shrine, above the ruins of another mosque, stands a brick-faced minaret - built more than 1,000 years ago. A late 19th-century mayor of Kifl claimed it was evidence that the tomb was an Islamic holy place, because Jews didn't build minarets.

The Turkish sultan - who ruled the region at the time - first dispatched a team of officials from Baghdad, then a commission from Istanbul to get to the truth of the matter. Sitting in the shade of the antique tower (which today leans alarmingly), both sets of investigators compiled reports stating, contrary to the mayor's claims, that they had seen no sign whatsoever of a minaret.

Two contemporary chroniclers, one Jewish and one Muslim, suggested that this extraordinary oversight owed more than a little to the generosity with which the Jewish community of Kifl received the officials, and to the gifts with which they were sent on their way.

It is hard to see how the Jews might ever reclaim their synagogue today, however the new Iraq may turn out. But one can hope that all Iraqis, divided as they are into many ethnic and religious groups, will come to share the straightforward wisdom of Haji Hadi Mitaeb, a resident of Kifl for the past 88 years.

"I am an old man, I cannot read and I cannot write," he replied when I asked what he would think if the Jews returned to his town. "But a good man is a good man."

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