Report: Hebrew Inscriptions Removed from Jewish Holy Site in Iraq

From the Christian Science Monitor, June 2003:

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.

…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.”

The Jerusalem Post, May 2009:

The Iraqi government has launched a project to renovate the interior of the prophet Ezekiel’s shrine in the small town of Kifl, south of Baghdad, and the country’s Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities says it hopes to eventually repair and renovate other Jewish sites across the country.

“The ministry is concerned with all Iraqi heritage, whether it is Christian or Jewish or from any other religion,” ministry spokesman Abdelzahra al-Talaqani told AFP. “The present plans do not include the synagogues in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah and other places because of lack of funding, but I think they will be included in future plans.”

…It had been protected by Saddam Hussein as a holy site.

Shelomo Alfassa, December 2009:

The Iraqi news agency Ur news has revived fears that under pressure from Islamic political parties, the original Hebrew inscriptions and ornamentation on the walls around the tomb of Ezekiel are being (or have been) removed, this under the pretext of restoring the site. According to sources, the Antiquities and Heritage Authority in Iraq has been pressured by Islamists to historically cleanse all evidence of a Jewish connection to Iraq…

For Arabic readers, the Ur report can be seen here. Some caution is required: this report (via Google translation) and a piece in Arutz Sheva rely on unnamed “sources” and second-hand accounts for the story, and even Alfassa calls it a “rumour”. The “Islamic political parties” are unnamed, and there is no word from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Clearly, though, this is an issue which deserves further scrutiny.

The origin of the building is somewhat mysterious; a twelfth-century report by the traveller Benjamin of Tudela contains obviously legendary elements:

On the banks of the Euphrates stands the synagogue is fronted by sixty towers, the room between every two of which is also occupied by a synagogue; in the court of the largest stands the ark, and behind it is the sepulchre of Ezekiel, the son of Busi, the Cohen. This monument is covered by a large cupola, and the building is very handsome; it was erected by Jeconiah, king of Judah, and the 35,000 Jews who went along with him, when Evil Merodach released him from the prison, which was situated between the river Chaboras and another river. The name of Jeconiah, and of all those who came with him, are inscribed on the wall, the king’s name first, that of Ezekiel last.

This place is considered holy unto the present day, and is one of those to which people resort from remote countries in order to pray, particularly at the season of the new year and atonement day. Great rejoicings take place there about this time which are attended even by the Prince of the Capitivity and the presidents of the Colleges of Baghdad. The assembly is so large that their temporary abodes cover twenty miles of open ground, and attracts many Arabian merchants, who keep a market or fair.

On the day of atonement, the proper lesson of the day is read from a very large manuscript Pentateuch of Ezekiel’s own handwriting.

A lamp burns night and day on the sepulchre of the prophet, and has always been kept burning since the day that he lighted it himself; and the oil and wicks are renewed as often as necessary. A large house belonging to the sanctuary contains a very numerous collection of books, some of them as ancient as the second, some even coeval with the first temple, it being customary that who ever dies childless bequeths his books to the sanctuary. Even in time of war neither Jew nor Mohammedan ventures to despoil and profanate the sepulchre of Ezekiel.

For Muslims, the tomb belongs to Dhul-Kifl, a prophet who is identified with Ezekiel but who also seems to have a separate identity. An essay by David Cassuto observes that the tomb “resembles the Islamic tombs in mosques”. Writing as a complete amateur, I wonder if the lamp supposedly burning since it was lit by Ezekiel (long gone today) is suggestive that the building was constructed on a site used by Zoroastrians.

A minaret from the remains of an old mosque can be seen next to the synagogue, and this led to a Muslim claim on the site in the nineteenth century. The Christian Science Monitor tells us that:

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.

4 Responses

  1. Shame on the Iraqi government. And shame on the West for causing such sectarian division.

  2. …It had been protected by Saddam Hussein as a holy site.

    That one sentence says a lot, doesn’t it?

    We’ve opened Pandora’s Box in Iraq and there’s going to be hell to pay down the line for the invading armies.

  3. Not sure I’d believe anything in the sectarian Arutz Sheva

  4. No longer a rumour – eyewitnesses have confirmed ‘irreversible damage’

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