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Mandaeans

Here lies the importance of the Mandaeans. Extremely tenacious, while adopting the new at some far distant syncretistic period, they also conserved the old so religiously and faithfully that one can disentangle the threads here and there, and point to this as Babylonian, to that as Mazdean, to this as belonging to a time when animal flesh was forbidden, to that as suggesting a phase when zealous reformers endeavoured to purge out some ancient and inherent beliefs.

At such a period as the last-named, the scattered religious writings of the Mandaeans were gathered together and edited. One may surmise that the editors and collectors were refugees, sophisticated priests who, returning to peaceful communities in Lower Iraq, were scandalized at their incorrigible paganism. The emended writings breathe reform and denunciation.

The core or nucleus, of the Mandaean religion, through all vicissitudes and changes, is the ancient worship of the principles of life and fertility. The Great Life is a personification of the creative and sustaining force of the universe, but the personification is slight, and spoken of always in the impersonal plural, it remains mystery and abstraction. The symbol of the Great Life is 'living water', that is flowing water, or yardna. This is entirely natural in a land where all life, human, animal, and vegetable, clings to the banks of the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It follows that one of the central rites is immersion in flowing water. The second great vivifying power is light, which is represented by personifications of light (Melka d Nhura and the battalions of melki or light spirits), who bestow such light-gifts as health, strength, virtue, and justice. In the ethical system of the Mandaeans, as in that of the Zoroastrians, cleanliness, health of body, and ritual obedience must be accompanied by purity of mind, health of conscience, and obedience to moral laws. This dual application was characteristic of the cults of Anu and Ea in Sumerian times and Bel and Ea in Babylonian times, so that, if Mandaean thought originated or ripened under Iranian and Far Eastern influences, it had roots in a soil where similar ideals were already familiar and where ablution cults and fertility rites had long been in practice.

The third great essential of the religion is the belief in the immortality of the soul, and its close relationship with the souls of its ancestors, immediate and divine. Ritual meals are eaten in proxy for the dead; and the souls of the dead, strengthened and helped, give assistance and comfort to the souls of the living.

The Mandaeans (or Subba) of Iraq and Iran

It is a peculiarity of the various communities and religions classed together as 'minorities' in modern Iraq that, for the most part, they 'keep to themselves', associating only with co-religionists and rarely marrying an outsider. Especially is this true of the Jews, the Yazidis, and the Subba. Though the last group are only a handful of people, surrounded by neighbours of other faiths, they never mingle with them or admit them to intimacy; while a Subbi who marries outside his race and creed automatically leaves it.

The appellation 'Subba' (singular Subbi) is a colloquial form which this people accept as reffering to their principal cult, immersion; but the more formal name of their race and religion, used by themselves, is Mandai, or Mandaeans.

In Arabic literature they appear as Sabe'e or Al-sabiun, and there can be little doubt that they are also identical with the Mughtasila amongst whom, according to the Fihrist, Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was born. Arab authors have sometimes confounded the Mandaeans with the Majus, or Magians, and not without reason, since the cults are similar. Travellers in the East were wont to refer to them as 'Christians of st. John', and Europeans who have come to Iraq since the Great War know them as 'the Amarah silverworkers'.

As the community is small and peace-loving, with no political aspirations, it has no place in history beyond the occasional mention of its existence, and the record that some of the most brilliant scholars of the early Moslem Caliphate were of its way of thought. To-day, the principal centres of the Subba are in southern Iraq, in the marsh districts and on the lower reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris; in the towns of Amarah, Nasoriyah, Basrah, at the junction of the two rivers at Qurnah, at Qal'at Salih, Halfayah, and Suq-ash-Shuyukh. Groups of them are found in the more northerly towns of Iraq: Kut, Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Kirkuk, and Mosul all have Subbi communities of varying size. The skill of the Subba as craftsmen takes them far afield, and Subbi silver-shops exist in Beyrut, Damascus, and Alexandria. In Persia the Mandaeans were once numerous in the province of Khuzistan, but their numbers have diminished, and the settlements in Muhammerah and Ahwaz along the banks of the Karun river are not so prosperous or so healthy as those in Iraq.

The racial characteristics of those people are, as regards the better classes, marked, and they can be distinguished by their unusual physical type. I have said 'better classes', and by that I mean Mandaeans who come of priestly families, who are strict as to unblemished pedigree, and look for perfect health when they take a wife. The priestly families have two distinct types, one wiry, tanned, and black-eyed; the other tall, white-skinned, or slightly bronzed, and with a proportion of blue eyes to dark of about three persons in twelve. The poorer Mandaeans of the marsh districts and Southern Persia are darker-skinned and smaller-bodied than the priestly caste, who are almost invariably of good physique. As a rule, Mandaean features are strong and handsome, the nose big, curved, and long.

During the British occupation and the early days of the mandate, as one walked between the Subbi silver-shops in River Street, Baghdad, one sometimes saw a board announcing the proprietor to be a 'St. John Christian', but these, now that Iraq has a national government, have disappeared. Like the followers of other secret religions, the Mandaeans, when talking to people of another faith, accentuate small points of resemblance between their beliefs and those of their hearers. To inquirers they will say, 'John is our prophet like Jesus' (or 'Muhammad', as the case may be) 'is yours'. I soon found that John the Baptist (Yuhana, or Yahya Yuhana) could not with accuracy be described as 'their prophet'; indeed, at one time I was tempted to believe that he was an importation from the Christians. I became gradually convinced, however, that he was not a mere accretion, and that he had real connexion with the original Nasurai, which was an early name given to the sect. Mandaeans do not pretend that either their religion or baptismal cult originated with John; the most that is claimed for him is that he was a great teacher, performing baptism in the exercise of his function as priest, and that certain changes, such as the diminution of prayer-times from five to three a day, were due to him. According to Mandaean teaching, he was a Nasurai; that is, an adept in the faith, skilled in the white magic of the priests and concerned largely with the healing of men's bodies as well as their souls. By virtue of his nasirutha, iron could not cut him, nor fire burn him, nor water drown him, claims made to-day by the Rifa'i darawish.

Jesus too, according to Mandaean theologians, was a Nasurai, but he was a rebel, a heretic, who led men astray, betrayed secret doctrines, and made religion easier (i.e. flouted the difficult and elaborate rules about purification).

The references to Christ (Yshu Mshiha) are, in fact, entirely polemical, and for the most part refer to the practices of Byzantine Christianity which awake horror in Mandaeans, such as the use of 'cut-off' (i.e. not flowing) water for baptism, and the celibacy of monks and nuns. The Haran Gawaitha (D.C. 9) mentions the establishment of Christian communities on Mount Sinai. In the cults, Jesus and John are both unmentioned. Siouffi's story that John's name is pronounced at baptism is a fiction. In no ritual is he mentioned or invoked, unless I except the dukhrana, when lists of spirits of light, holy men, and the righteous dead from the earliest times to the present are read; but in these lists he has no especial honour.

The explanation of the term 'Christian of St. John' lies therefore, not in the relation of either Christ or John to the sect, but partly in the fact that John is a useful name to produce to Christians, and has often cited to induce their toleration, and partly in the obvious cennexion between the word 'Nasurai' and the Arabic word for Christians-Nasara. I am not going to enter here the controversy which arose when Lidzbarski pointed out the philological difficulties which prevent Nasorai meaning 'a man from Nazareth'. So strong was his belief that it did it, that he suggested that the evangelists placed the childhood of Jesus at Nazareth to explain the tradition that he was a 'Nasurai'. His arguments are set forth in Mandaeische Liturgien, xvi ff., and in the introduction to his translation of the Ginza Rba.

In Mandaean manuscripts and legends, however, the word Nasurai is generally used in the sense indicated above, namely, 'one skilled in religious matters and white magic', while the Christians are usually called mshihiia, that is to say, 'followers of Messiah', or kristianaia, 'Christians'. Magic rolls bear the inscription, 'this is written from the nasirutha (i.e. priestly craft)of So-and-So'. Of John it is written in the Harran Gawaitha:

'When he was seven years old, Anush 'Uthra came and wrote the ABC (a ba ga) for him, until, when he was twenty-two years old, he had learnt all the priestly-craft (Nasirutha).'

In later manuscripts Nasurai are often mentioned as if they were of higher grade than laymen e.g. 'Nasurai and Mandai', while nowadays I hear the word sometimes applied to a priest who is especially literate, or reputed skilful in white magic. 'Ah, he is a real Nasurai!'

What is the root-meaning? Lidzbarski thinks it akin to 'observe', and deduces that the Nasurai were 'observers'. Another orientalist suggests that it may be analogous to the Syriac root nsr meaning 'to chirp, twitter (as a bird), utter broken sounds (as a magician), to chant, sing praises'.

Both these suggested root-meanings agree with the Mandaean conceptions. The Nasurai was an observer of stars and omens, of constellations, and of auspices. A Mandaean priest in Ahwaz, speaking of the secret knowledge transmitted from priest to priest, vaunted this secret knowledge.

'If a raven croaks in a certain burj (astrological house) I understand what it says, also the meaning when the fire crackles or the door creaks. When the sky is cloudy and there are shapes in the sky resembling a mare or a sheep, I can read their significance and message. When the moon (gumra) is darkened by an eclipse, I understand the portent: when a dust-cloud arises, black, red, or white, I read the signs, and all this according to the hours and the aspects'.

The second meaning also answers to the functions and nature of the Nasurai. No exorcism, no ceremony, no religious act is considered efficacious without a formula. Words have magic power. The mere utterance of a name will compel its owner to be at the service of the utterer, or at least, will summon his presence. Prayers, except when profoundly secret and pronounced 'in the heart', are spoken aloud. In short, the Mandaeans of to-day, like his predecessors in the land of Shumer long ago, believes in incantation.

The last name, Mandai, or Mandaeans, brings me to the question of the origin of these people. I discussed it originally in an article on the Mandi(cult-hut) in Ancient Egypt and the East, and the theory there tentatively proffered has lately received strengthening evidence from the Haran Gawaitha, a most interesting manuscript which, after years of effort, I succeeded in purchasing. Here, at last, I found what I had been looking for, definite information about the Tura d Madai (Mountain of the Maddai or Mandai), which figures in Mandaean tradition and legend.

The manuscript is broken, the beginning is missing, and it bears marks of shameless editing. Owing to this last, it is difficult to date it from internal evidence. Unlike the 18th book of the Ginza, it assigns 4,000 years to Arab rule before the advent of the 'lying Messiah', but, like the Ginza, says that 'the mud brick in the wall' will proclaim him. Bar Khuni in his 'Scholion' (A.D. 792) repeats the same legend.

On the other hand, tarmida is used in its ancient sense of 'disciple'. It is written after the Arab invasion, but the attacks on Islam are not so venemous as those on the Yahutaiia, which word is used throughout as meaning both 'Chaldeans' and 'Jews'.

The roll purports to be a history and prophecy combined, and is looked upon with the utmost reverence by the Mandaeans, though on account of its dangerously polemical character it has been always kept secret.

It starts in the middle of a sentence:
'The interior of the Haran (i.e. Harran) admitted them, that city which has Nasurai in it, so that there should not be a road (passage?) for the kings of the Yahutaiia (Chaldeans). Over them (the Nasurai) was King Ardban. And they served themselves from the sign of the Seven and entered the mountain of the Madai, a place where they were free from domination of all races. And they built mandis (mandia) and dwelt in the call of the Life and in the strength of the high King of Light.'

The birth of Jesus is narrated briefly, and-
'He perverted the words of the Light and changed them to darkness and converted those who were mine and perverted all the cults ('bidatha)....He and his brother established themselves on Mount Sinai and took unto themselves all nations and brought the people unto themselves and were called Christians (krastinaiia) and were called after Nazareth (Nisrath mdinta).'

Nazareth is identified with the city of Qum!
The miraculous birth of John (Yahya Yuhana) follows (the account differs from that in the Drasha d Yahya), and the story of his rearing in the 'white mountain' Parwan, of his baptism, education, and initiation into priesthood in the Mountain of the Madai. Later in the document the Mountain of the Madai is located, mitqiria Haran Gawaitha, 'which is called the Inner Harran'. A curious gloss, possibly interpolated, since it breaks the current of narration, says:

Abstracted from : Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, E.S. Drower, Leiden, 1962

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