The Mandaeans

Who are the Mandaeans?

The Mandaeans are among the world’s oldest, smallest and least known religious communities. They have become the unintended victims of the American invasion of Iraq and the civil war that followed in its aftermath. For almost two millennia, they had been living in southern Iraq and Iranian Khuzestan, alongside the rivers that play such a dominant role in their religious life. From the early 1970s onwards, in a process of modernization and emancipation, they began to leave their traditional villages and settled in some of the larger cities: Baghdad, Basra, and Ahvaz, where they increasingly participated and began to thrive in the larger society of Iraq and Iran. Their status in Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1978-1979 was left unclear; despite reports of persecution they managed to survive in the Islamic Republic. In Iraq, a period of comparative tranquility and prosperity ended with the Iran-Iraq war, the double invasion of Iraq by a coalition of Western forces, and the civil war that followed, where neighbour turned against neighbour and the absence of central authority sponsored a climate of ethnic and religious cleansing.

The Mandaean Priests

The Mandaeans have a sharp division of roles between the priestly and the lay members of their communities. Like some of the other minority religions in the Middle East, they have invested the responsibility for the transmission of the tradition, and knowledge of the religion, in a small group of specialists. This allows the larger part of the community to live their lives in the certainty that the tradition will be passed on, that there are specialists available to be consulted on individual matters and to perform the necessary rituals according to the demands of the religion.

Most of the time this system has worked very well and has guaranteed the survival of the Mandaean religion to the present. Priests were not only responsible for the correct transmission of texts and rituals, but they also had to embody the majesty of the Mandaean tradition. But this system works best when the communities are close-knit and living very near each other. In this way the priests can always be available to guide their flock to the river for the celebration of the festivals and for the performance of life-cycle rituals. This pattern still continues in Iran, although almost wholly undocumented, but is severely threatened in Iraq.

For the Mandaeans in the rest of the world, there are difficulties – not only is there a shortage of priests, but the policy in many of their new homelands is to spread them all over the country, which lessens their chances of building up viable communities. But there are some encouraging signs from Australia and from Sweden that they are in the process of doing so. As a result, the number of Mandaeans in Iraq has dwindled, even though reliable statistics of the Mandaean communities are not available. Probably, out of a community of perhaps 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq, only a few thousand remain in there, with some 25,000 perhaps in Iran.

Most Mandaeans nowadays live in the diaspora: in Europe (5,000 in Sweden; 4,000 in the Netherlands; 2,500 in the UK, plus unknown numbers elsewhere on the continent), in America, in Australia and in various countries of the Middle East, especially Syria, where once again, they now face a highly uncertain future in a context of civil war.

Academic Studies of the Mandaeans

Academic interest in the Mandaeans has been capricious, but it has a long history. In fact, the Mandaeans were probably the first non-Islamic, non-Christian, non-Jewish religious minority of the Middle East to attract the attention of Western travelers, missionaries andscholars. Some of these initially believed them to be lapsed Christians and set out on an ambitious programme to reintegrate them into the Christian world, among others by relocating parts of the community to the Portuguese settlements in Goa, India. This was a colossal failure, especially once it was established that they were not Christians. Their subsequent reputation of being the descendants of the followers of John the Baptist ensured a lively interest in early modern Europe. Manuscripts were collected and studied, but most attempts to study the living communities were unsuccessful, largely because  Mandaean priests were unwilling to share their unique knowledge with outsiders (or even with lay members of the community).

The priestly tradition was severely threatened in the early nineteenth century, when all or almost all Mandaean priests died in an epidemic of cholera. It was only in the twentieth century, with the activities of the British author and wife of a diplomat, Lady E.S. Drower, that the Mandaeans opened their world to a European friend, and the collection of manuscripts Lady Drower brought together as well as her intimate acquaintance with the life of the Mandaean communities based on first-hand fieldwork in their traditional villages, has continued to form the basis of most works written on the Mandaean religion.

Almost all the academic work done so far has been stimulated by an interest in the earliest history of the Mandaean religion. In the early twentieth century, Mandaean texts were studied with the hope that they could be used to explain the rise of Christianity (and of the movement of John the Baptist), but this hope was quickly dashed, when the approximate date of most texts (from the third to the eighth centuries ce) was established. The interest then moved to the possibility these texts offered for an interpretation of the Gnostic movements of late Antiquity, for the Mandaeans were (and continue to be) seen as the “last remnants” of late antique Gnosticism. Unfortunately, this overriding interest in ancient texts and possible links with Gnosticism has badly impeded scholars' attempts to understand the world of the Mandaeans and of their priests.

In hindsight, it is difficult to understand how this could have developed, since the most important publication on the subject, Lady Drower’s The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford 1937)firmly stressed the fact that Mandaeans themselves considered their rituals to be more important, and older, than the texts, and firmly rejected the almost permanent temptation to view their tradition in a “Gnostic” frame (a category that has, at any rate, deservedly come under attack in recent times). The manuscripts probably reflect the early stages of Mandaean history, even though the physical manuscripts themselves are not very ancient. The writing of manuscripts is a priestly craft. Much of the history of Mandaeism from colophons added to the manuscripts by their copiers. These have yielded many valuable insights into the history of the community, which is otherwise almost entirely undocumented (see J.J. Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls. Reconstructing Mandaean History, Piscataway 2005).

The Mandaeans have therefore often been described as somehow frozen in history: a community that must be understood on the basis of a strongly preserved tradition. Everyone agrees that this tradition is severely threatened, a process that started in the 1970s, with the emancipation of the Mandaean laity and the attendant loss of prestige of the priesthood (something that happened to other minority religions in the Middle East). With the sudden migration of most Mandaeans to countries far away from their original home, this process has now reached potentially catastrophic dimensions.

Previous Mandaean heritage projects

During our documentation of this threatened heritage, we will inevitably also be exploring the priests’ thoughts about the new situation and the future of the Mandaean communities. Smaller projects have been undertaken in these areas, especially with regard to the documentation. Mr. Sabah Aldihisi has benefited from small pilot subsidies in the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, to document Mandaean rituals, as well as the rapidly vanishing neo-Mandaic dialect of Aramaic (the language once spoken by all Mandaeans, but surviving only among a few hundred speakers in Iran; the majority of the community have switched to Arabic in the twentieth century). Our team-member Yuhana Nashmi has also done some fieldwork on this subject, in Iraq.