was one of the main birthplaces of the Jewish people from
its earliest times, as well as the place where the foundations
of Judaism as we know it today were constructed. The area
between the River Tigris and Euphrates, approximating to
modern day Iraq, can lay claim to a greater part of our
history as a nation and as a religion, than any other place.
Not only was it from there that Abraham emerged as the founder
of our people on his journey to Israel, but it was here
that the Jews had autonomy for most time as a people for
over 1,000 years, here that the Babylonian Talmud was created
from where it formed the framework for rabbinic Judaism.
It was in Babylon that the synagogue and the love of learning
story starts in Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, where Abrams
father Terah, the head of an Aramean Nomadic family escaped
from there in the face of an annihilating attack by Elamite
hords attacking Sumaria in about 1960 BCE. An attack in
which Ur was destroyed. Terah made his way north with his
family to Harran where he died. The succession fell to Abram,
his eldest son. Unlike his father, a polytheist worshipping
idols, Abram was a monotheist. He broke with idolatry, and
turned to the service of the one and only God whom he recognised
and by whom he was re-named Abraham. This was not a God
restricted to one locality, but the Creator of Heaven and
Earth, independent of nature and geographical limitation,
and essentially an ethical God to whom justice and righteousness
was of supreme concern.
south along the eastern bank of the Jordan, he crossed into
the land of Canaan to Shechem near Jerusalem. According
to Josephus, Abraham was called "The Hebrew" in
reference to his ancestor Heber mentioned in the Bible.
The Hebrews appear again on the Mesopotamian scene over
a thousand years later, when Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful
Babylonian King conquered the Kingdom of Judah and captured
Jerusalem in 597 BCE, and deported leading Jews to Babylon.
After a rebellion by Judah, Jerusalem and the Temple were
destroyed in 586 BCE, and most of the inhabitants were deported.
the last group of Jews arrived in Babylonia, they found
two other groups of Hebrews already there. One group, there
for only eleven years, were recent newcomers still learning
to cope with a new life.
The other group were the descendants of those deported by
the Assyrians in 721 BCE from the northern kingdom of Israel.
However, unlike their predecessors, the later exiles of
Judah did not assimilate, because they were more attached
to their religious traditions. The prophet Jeremiahs
advice to the exiles was: build houses and live in them,
plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have
sons and daughters, multiply there and do not decrease.
And seek the welfare of the City where God has sent you
into exile, and pray to the Lord for its peace, for in its
peace you will find your peace.
became the charter for all the diasporas.
48 years of the destruction of Jerusalem, Babylon was conquered
by the Persian King Koresh, Cyrus the Great. He allowed
the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Forty thousand did, but the majority stayed in Babylon.
was the policy of the Achaemenian rulers, from Cyrus down,
to tolerate the cults of the subjugated nationalities throughout
their empire. Jews in Babylonia worked mainly as farmers
as they had in the Holy Land but they also worked as bakers
and brewers, weavers, dyers and tailors, shipbuilders and
woodcutters. There are records of Jewish blacksmiths, tanners,
fishermen, sailors and porters. Street vendors eked out
a modest living while men of commerce exported grain, wine,
wool and flax, and imported silk, iron and precious stones.
was at this time that the foundations of the synagogue were
laid. The synagogue met the needs of the exiles in more
than one sense. It was natural for those living near one
another to meet on the days they did not work, the Sabbath,
Festivals and Fast days. Without a Temple, they could not
sacrifice, but they could sing songs which accompanied the
sacrifices and which the scribes had preserved
the meantime, the Jewish community in Babylon contributed
much towards the rebuilding of the structures in Israel.
The High Priest Joshua, thought to be Deutero Isaiah and
the Prophet Ezekiel are buried in Babylon.
Babylonian, Ezra the scribe gave Judaism the decisive impulse
that eventually produced the Pharisee movement and the rabbinical
system. He changed the Hebrew alphabet, and set himself
to make the Torah the governing force in Jewish life. It
is said of him that if the Torah had not been given to Moses,
Ezra would have been worthy to receive it. His shrine (shown
on the cover of this issue) stands in Southern Iraq.
the year 331 BCE, the Achaemenians lost control of Babylonia
when their armies were defeated by Alexander the Great in
the Battle of Gaugamela near Arbil (Arbela). The Persian
troops stationed in the capital Babylon surrendered without
fighting and the Macedonian conqueror made a triumphal entry
into the old Semitic metropolis. Alexander went on with
his swift conquest all the way to India. Two years later
he was back in Babylon where he was struck by fever and
died there at the age of thirty-two.
one of Alexanders Generals, made himself master of
Babylon, and the large Seleucid empire ruled Babylonia for
just over two centuries to 126 BCE.
126 BCE, forty years after the Maccabian revolt in Israel,
the Seleucid empire was driven out from Babylon by the Parthians,
another Persian group, whose Arsacid dynasty provided 350
years of reasonably stable Persian rule, which though it
had its ups and downs for the Jews, was generally a benign
period. The Arsacids were concerned with fostering local
support among indigenous populations and so made little
effort to impose their culture and religion over them. Palestinian
Jewry under the Hasmoneans, and Arsacid Parthia had a common
interest in the destruction of the Seleucid Greek power.
the beginning of the present era there were many conversions
to Judaism all over the Middle East. In about 40 CE, in
northern Iraq, the Royal Family and many of the people of
Adiabene became Jews. It is estimated that there may have
been as many as one million Jews around Babylonia at that
when in the year 363 the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate
offered Babylonian Jewry to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem
if they turned against their Persian rulers, they refused.
reinforcement saw the establishment of a position called
the Resh Galuta which is Aramaic for Head of the Exiles,
or Exilarch. The holder of this position exercised government
over all Babylonian Jewry and Jewry within the Parthian
empire. The holders of the office traced their lineage back
through the male line to King David and they passed the
position within the family, mostly from father to son for
the Parthian rule the Exilarch had his own courts and prisons
and collected taxes on behalf of his administration and
the central government. There are even records of capital
punishment being meted out. This autonomy continued during
Sassanian rule, though the powers of the Exilarch were initially
severely restricted until the Jewish government accepted
State Law on certain matters such as land tenure and payment
of taxes, summarised by the principle of dina de malchuta
dina (secular law is law) which remains a basic Jewish principle
of the fourth century saw Jewish persecution in Babylonia,
with many killed, and children given to Mazdean Priests.
Jews were even forbidden to light Shabbath candles. When
the Sasanians embraced briefly the teachings of Mazdak which
included the sharing of property and women, the Exilarch
Mar Zutra II expelled the Mazdakites in the year 513, and
declared an independent state which lasted seven years,
until he was captured and killed in 520.
idea grew among the Jews of Babylonia that knowledge was
an important acquisition. The ignoramus was to be despised,
and a mans standing in the community began to depend
not so much on family and wealth as on intellectual endeavour
and achievement. Young and old became interested in acquiring
knowledge. A young man was counselled to sell if necessary
all he possessed to marry the daughter of a learned man.
Gradually Jews experienced a kind of cultural democracy.
The synagogue had eliminated the priestly intermediary,
and education made the Torah available to all. The Torah
was read and explained on Shabbat, but since farmers lived
some distance from synagogues, and could not travel on Shabbat,
portions of the Torah were also read on market days, Mondays
and Thursdays. In the Holy Land they read the whole Torah
over a three year cycle instead of the Babylonian one year
cycle which has prevailed.
academies also grew in Nehardea, Sura, and Pumbedita, and
while people such as the great Hillel the Babylonian used
to go to Jerusalem to study, the centre of gravity of Jewish
learning gradually shifted to Babylon. In 219 CE Rav returned
to Babylonia and formed the Sura Academy. It was here that
the Amoraim over many generations (about three centuries)
did their work to explain or complete the Mishna. The word
Gemara is from the Aramaic word completion.
Gemara exists in two versions: the Jerusalem Talmud and
the Babylonian Talmud, but it is the Babylonian Talmud that
has had the greatest influence on Judaism, as we know it.
This is partly because it was focused more on issues important
in the Diaspora, partly because the Babylonian community
governed itself and so the rules had a direct relevance,
and also because this resulted in more polishing of the
work by repeatedly revisiting and explaining difficult passages.
Also the tyranny of Rome in Judea had prevented the completion
of the Jerusalem Talmud.
641 CE the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia with the help of
Babylonian Jewry who had been suffering from Masdakite religious
fanaticism. Such great help was given to the Muslims by
the Jews that when the Muslims conquered Persia the two
daughters of the Shah were taken by the Caliph Omar, who
married one and gave the other in marriage to the Exilarch
Bustanai. Muslims divided the world into two main domains;
Dar Al-Islam (the domain of Islam), and Dar Al-Harb (the
domain of war) but in between they introduced the concept
of Dar Al-Sulh (the domain of conciliation) which belong
to such peoples as Jews and Christians (the people of the
Book) called Dhimmis to whom toleration and protection was
extended by treaty, in return for protection money called
Jezia. The life of the Jews of Babylonia under Islam took
a turn for the better, partly because of the affinity between
the two religions.
is more, the very expansion of the Muslim empire and the
establishment in 762 CE of Baghdad as the capital of the
Moslem world, and the seat of the Caliphate, opened up extraordinary
opportunities for commerce as well as for the extension
of the influence of the Babylonian academies.
a result, one of the main activities of the academies of
Sura and Pumbeditha and one of the most significant functions
of their heads, the Geonim, was answering queries coming
from Jewish communities near and far. These answers were
given in Teshuboth, responsa. The questions touched on the
whole range of law and the plain meaning of a talmudic phrase
or the order of prayers, or points of dogma or history.
The answers were often read in public, in synagogues and
schools, with copies made and carried to other communities.
Subsequently a whole body of collected responsa literature
evolved. Many of the remote communities of the diaspora
survived on the intellectual guidance coming from Babylonia.
Many Geonim in the four centuries after the Muslim conquest
had a great reputation throughout the Jewish world. One
notable among them was Saadia Gaon of Sura in the
10th Century who composed a Book of Seasons about the Jewish
calendar, an Arabic translation of the Bible for the common
people, and a philosophical justification of Judaism. Another
notable Gaon was Samuel Ibn Al-Dastur who also had a daughter
who was so learned that she taught the students, but had
to do so from inside a building through a window, so the
students below her could not see her.
the period of Geonim, and perhaps in part as a reaction
to rabbinic talmudic Judaism, a sect of Judaism called the
Karaites based on a literal interpretation of the Bible
(Karaim means scripturalists) was started in the 8th century
by Anan Ben-David, a wayward elder brother who was passed
over in the position of Exilarch in favour of his younger
brother. On challenging this he was sentenced to death,
but in prison was advised to offer a bribe and claim a new
religion that accepted a place for Jesus and Mohammed and
which had a different calendar. It gained many disciples
over the following centuries and was the greatest threat
that rabbinic Judaism had encountered for many centuries.
the early years of Islam, the Exilarch as the temporal head
of the Jewish community was shown great honour and respect
by the Muslims. He would visit the Caliph every Thursday
with a grand processional escort of Jews and non-Jews, and
a herald in front of him would cry out; Make way before
our Lord, the son of David. He would kiss the Caliphs
hand and the Caliph would rise and place him on a throne
the Jews experience of Islam was generally a very
positive one they, like all non-Muslims, did suffer when
their rulers were of a more fanatical disposition. Distinctive
and unusual clothing to humiliate them was occasionally
the order of the day, as well as restrictions of freedom
for non-Muslims. Also the Caliph Haroun el Rashid fought
against the Khazars who had converted to Judaism and when
he met military setbacks against them he took it out on
the Jews of Iraq.
today probably gives an insight into the occasional lurches
to fundamentalism that occurred from time to time.
influence over other Jewish communities began to wane largely
as a result of quarrels among Moslem people themselves and
the weakening of the Caliphate.
ceased to be the centre of the Muslim world between the
10th and 12th Centuries, but disaster was to strike with
the conquest of the Mongols. In 1258 Hulagu, the grandson
of Genghis Khan stormed the city. The majority of Baghdads
inhabitants of over 800,000 people (some say as high as
two million) including the Caliph and his family was slaughtered
and the city given over to plunder and flames, as was the
accounts suggest that many Jews and other Dhimmis were spared,
and thirty years later a Jew called Saad Al-Dawla
was made Governor of Iraq. Three years later he was assassinated
and the mob turned the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad into a
scene of murder and plunder. However two years later an
economic crisis compelled the regime to turn to another
Jewish physician financier for help. Rashid Al-Dawlas
position as minister lasted for two decades but when his
master died he was accused by his enemies of having poisoned
him, and was executed in 1316.
1401 Tamerlane, the last and greatest of the Mongols, conquered
Baghdad again with great loss of life including Jewish lives.
The Mongol occupation of Iraq brought about the downfall
of Babylonian Jewry as a force in the Jewish world.
turbulent times and a succession of rulers, the Ottoman
Sultan, Salim the Savage, took much of Mesapotamia in 1516,
and in 1534 the greatest Ottoman, Sulaiman the Magnificent,
entered Baghdad accompanied by a number of Jewish scholars
and physicians. He is the one who encouraged Sephardi Jews,
recently expelled from Spain to settle in his empire. He
would ask how the King of Spain could call himself wise
and allow such an important and useful part of his population
to leave. He was warmly welcomed by Baghdads small
Jewish community. The Ottomans were on the whole very favourable
to minorities including the Jews, as they perceived the
main threat to their rule would come from the majority populations.
Persians re-conquered Baghdad in 1623. Fifteen years later,
Sultan Murad IV laid siege to it. On the night before attack
he went in as a beggar to survey. In the evening, he knocked
at a Jewish door. Decided that a full loaf would be a good
omen, he got full loaf and accommodation. The next day Murad
captured Baghdad and later enquired what Mrs Parizat, who
had given him lodging, would want as a present. At her request,
the growing Jewish community were given a large piece of
land to be used as a cemetery. After the Revolution of 1958
President Qassem appropriated the cemetery to build the
highest tower in the world. He paid no compensation as the
community had forgotten to register its ownership in 1930.
later Sultans let power slip back to the local Pashas under
whom the lot of the Jews deteriorated. Emigration took its
toll, and during the 18th and 19th centuries plagues of
fearful dimensions left the yeshivot half empty, the rabbinate
crippled and the community much reduced. The result was
the population of Baghdad is not likely to have grown much
in the past five centuries. Indeed the Jewish population
of the area of Babylonia in 1950 was about the same as it
was 2,500 years earlier at the time when Koresh conquered
Babylon. This is despite having been many times larger at
certain intervening periods.
1917 the British entered Baghdad where the Jews of the district
now numbered 80,000, among a population of 200,000). The
Jews were soon concerned because the British intended to
give the Arabs independence. They feared discrimination.
Despite assurances from the British who appointed the Emir
Faisal as the first King of Iraq, their minority position
gradually resulted in handicaps which got worse when Faisals
son, Ghazi, took over. He was more stridently nationalist,
and less of a statesman. Under the influence of Nazi propaganda,
Jews began to find access to government jobs and institutes
of higher learning restricted to them. Zionist activity
abroad was creating a growing nationalist backlash at home,
and Jews found themselves having to make numerous declarations
of loyalty to deal with mounting hostilities. A pro-axis
government took power in the spring of 1941 with army support,
and denied British troops access to military bases in Iraq.
When British forces came in, this government fled, but the
British stayed outside the capital for a few days while
the mob set upon the Jews. About 180 were killed and many
more injured in the days before a curfew was imposed.
lull of a few years occurred, but with the establishment
of the State of Israel in 1948 and the poor showing of Iraqi
troops against it, the Jews found themselves facing government
victimisation and extortion with confiscation and fines
following trumped-up charges. The few who left the country
were required to pay huge deposits, and many started to
leave illegally across the mountains. Eventually the government
introduced a law allowing Jews to leave on the surrender
of their nationality, and loss of their assets. It was declared
that there was to be an exchange of populations with Palestinian
refugees who were to occupy vacated Jewish houses. Two bombs
went off, one among Jewish people and another in a synagogue.
As a result when the massive airlift to Israel, known as
Operation Ezra and Nehemia, took place in 1951, most of
the Jews in Iraq got out with little more than the clothes
they were wearing. By 1952 over 130,000 had left and only
6,000 remained. Since then most of those have also left
by one means or another so that today, apart from about
thirty very old Jews, no-one remains from the community
that had flourished for thousands of years.
the Babylonian Jewish community is roughly estimated at
about 300,000 worldwide, out of which about 280,000 are
living in Israel. Outside Israel there are about 25,000,
mainly in the US and UK.
Jewish children were taught at an early age to memorise
as much of their family tree as possible at least
to a well-known ancestor, who would remain a landmark for
several generations that followed him.
Bibles emphasis on genealogy was to do with protecting
positions, which once attained, were often held for life,
featured in names. The President of a congregation was called
Hazzan from Hazzanu (Governor), and that title became a
surname for the person and for following generations of
the family. The Treasurer was known as the Gubbay, and the
Secretary was known as the Shamash. A number of Iraqi Jewish
families bear the names Hazzan, Gubbay and Shamash.
surnames referred to places of origin e.g. Shirazi, Karkukli,
Hillawi, Mandelawi, Basri, etc. or the profession e.g. Haddad
(Blacksmith), Shohet (Slaughterer), Kateb (Writer=Sofer),
Baqqal (Grocer) and Saatchi (Watch repairer), or pedigree
e.g. Cohen, Lawi, Nasi, Hakham or Siddiq.
surnames were not used for much of the time until recently.
Instead we used a pattern of first names with one or two
distinguishing names threading the line.
confined themselves to only a few names which were then
repeated in different patterns. Secondary branches established
most of the ancient records of our community disappeared
in the constant warfare that plagued that region. Perhaps
genetic analysis in the coming years will reveal again some
knowledge of general genealogical patterns.
the last three centuries, extensive records were made and
are still available. Useful sources of information have
been for example the military tax that was levied by the
Ottomans from the Jews and which was fully recorded. Some
families can date their family tree back to the 17th Century.
My own family records go back to around 1700. At that time
there was a massive death toll in Baghdad from one of the
plagues that decimated the population in that period. New
rabbis were brought in, often from Aleppo. My father once
came across a person in London who looked identical to a
close relative of ours. He asked him his surname which turned
out to be Danker, very close to Dangoor. The name apparently
is carried by a number of Jewish people from a town in Latvia
which was called Dankera, now called Gostini. So perhaps
our family came to Baghdad from Spain via Latvia and Aleppo.
are made to preserve the history and traditions of Babylonian
Jewry today. My father created a Foundation called The Exilarchs
Foundation to keep alive many traditions of the community.
has been publishing a magazine of Babylonian Jewry for thirty
years with over 4000 copies distributed free all over the
world. It covers a vast range of the culture of our community
from history and family trees to poetry and literature,
politics and current affairs, cookery and familiar proverbs.
Scribe is now available on the internet at scribe1.com.
Exilarchs Foundation has also published a number of
editions of the Baghdadi Haggada which includes the translation
in Arabic which used to be sung in full as part of the Seder,
with the Arabic written only in Hebrew characters.
Babylonian Jewry Museum in the town of Or Yehuda near Tel
Aviv features a reproduction of an alleyway in the Jewish
Quarter of Baghdad around 100 years ago. It also houses
temporary and permanent exhibits and hosts educational activities,
symposia for artists, etc.
are associations in Israel of groups of Iraqi origin, for
example the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq which
have published many books including a dictionary of the
distinctive Judeo-Arabic dialect of Iraq. Apart from distinctive
traditions and a distinctive dialect, Iraqi Jews used their
own characteristic Hebrew script.
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