Return Visit to Baghdad
In September 1910,
Mrs Farha Sassoon and her children undertook a trip from Bombay
to Baghdad via Basrah.
In the last issue
(The Scribe, No. 74) we published excerpts from the
English diary kept by Farhas daughter Mozelle (1884-1921)
to excerpts]. We publish in this issue excerpts
from the Hebrew diary (Massae Babel) kept by Farhas
son David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) translated into English
by Rabbi Aharon Bassous, which compliment the previous diary.
- 4th Ellul, 8 September 1910
Early morning we left Bombay by the steamboat LAKO run by
a British company.
Arrived at Karachi. We exited our cabins to breathe the fresh
air as for the last two days we suffered from seasickness.
As it was Shabbat we remained the whole day on the boat.
Monday - 12
At 10.30am we anchored at Muscat and the third captain shot
twice in the air in honour of the Imam of Muscat and Oman,
Sultan Feisel. This city will never be forgotten, as it was
like being in a fiery furnace. It was told to us that when
the temperature reaches great heights the inhabitants of the
city lie down on the roofs of houses and water is poured on
them like one water's plants. A few years ago there lived
here Jewish businessmen and there was a Synagogue, but they
are no longer here and the Synagogue is destroyed.
We arrived at our next stop Bushire in the Persian Gulf, at
10.30am. Here we remained for seven hours and I wanted to
go into town very badly but due to quarantine regulations
I was not able to. This was due to the fact that there was
a plague in Bombay and in such circumstances there is a quarantine.
In the afternoon the heat increased. Some Persian servants
came on the boat to buy soda water for their European masters
who live in the port since they do not drink the local water
as it is not healthy. I was not able to receive any information
about the Jews here except for the fact that they are greatly
oppressed by the Persians.
At 10.30am we arrived at Muhammera, the last port in Persia.
Before we left Bombay Mr. Sason Aaron Bassous wrote to his
friend Kasim the Mayor of Basra to help us to avoid the quarantine
which all the travellers from Bombay have to keep. A short
while after we put down anchor the private boat of Kasim arrived
to take us to the port A member of the Health dept arranged
that all our suitcases would be removed from the boat to four
smaller boats. In twenty minutes we came ashore and we went
straight to the quarantine camp where we remained the rest
of the day. This was to complete five days after travelling
from Karachi as the Persians keep only a five-day quarantine
as opposed to the Turks who keep ten days. The porters unloaded
our packages and placed them in a closed room. We had a cold
lunch and since it was not possible to buy European bread
we made do with the local bread which was made in the form
of wide thin cakes.
At 5.00pm the
customs official, a Jew, came and we paid him the necessary
money depending on our class of travel. At 5.50pm the doctor
arrived and after giving us a certificate that we had fulfilled
all our obligations we took our packages onto a large boat
which was tied onto the steamboat travelling to Basra. A short
while later we heard a loud noise, which was the sign for
the Moslems to break their fast as it was the month of Ramadan.
The sailors started to hurriedly swallow their food since
from sunrise they had not eaten, drunk or smoked. The moon
was shining very brightly and the river looked beautiful.
At 10.00pm we came to the port of Basra and stopped outside
the palace of Kasim the Mayor. His second son Jamil came to
meet us and we came to the palace.
He, Kasim, displayed
great hospitality to put up such a large group of people as
ours. We entered our rooms at 1.00 am, but were not able to
sleep due to the noise made by the large number of chickens
in the yard which carried on the whole night. In addition
many stray dogs were barking under our window. Nevertheless
we were grateful to the Mayor for his kindness.
September and Shabbat, 17 September
The morning was very cool but as the day passed the heat
became very great. I woke up early to go to Synagogue through
narrow dirt streets and crossed the river on the bridge. Eventually
I hired an old cart driven by a pair of white horses through
the market place and streets lined with small restaurants.
Suddenly we stopped and I was forced to get down since the
path became too narrow for a cart to pass through. I was forced
to carry on by foot till I reached a crowded street in which
was Slat Bet Kharmoosh. This synagogue and the other three
in town were rebuilt on the site of older synagogue buildings,
since the buildings here are built of dried earth and do not
last long due to dampness and the low quality of the building
materials. This synagogue was a place of worship as well as
a school where about 320 boys and girls were taught elementary
Hebrew, Bible, and Ayn Yaakob (stories from the Talmud). The
older children received instruction in French and Turkish
also. When I visited, there were only about half the pupils
as from the month of Iyar till Elul, all parents who are able
to, leave the city to live in tents because of the great heat
and the lack of water in the river, which attracts flies and
malaria, and other diseases are rampant. This synagogue was
built in 1907 by Aaron Jacob Kharmoosh and Meir Ezekiel Gareh
in memory of their daughter/wife who had died in 1904. Close
by is the great synagogue.
I also visited
a small synagogue called Slat Bet Hibub, which was built in
1898. From there I went to a fourth synagogue which is situated
in the Fowl market and called accordingly Slat Sook el-Jeej.
There was a genizah in this synagogue which I went up to with
great difficulty but did not find anything special. All the
Sifrei Torah are in wooden boxes covered with gold and silver,
the work of Jewish craftsmen. Each synagogue has sedakah boxes
nailed to the walls designated for the grave of Rahel Imenu,
Yehezkel Hanavi, Ezra HaSofer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and
various charities. The spiritual leaders of the community
are Hakham Judah Abdallah and Hakham Ezra Shochet but there
is no yeshiva in the town and to my regret the Jews here do
not keep the Shabbat properly. Their number is about 1500.
The trade of the town is chiefly indigo, silks, linen and
metals imported from India and Europe and is largely in the
hands of the Jews. They also export horses, dates, sheepskin,
and Turkish and Persian products. The Jews of Basra also own
extensive plantations of dates and I saw them busily occupied
in supervising the sorting and packing of the dates in millions
of small card boxes and cartons for shipment to all parts
of the world. The export of horses is busiest in October and
November. It was told to us that the ships leaving Basra are
packed with about 200 horses, leaving passengers closeted
in their cabins for the duration of their journey. Since we
planned to return to Bombay in the beginning of November this
was not cheerful tidings. These horses are sent to Moslem
merchants in Bombay who train them as hunting horses and racing
I was able to
buy some manuscripts but not old ones. One of them has special
interest and is called Megillat Paras, which is read on the
day that is called the day of the miracle. This is the story
as recorded in the scroll.
In the year 1774,
the Persian armies besieged Basra. At that time Suleiman Pasha,
a lover of Israel and an upright man, was the Wali of Basra
and the Saraf Bashi, Jacob Aaron, was the leader of the Jewish
community. Together they defended the city against the enemies
with great courage but after a siege that lasted for 13 months,
they finally opened the gates to the Persian army on the 27th
Nissan 1775. Suleiman Pasha, his family and household and
Jacob Aaron his wife and children were sent as prisoners to
the Shah in Shiraz. The Persians robbed, pillaged, captured
women, etc and caused a lot of harm. At that time there was
in Basra a Rabbi from Hebron called Yaakob Haim Elyashar who
had come to Basra to collect donations for his community.
He ordered the Jews to gather in the synagogue and to pray
special prayers, which he arranged. Eventually the General
of the Persian army was poisoned by his own troops and died
on the 13th Adar 1776. This led for the departure of the Persians
from the city on the 2nd of Nissan and this day was fixed
by the Jews as a day of rejoicing like the days of Purim,
from year to year for all generations. The above- mentioned
Rabbi composed for them songs and called them Megillat Paras
and instituted that they should read this Megillah yearly
on this day in the synagogue in the morning service as they
read the scroll of Esther on Purim.
We left Basra
for Baghdad after Shabbat travelling by steamboat belonging
to a Turkish company. With great difficulty were we able to
find porters to carry our baggage to the boat as in the month
of Ramadan the Muslims do not do much work.
At 7.00 am we reached al-Qurna where the Tigris and Euphrates
unite. Tradition has it that the Garden of Eden was here!
We rested for 10 minutes. Continuing on our journey to Baghdad
we passed in the afternoon a building which is traditionally
the grave of Ezra HaSofer or al Ezair in Arabic.
the outside the grave looks like the dome of a mosque and
is covered with glazed blue tiles. We went inside to visit.
On entering the tomb we were in a large chamber leading to
the synagogue and grave. Before entering the building we were
told to remove our shoes. On top of the grave is a large tomb
made from wood. Every Jewish visitor lights a lamp and says:
I am lighting this lamp in honour of our master Ezra the scribe,
after which he circles the grave and kisses it. Many give
money for someone to bless them at the grave. Even non-Jews
come to pray here, as the grave is holy in their eyes.
The main time
for visiting is between Pesach and Shavuot. Jews come from
Basra, Abushire, Baghdad, etc. On the two days of Shavuot
it is absolutely crowded. The visitors stay in two buildings
built especially for them and are charged a small fee. Mozelle
the wife of Eliyah David Joseph Ezra from Calcutta rebuilt
one of the buildings in 1883. It cost her 4000 Rupees.
The order of prayers
at the shrine of Ezra HaSofer for the Festival of Shavuot
are as follows:
On the night of
Shavuot they gather in the synagogue for the public auction
of Misvot. The first one is buying the merit to put a Parochet
on the grave. After which is the sale of four Rimonim (bells)
to be placed on the four comers of the grave. Afterwards a
special blessing is made for each person who wants to donate
money to sedaka. The Arvit service is then commenced. When
the service is completed they all go to the grave of the saddiq
and sing various songs clapping hands in great rejoicing,
Afterwards they go to have their meal.
After the meal
they read in the two houses for visitors the special Tikoun
of this night. It is divided into sections and each portion
is then auctioned and that portion is then read loudly by
the one who bought it. The readings are completed about two
hours before sunrise. They then sing some more songs till
the time for Shachrit arrives. Before Shachrit they sell the
reading of the various parts of the service and before the
reading of the Torah the various Aliyot are sold. The money
from the sales is used for the upkeep of the houses for the
visitors and to support the pupils of the Yeshiva.
custom was to read by the grave the book of Ezra from a scroll,
but this custom has stopped since Rabbi Yosef Hayim printed
a book called Mamlechet Cohanim where he made a special order
of readings and prayers to be read at the grave.
A Visit from
Baghdad to Hillah, 27 Heshwan November 1910
Mr Menahem Saleh Daniel and his brother Sasson made all the
arrangements, which took a long time since we had to have
horses, prepared at different stages of the trip. In practice
we were their guests throughout the trip. Without doubt one
cannot find greater generosity than what they revealed throughout
the journey. On the day of our departure many people came
to wish us a safe journey and that our prayers at the grave
of the prophet Ezekiel will be accepted (Maqbula). To our
good fortune the weather was fair with slight rain which prevented
the dust from flying around. We left the house by foot at
2.00 pm and passed through a crowded shopping area. Kurdish
porters carried our belongings. After crossing the bridge
we met our hosts and carriages. Many friends gathered there
to escort us on our journey. Our group was made up of 16 persons
including the servants plus 2 guards riding on horses.
as he is known here and his son Saleh accompanied us in their
private carriage pulled by a pair of horses in the lead.
travelled in the second carriage and some friends in the third
carriage. Finally the servants with the entire luggage went
at the rear in two carriages.
We left at 2.30
pm in the direction of Mahmudiyah. After 30 minutes we crossed
the Car Bridge. The ruler opened this bridge with great celebration
on 20 January 1898. We had to pay a toll of 1/4 megidi for
We arrived at
Mahmudiyah at 5.45 pm at a hotel called Khan for persons and
animals. We saw two empty rooms on two sides of a courtyard,
one for the men, the other for the ladies and the carriages
in the courtyard. The rooms were very dirty and the servants
spent a fair time cleaning them, probably for the first and
last time. The night was cold and with all our covers was
still not enough to warm us. Some horses entered our room
during the night since the door had no lock or bolt.
We wanted to carry on our journey at 3.00 am in the cool of
the morning but were not able to do so because during the
night there was a big storm which made the road impassable.
We were thus forced to spend the day in the Khan.
At dawn on the following day we carried on travelling slowly
because of the difficult path. We met a caravan of Persians
on their way to Karbala. We made two short stops one at 9.30
to give food to the horses and another at 2.15 pm to have
lunch under the sky. The night was quickly approaching and
we were concerned we would spend the night in the desert but
to our great fortune we saw the Baghdad gate at Hillah at
8.30 pm. It was like after a bad dream. We crossed the bridge
as the town Hillah is built on both sides of the Euphrates.
Mr Ezra Menahem Saleh Daniel invited us to his house and we
remained there for three days in great comfort.
Hillah is a very small town surrounded by a wall built not
in very good fashion from bricks taken from the ruins of ancient
Babylon. The colour of the water is so bad that one is frightened
to drink. To the north and south, the city is surrounded by
the company of Mr Moshe Sussa, the superintendent of the business
of Ezra Daniel in Hillah, I went to visit the town. While
in Baghdad I did not visit the schools of the Alliance (Kol
Yisrael Haverim) for well-known reasons, (since they encouraged
the pupils to distance themselves from Judaism). Here, without
my knowledge, they brought me to the school, which was a branch
of the Alliance school in Baghdad. I saw a very strange spectacle.
In one of the classes the pupils were learning Tenach bare-headed,
from a teacher with a long beard, turban and long coat.
The number of
Jews in Hillah is 500 persons and they have two synagogues.
The first is called the big synagogue not for its great size
but because it is larger than the small one. I found a stone
tablet on a small well in the big synagogue. It turned out
to be a tombstone dated 1232. The land of Babel is not stony
and thus such a tombstone is a rarity in these parts. It would
be required to bring it from distance of 10 days journey at
least. This shows the importance of the person buried. It
was found by Arab farmers 4 1/2 hours distance from Hillah
120 years ago, and was brought to Hillah by a Jew named Shikuri
who had it put in the synagogue by the Hechal. Twenty years
ago when they rebuilt the synagogue it was placed in its present
position where I found it and subsequently bought it.
The second synagogue
was built by David Sasson in 1862/3 and is named after him.
It is near the big synagogue. At the entrance there is a plaque
which reads that David Sasson built this synagogue and a condition
was made with the community of Hillah that half the proceeds
of the synagogue should go for the upkeep of the Yeshiva of
our master, Yehezkel Hanabi.
The Tebah is very
large in this small synagogue. Nearby is a very big tree said
to be over 100 years old.
The order of the
prayers is as in Baghdad. The Jews are very poor and oppressed
by the Sheikhs. Till a few years ago the Jews had limited
rights. They had to wear a red patch on their outer garments.
They were not allowed to ride on a donkey or horse in town.
They were not allowed to walk in the streets on a rainy day
in case they would splash water on a Moslem. They were not
allowed to wear green the holy colour of the Moslems.
If they would, the Moslem would take it from hi and give him
a good beating. When they walked in the streets they had to
keep a good distance away from the Moslems in case their clothes
would touch and defile them. They were not allowed to touch
the fruit or vegetables in the shop before buying and if they
did touch anything it was considered defiled and they had
to buy it. They were not allowed to build their houses higher
than the Moslems or to build a balcony over the streets because
a Moslem could not walk under a Jewish house and other similar
On Shabbat morning
the 2nd Kislev December we went to the David Sasson
synagogue where I was given to read the Maftir. The Parashah
was read in a Sefer Torah donated by my great grandfather
I saw the two houses of Menahem Sliman Daniel, which are now
in a very forsaken condition, also the spot where an Arab
shot him in 1890. The office of the Daniel family is here
from where they run their land business. In these days the
working on the land is not successful, as the Euphrates has
changed course causing a detrimental effect on the area.
Shrine of Yehezkel
At 5.00 pm we arrived at Al-kifil a small village by the Euphrates.
When we arrived there was a funeral procession going to the
Cemetery. It was the aunt of Sasson Effendi the sister of
his mother who passed away yesterday in Hindiyah at the age
of ninety. We went straight to the grave of Yehezkel Hanabi.
We arrived just in time to pray Minha and we prayed in the
synagogue next to the grave. In my opinion the lovely building
over the grave is extremely old, built from very big stones
said to be the work of King Yahoyakhin. Above the doorway
was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it
this is the tomb of our master Yehezkel the prophet,
the son of Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all
The room with
the grave is very high and has flowers painted on the walls
and the names of important visitors to the grave. It is mentioned
that my grandfather David Sassoon repaired the building in
1859. The grave is very large: 12 feet 9 inches long, 5 feet
3 inches wide and 5 feet 1 inch high. It is covered with a
decorated Parochet, which was sent by David Sassoon from Bombay.
It is also written on the walls of the visit of Menahem Saleh
Daniel to the grave in 1897/8 and his donation to redecorate
the grave. Nearby, in another room, which has 5 tombs of Geonim.
In another part
of the courtyard is another room in which is buried Saleh
Menahem Daniel, between the graves of two Sadikim who without
a doubt are also Geonim. He was the father of Menahem and
Sasson Daniel. Hakham Yosef Haim made the words on his tomb.
Saleh Daniel spent his last years in Al-kifil because his
desire was to be buried there. When he became very ill he
was carried to the doctor in Hillah for treatment and died
there but he was subsequently brought back to Al-kifil to
be buried in the grave that he bought in his lifetime.
Since our intention
was to leave early morning, I spent the remainder of the evening
in search of manuscripts. In the synagogue are 16 Sefer Torahs
in silver cases. However, I did not find books or a library,
neither did I see or hear about a Sefer Torah which was said
to have been written by the prophet Yehezkel . Binyamin of
Tudela mentions such a Sefer Torah, which is read from only
on Yom Kippur. In my opinion he should have said a scroll
on which was written extracts from the book of Yehezkel, some
examples of which I found here. They are read at the grave
by visitors. Apart from these scrolls I bought some other
scrolls but these are just transcripts from the book Mamlechet
Cohanim by Hakham Yosef Haim.
holy shrine was really nearby to us. This happened in 1860
at the time of the rule of Mustafa Pasha in Baghdad. Two influential
Moslems claimed that the tomb belonged to Moslems on the pretext
that only mosques have minarets. The Ministry of Holy Sites
instructed to list it as Moslem property and this caused great
suffering to the Jews. Hakham Sasson Smouha the Hakham Bashi
of Baghdad and the Dayanim, together with the help of Saliman
Daniel, objected to this and a special Minister was sent from
Constantinople to investigate the matter and he ruled in favour
of the Jews. Sir Moshe Montefiores name is also mentioned
in this connection for his support in this matter. In the
village lived one hundred and fifty Jews. The time for visiting
the grave is from the middle of Iyar until the beginning of
Sivan. There are the Khan hotels by the tomb, one donated
by a Yaakob Semah in 1844/5. The house of the Daniel family
is close to the tomb. From the roof we enjoyed the wonderful
sunset and the beautiful view.
We woke early to pray Shahrit. The group travelled back to
Hillah except for Ezra and Saleh Daniel who agreed to wait
for me and accompany me back to Hillah. I decided to remain
until I had photographed the place, especially the internal
view of the tomb since this had never been done previously.
After I completed this job we then travelled back to Hillah
arriving at the Mashad gate at 6.30 pm.
Sadikim in Babel
In Babel there
are four known shrines of great men.
1) The prophet
Ezekiel in Al-Kifil a distance of seventeen hours by
caravan riding on animals or eleven hours by cart pulled by
animals till Hillah. From Hillah till the village Kifil six
hours riding on animals. (According to Hakham Yosef Hayim
2) Ezra HaSofer,
as described above.
3) Yehoshua Cohen
Gadol near Baghdad. Baghdad is built on the banks of
the river Tigris, mainly on the eastern bank where the Jewish
Quarter was. On the western bank was the Quarter where only
Moslems lived. About one mile from this settlement was the
4) Sheikh Yishak
Gaon died in 688 CE. Buried in Baghdad in the Jewish
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