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The articles in this issue have been divided up into the following categories







The Sassoons' 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 Farha’s daughter Mozelle (1884-1921) [Go to excerpts]. We publish in this issue excerpts from the Hebrew diary (Massa’e Babel) kept by Farha’s son David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) translated into English by Rabbi Aharon Bassous, which compliment the previous diary.

Thursday - 4th Ellul, 8 September 1910
Early morning we left Bombay by the steamboat LAKO run by a British company.

Shabbat – 10 September
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 September
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.

Wednesday – 14 September
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.

Thursday – 15 September
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.

Friday, 16 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 horses.

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.

Tuesday, 20 September
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.

On 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.

Originally, the 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.

Sasson Effendi as he is known here and his son Saleh accompanied us in their private carriage pulled by a pair of horses in the lead.

Family Sasson 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 each carriage.

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.

28 Heshwan, November
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.

29 Heshwan, November
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 date palms.

In 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 restrictions.

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 Sheikh Sassoon.
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 Hanabi
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 Israel. Amen."

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.

This 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 Montefiore’s 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.

4th Kislev – December 1910
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.


Shrines of 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 in 1908).

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 grave.

4) Sheikh Yishak Gaon – died in 688 CE. Buried in Baghdad in the Jewish Quarter.

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