In recent weeks, Ezidis, Druze, Mandaeans and other Middle Eastern religious minorities have appeared in the world’s headlines. For the most part, these groups, unfamiliar to most Westerners, have been no more than names attached to tragedies. Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East appears just in time to answer readers’ questions about some of the world’s most ancient and least understood religions.
Russell describes Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms as a series of personal and informal investigations, begun during his fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Much of the book’s considerable charm rests in Russell’s accounts of his often-uncomfortable travels into remote regions of the Middle East and his interviews with members of the seven religions he discusses. He pursues his investigations in places as diverse as the Zoroastrian ruins of ancient Persepolis and a Chaldean community center in Detroit. But make no mistake, this is not a dilettante travelogue.
Building on extensive knowledge of both comparative theology and the region’s history, Russell places each religion in historical context and describes them as they exist in the 21st century. He considers both how these faiths have survived and why they were endangered even before the current attacks began. He considers ancient languages, long traditions of secrecy–and the difficulties both present to diaspora communities attempting to practice their faith away from its historic heart.
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is an important and engaging book for anyone interested in the Middle East.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.