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Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into…

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of… (2014)

by Gerard Russell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2301277,936 (4.17)25
Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.… (more)
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Gerard Russell here provides an overview of the history, culture, and beliefs of the adherents of seven "disappearing religions" in western Asia and north Africa: the Mandaeans, the Yazidis, the Zoroastrians, the Druze, the Samaritans, the Copts, and the Kalasha. Russell, a former British diplomat, has the language abilities and familiarity with the region to enable him to travel to places where white western journalists rarely go.

The travelogue-esque portions of the book—where for instance Russell talks about the difficult and dangerous journey by plane, on foot, and in elderly Jeeps needed to reach the Kalasha in their remote valley homeland in northern Pakistan—are the most engaging part. Russell is at his best when painting pen portraits of the lives of contemporary believers in these faiths, and showing how the ancient patchwork diversity of western Asia (ethnic, religious, linguistic) and a long history of coexistence is slowly vanishing because of political polarisation and internecine conflict in the bloody aftermath of European colonialism.

Where Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms falls down for me is Russell's weakness in engaging with his topic in a historical context. I caught quite a few factual errors in a field that is far from my own, for instance. But more important for the book's overall argument is that historical source criticism is lacking—I raised my eyebrows more than once at ways in which he deploys medieval sources—and Russell has a troubling tendency to present twentieth- and twenty-first century religious practice as static and unchanged for centuries, if not thousands of years. There's simply very little supporting evidence for such claims, and it tends to undermine the reader's faith in Russell's overall characterisation on this fascinating topic. ( )
  siriaeve | May 18, 2018 |
Russell has written an elegiac and informative account of ancient faiths which range from Coptic Christianity with millions of followers to Kalasha, with a few thousand, to the Samaritan community which has fewer than 800 followers in his account. He also discusses the history, current situation and beliefs of Zoroastrianism, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Druze. Russell provides helpful suggestions for those who wish to learn more. I was fascinated! ( )
  nmele | Jun 28, 2017 |
Coming from a non-religious family in Australia, perhaps the most secular nation on Earth, there is much for me to learn about religion, and Russell has provided me with an excellent introduction to some of the more "obscure" religions of the Middle East, with a travelogue included to boot.

Zoroastrians once ruled the world but are now down to 100,000 or so adherents, the Samaritans get a shout out in the Bible but now exist only in a small village in Palestine/Israel, and the Copts still sing the songs of the Pharaohs. Some great insights flow throughout "Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms" but if I had to provide a piece of criticism is that Russell left me somewhat none the wiser about the tenets of some of the religions covered. However, I guess that's what his extensive "further Reading" section is for. ( )
1 vote MiaCulpa | Dec 14, 2016 |
This is a keeper. Those odd groups (especially in the MIddle East) you can't quite fit into the usual dichotomies? This guy has met them, gotten to know them. Get this and keep it in your comparative religion section.
1 vote revliz | Jun 30, 2016 |
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a compelling travel memoir about various religious minorities in the Middle East, plus one in Afghanistan, their history and their future—something that seems incredibly bleak in light of current politics. Focusing on the Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts, and Kalasha, the book dedicates a chapter to each, as well as an epilogue covering their American diasporas, mostly in and around Detroit. The author manages to convey a lot of information about these groups, while also capturing the everyday humanity of the people he meets in a highly readable, accessible style. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in religious studies to enjoy this book.

For anyone who's watched the news lately and wanted to know more about minority groups in the Middle East, those who enjoy interesting travel memoirs, or those with a general interest in religion today. Highly recommended. ( )
  inge87 | Apr 15, 2016 |
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It’s a long time since I read a travel book that taught or illuminated so much, but its importance is greater than that. Tragically, this book puts on record for the last possible time a once-plural world that is on the verge of disappearing for ever.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gerard Russellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brown, PaulineDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hunter, ChelseaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stewart, RoryForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To my parents
And to Linda Norgrove, Vadim Nazarov,
and others who shared my journeys
but are no longer here to read this book
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In the faded cafeteria of Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel, the Mandaean high priest, his brother, and his cousin all looked at me, asking for my help.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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