As the fighters of the Islamic State drive from village to captured village in their looted humvees, they criss-cross what in ancient times was a veritable womb of gods. For millennia, the Fertile Crescent teemed with a bewildering variety of cults and religions. Back in the 3rd Christian century, a philosopher by the name of Bardaisan was so overwhelmed by the sheer array of beliefs to be found in Mesopotamia that he invoked it to disprove the doctrines of astrology. ‘It is not the stars that make people behave the way do but rather the diversity of their customs.’
Bardaisan himself was a one-man monument to Mesopotamian multiculturalism. A Jewish convert to Christianity, a Platonist fascinated by the wisdom of the Brahmins, an inhabitant of the border zone between the Roman East and the Iranian empire of the Parthians, he stood at the crossroads where antiquity’s most potent traditions met and intermingled. Just how far the process of blending rival faiths could be taken was best illustrated by a man born in Mesopotamia a few years before Bardaisan’s death: a soi-disant prophet called Mani. Brought up within a Christian sect that practised circumcision, held the Holy Spirit to be female, and prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, he fused elements of Christianity with Jewish and Zoroastrian teachings, while also claiming, just for good measure, to be the heir of the Buddha. Although Mani himself would end up executed by a Persian king, his followers were nothing daunted. Cells of Manichaeans were soon to be found from China to Carthage. Syncretic as their religion was, and global in its ambitions, Manichaeism was a classic Mesopotamian export of the age.
Nevertheless, home of the cutting edge though the Fertile Crescent was throughout the first millennium AD, it simultaneously nurtured traditions of a fabulous antiquity. Priests and astrologers had been active in Mesopotamia since the dawn of civilisation, and they still flourished even as the ziggurats which had once dominated ancient capitals such as Nineveh and Babylon crumbled away into dust. In Harran, a city lying on what is now the frontline between Turkey and the Islamic State, the ancient gods were worshipped well into the Christian era. Sin, the ‘Lord of the Moon’, continued to be paraded every year through the streets and then ferried back to his temple on a barge, while eerie figures framed by peacock feathers stood guard over desert lakes. In a Fertile Crescent increasingly dominated by monotheistic autocrats, first Christian and then Muslim, the Harranians clung stubbornly to their worship of the planets. ‘How empty and impoverished the earth would have been without paganism!’ So one devotee of Sin defiantly declared, even as he worked in the caliphal library in Baghdad. ‘Who was it that settled the world and founded cities, after all, if not the pagans?’
Such bravado, though, in a world governed by the dictates of Islamic imperialism, was given increasingly short shrift. Islam, rather as Manichaeism had done, fused elements drawn from numerous traditions, and granted, in unacknowledged recognition of this, a high-handed tolerance to those religions to which it stood in particular debt. Jews, Christians and a mysterious people named the Sabaeans: all were ranked in the Qur’an as ‘Peoples of the Book’. Devotees of other gods, though, were regarded with a stern disapproval. In the year 830, so it is said, the Caliph al-Mamun visited Harran, and was appalled by what he found. The pagans were told to convert or face death. Most duly became Muslims; but a few, pulling a lawyer’s trick, declared themselves to be none other than the Sabaeans. Only in the 10th century was their final temple destroyed. By the 1120s, when the Spanish traveller ibn Jubayr visited Harran, he could find no trace of the Sabaeans.
To this day, though, across the Fertile Crescent, there remain communities which bear witness to the extraordinary antiquity of its religious traditions. There are the Mandaeans, who hold themselves, as Mani did, to be sparks of a cosmic light, and whose priests, like their Babylonian forebears, are obsessive astrologers. There are the Alawites, who revere Plato as a prophet, believe in reincarnation, and pray towards the sun. There are the Yezidis, whose home of Sinjar still preserves in its name an echo of the ancient Harranian moon god. Like the Harranians, they reverence the planets; and like the Harranians, they hold a special place in their hearts for the peacock. Melek Taus, the angel whom they believe to be God’s lieutenant here in the material world, wears the form of the bird; and back at the beginning of time, when the earth was nothing but pearl, he laid his feathers over it, and gave colour to its forests and mountains and seas.
Various strategies were adopted by these communities to survive the disapproval of their Muslim overlords. All of them kept the precise details of their faiths a secret; and all of them, when faced by bouts of persecution, would retreat to remote and inaccessible fastnesses, whether in marshes or on mountain tops. The Mandaeans, copy-ing the strategy of the Harranians, were able to market themselves as Sabaeans; the Alawites, some of whom believe Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, to have been the reincarnation of St Peter, took on a patina of Shi’ism. Even the Yazidis, who proudly keep a list of the 72 persecutions they have survived over the course of the centuries, were sometimes willing, when particularly hard-pressed, to accept a nominal baptism from an amenable bishop.
It is hard to believe, though, that they will survive the 73rd persecution. Their prospects, and those of all the religious minorities of the Fertile Crescent, look grim. Mandaeans, exposed to murder and forced conversions in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow, are now almost extinct in Iraq. The future of the Alawites is bound inseparably to that of their co-religionist, the blood-stained president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. As for the Yezidis, targeted as they are for extermination by the slave-taking, atrocity-vaunting murderers of the Islamic State, how can they possibly survive in their ancient homeland? Meanwhile, with Iraqi and Syrian Jews now only to be found in Israel, and Christians emigrating from the region in increasing numbers, even the Peoples of the Book are vanishing from the Fertile Crescent.
The risk is that all traces of what once, back in antiquity, made the area the most remarkable melting pot in history will soon have been erased. In cultural terms, it is as though a rainforest is being levelled to provide for cattle-ranching. Not just a crime against humanity, it is a crime against civilisation.
Tom Holland is the author of a history of early Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, and recently translated Herodotus’ Histories for Penguin.