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.
In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. As more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of safety and prosperity, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.
Drawing on his extensive travels and archival research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.
“A highly topical study of Middle Eastern anomalies which is teaching me a lot, and should be read by all Western policy makers — those who do read.”
—Jan Morris, New York Times, 4 December 2014
“Wonderfully intriguing... with erudition, sensitivity, humour and aplomb: a remarkable achievement.”
—The Economist, 20 December 2014
“A book full of gems”
—Roger Boyes, The Times, 27 December 2014
“It is difficult to imagine a more timely book than Gerard Russell’s ‘Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.’ Equal parts travelogue and history, Mr. Russell’s meticulously researched book takes readers into some of the region’s least-known minority communities.”
—Wall Street Journal
“This fascinating survey of threatened and vanishing minority religions across the broader Middle East, written in an even tone sprinkled with wonder as [Russell] unearths the esoteric detail of often secretive and syncretic traditions, comes at that piteous moment when sects such as the mysterious Yazidis face extinction from Sunni extremists rampaging across the plains of Nineveh in Iraq.”
“Impressive testimony to the enduring strength of British travel writing.”
—Michael Burleigh, Books of the Year 2014, Evening Standard
“This important and enjoyable glimpse into little-considered religious dynamics of the Middle East deserves to be widely read and distributed.”
“A brilliant book.”
—Kwasi Kwarteng MP, author of Ghosts of Empire
“It is unbearably poignant that a book so learned and so beautifully written should have been written about the religious minorities of the Middle East just as many of them seem on the verge of extinction.”
—Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword
“Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is a loving tribute to the ancient and the strange, to spliced genealogies, to the heroic defense of heterodoxy in an increasingly intolerant world.”
—James Traub, author of The Freedom Agenda
“A fascinating and gracefully written study of minority religions, recommended for its appreciation of cultural richness and variety."
“Rare glimpses inside isolated pockets of ancient settlements in the Middle East, revealing fragile yet tenacious religions... A pertinent work of history and journalism. As armies again march in the Middle East, these communities are at new risk."