REVIEWS

The book is the recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction.

“Russell takes us on a fascinating and timely journey through the beliefs and predicaments of seven fascinating but little-known religions; as well as the Mandeans and Yezidis, we meet the last of the Iranian Zoroastrians, the Druze and Samaritans lodged uneasily between Israel and the Arabs, the increasingly persecuted Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Kafir Kalash of the Hindu Kush. 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.”
—William Dalrymple, The Guardian, 31 December 2014 (link here)

“THE thrust of this wonderfully intriguing book is that virtually all the religions of the Middle East, not just the Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) but also a clutch of mysteriously esoteric ones, are marvellously entwined. Mr Russell declares that his aim is to address three things that troubled him during his time in the Middle East: “Humanity’s collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of narrow-minded atheists and literalists.” He addresses all three with erudition, sensitivity, humour and aplomb: a remarkable achievement.”
The Economist, 20 December 2014 (link here)
“Alternating between personal travelogue and carefully researched history, Russell introduces his readers to the Yazidis, Mandeans, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts and Kalasha — groups that have been threatened by civil wars, growing intolerance, the rise of Islamic militancy, autocratic governments and the pull of emigration. Paradoxically, he argues that their survival is a testament to a long, and often overlooked, history of religious coexistence fostered by Islam. “They connect the present to the past, bringing us within touching distance of long-dead cultures,” he adds. “They link the Middle East with European culture by showing how the two emerged from shared roots.” Russell, a former British and United Nations diplomat, writes movingly of his encounters with the adherents of these faiths. ”
The New York Times, December 2014 (link here)
“This sometimes charming, always thoughtful, book is a reminder that Islamic states were not always as barbarous as the Islamic State gangsters who are currently usurping the name. The dreadful fate of the Yazidis besieged on their mountaintop, raped and sold into slavery this summer, showed just how far Islamic State has come from the gentler spirit of the Ummayad caliphate which ruled from Damascus from AD661 and the Abbasid caliphate which ruled from Baghdad a century later. Russell’s now-forgotten kingdoms were tolerated by Islam at a time when Christian rulers were persecuting as pagans those who worshipped different gods.”
The Times, 27 December 2014 (link here)

“This fascinating survey of threatened and vanishing minority religions across the broader Middle East, written in an even tone sprinkled with wonder as he 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. Russell is a former British and UN diplomat, fluent in Arabic and Farsi, who invested invaluable time during his service in the Middle East breaking into an Aladdin’s Cave of forgotten faiths that held on tenaciously to their beliefs across millennia. His enthusiasm is infectious.”
Financial Times, 30 November 2014 (link here)

“I admired Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms (Simon & Schuster, £20) about seven minority religions in the Middle East. A subtle blend of history and reportage, the book is essential for anyone curious about the Alawites, Druze and Yazidis. Justin Marozzi’s Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (Allen Lane, £25) is an impassioned plea on behalf of whatever vestiges of humanity and culture still exist in the beleaguered and strife-torn Iraqi capital. Both books are impressive testimony to the enduring strength of British travel writing.”
Michael Burleigh choosing Books of the Year 2014, Evening Standard, 20 November 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: the Mandaeans of Iraq, the Copts of Egypt, the Zoroastrians, the Samaritans, and, yes, the Yazidis.”
Wall Street Journal, 26 October 2014
“This fascinating account of minority religions in the Middle East, many of which are threatened by increasingly turbulent political situations, is part travelogue and part scholarly overview.... By tying modern practice to historical context, Russell provides a valuable briefing on the ancient and medieval history of the region. He also muses on the immediate future of each community, particularly with respect to political instability and immigration, and his cheerfully personal tone makes all this information lively. This important and enjoyable glimpse into little-considered religious dynamics of the Middle East deserves to be widely read and distributed.”
Publishers Weekly, November 2014
“Rare glimpses inside isolated pockets of ancient settlements in the Middle East, revealing fragile yet tenacious religions. During his years in the British foreign service in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon over the course of the 2000s, peripatetic British diplomat Russell visited many of these remote peoples, studying their vibrant religions—e.g., the Ezidis of northern Iraq, who experience persecution to this day. A speaker of Arabic and Farsi, he was especially attuned to the nuances of history and sensitive to the particular vulnerabilities of each group. Russell penetrates the secret workings of these religions tolerated throughout the ages by Christian or Islamic rulers, even pursuing his research to immigrant churches in Dearborn, Michigan. A pertinent work of history and journalism. As armies again march in the Middle East, these communities are at new risk.”
Kirkus, 1 October 2014
“Russell, a former British and UN diplomat who lived in the Middle East for 15 years, proves an excellent tour guide as he introduces the remnants of these near-extinct groups. To do his research, Russell traveled into some of the most dangerous parts of the world, often interacting with those not particularly friendly to outsiders. He introduces beliefs, rituals, and age-old religious feuds, and he brings these religions into the modern world as he meets with practitioners now living in the West.”
Booklist, October 2014
“Russell... has lived and traveled throughout the Middle East for more than a decade, working at British embassies in Baghdad and Kabul. His work led him to explore remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries, observing religious rituals and interviewing practitioners of small sects, curious about what has enabled them to survive for thousands of years in spite of isolation and persecution. The author is fluent in both Arabic and Farsi and his mostly solitary travels brought him to seek Zoroastrians in Iran, Kalasha in Pakistan, and Copts in Egypt, as well as Ezidis, Mandaeans and Druze in Syria and Iraq. Russell succeeds in creating a rich, humanistic study highlighting cultural diversity and historical continuity and change.... A fascinating and gracefully written study of minority religions, recommended for its appreciation of cultural richness and variety. Russell's portrayal of religious creativity both past and present contrasts, sadly, with the brutality and chaos in current headlines.”
Library Journal, 1 October 2014
“Original, instructive, and entertaining, Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms weaves ideas and travel experiences into an excellent narrative. This is a brilliant book.”
—Kwasi Kwarteng, Member of Parliament
“Oxford and Harvard, fluency in Arabic and Farsi, postings with the British Foreign Service in the Middle East and Afghanistan—as a scholar-diplomat Gerard Russell seems almost too good to be true. He brings these gifts to his beautifully written account of some of the most fascinating and little known communities facing the challenges of globalization. Read it to understand the complexity of—and hope in—our world.”
—Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK

“At a time when minorities—and even majorities—are being persecuted across the Middle East, ancient faiths continue, just barely, to survive. Gerard Russell not only recalls a more tolerant past through his sketches of now exotic tribes and rituals, but also paints a deep and complex relief to help us understand this troubled region’s evolution. Russell is a true classical diplomat: explorer, linguist, scholar—and master storyteller.”
—Parag Khanna, author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order

 

 

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