Ezra's Tomb

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Ezra's Tomb by British war artist Donald Maxwell, c.1918

Ezra's Tomb or the Tomb of Ezra (Arabic: العزير‎ Al-ʻUzair, Al-ʻUzayr, Al-Azair) is a location in Iraq on the western shore of the Tigris that was popularly believed to be the burial place of the biblical figure Ezra. Al-ʻUzair is the present name of the settlement that has grown up around the tomb.

History[edit]

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Ezra died and was laid to rest in the city of Jerusalem.[1] Hundreds of years later, however, a spurious tomb in his name was claimed to have been discovered in Iraq around the year 1050.[2][3]

The tombs of ancient prophets were believed by medieval people to produce a heavenly light;[4] it was reputed that on certain nights an "illumination" would go up from the tomb of Ezra.[5] In his Concise Pamphlet Concerning Noble Pilgrimage Sites, Yasin al-Biqai (d. 1095) wrote that the “light descends” onto the tomb.[6] Jewish merchants partaking in mercantile activities in India from the 11th-13th century often paid reverence to him by visiting his tomb on their way back to places like Egypt.[7][8] The noted Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (d. 1173) visited the tomb and recorded the types of observances that both Jews and Muslims of his time afforded it. A fellow Jewish traveler named Yehuda Alharizi (d. 1225) was told a story during his visit (c. 1215) about how a shepherd had learned of its place in a dream 160 years prior. Alharizi, after stating that he initially considered the accounts of lights rising from the tomb "fictitious", claimed that on his visit he saw a light in the sky "clear like the sun [...] illuminating the darkness, skipping to the right and left [...] visibly arising, moving from the west to the east on the face of heaven, as far as the grave of Ezra".[9] He also commented the light that shown on the tomb was the “glory of God.”[10] Rabbi Petachiah of Ratisbon gave a similar account to Alharizi of the tomb's discovery.[11]

Working in the 19th century, Sir Austen Henry Layer suggested the original tomb had probably been swept away by the ever-changing course of the Tigris since none of the key buildings mentioned by Tudela were present at the time of his expedition.[12] If true, this would mean the current tomb in its place is not the same one that Tudela and later writers visited. It continues to be an active holy site today.[13]

The shrine[edit]

Photograph of Ezra's Tomb, early 20th century. The dome is hidden by date palms.

The present buildings, which unusually comprised a joint Muslim and Jewish shrine, are possibly around 250 years old; there is an enclosing wall and a blue-tiled dome, and a separate synagogue, which though now disused has been kept in good repair in recent times.[14]

Claudius James Rich noted the tomb in 1820; a local Arab told him that "a Jew, by name Koph Yakoob, erected the present building over it about thirty years ago".[15] Rich stated the shrine had a battlemented wall and a green dome (later accounts describe it as blue), and contained a tiled room in which the tomb was situated.

The shrine and its associated settlement seem to have been used as a regular staging post on journeys upriver during the Mesopotamian Campaign and British Mandate of Mesopotamia, so is mentioned in several travelogues and British military memoirs of the time.[16] T. E. Lawrence, visiting in 1916, described the buildings as "a domed mosque and courtyard of yellow brick, with some simple but beautiful glazed brick of a dark green colour built into the walls in bands and splashes [...] the most elaborate building between Basra and Ctesiphon".[17] Sir Alfred Rawlinson, who saw the shrine in 1918, observed that a staff of midwives was maintained for the benefit of women who came to give birth there.[18]

The vast majority of the Iraqi Jewish population emigrated in 1951-52. The shrine has continued in use, however; having long been visited by the Marsh Arabs, it is now a place of pilgrimage for the Shi'a of southern Iraq.[19] The Hebrew inscriptions of the wooden casket, the dedication plaque, and large Hebrew letters of God's name is still prominently maintained in the worshiping room.

Al-Uzair town[edit]

Al-Uzair is one of the two sub-districts of Qalat Saleh district, Maysan Province, Iraq. The town itself now has a population of some 14,000 people.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Marcus, David, Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg, and Abraham Ben-Yaacob. "Ezra." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 652-654. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 August 2010
  2. ^ According to a legend circulating among the Jews of Yemen, Ezra died in Iraq as a punishment from God for prohibiting them from ever returning to Jerusalem (Parfitt, Tudor. The road to Redemption: the Jews of the Yemen ; 1900 - 1950. Brill's series in Jewish studies, 17. Leiden [u.a.]: Brill, 1996, p. 4)
  3. ^ Gordon, Benjamin Lee. New Judea; Jewish Life in Modern Palestine and Egypt. Philadelphia: J.H. Greenstone, 1919, p. 70
  4. ^ Tales of this phenomenon circulated as far as China. During the Song Dynasty, Zhou Qufei (周去非, c. 1178) wrote the tomb of Muhammad, known as the Buddha Ma-xia-wu (麻霞勿), had "such a refulgence that no one [could] approach it, those who [did] shut their eyes and [ran] by." Borrowing heavily from Zhou, the later Song scholar Zhao Rugua (c. 1225) said anyone who approached the tomb "[lost] his sight" (Zhao, Rukuo, Friedrich Hirth, and William Woodville Rockhill. Chau Ju-Kua: His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Entitled Chu-Fanchï. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1966, p. 125).
  5. ^ Sirriyeh, E. Sufi Visionary of Ottoman Damascus, Routledge, 2005, p.122
  6. ^ Meri, Joseph W. The Cult of Saints Among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 23
  7. ^ Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza – The Individual (Vol. 5). Berkeley, Calif. [a.u.]: Univ. of California Press, 1999, p. 18
  8. ^ David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson ‘’Pilgrimage and the Jews’’ (Westport: CT: Praeger, 2006), 97.
  9. ^ Alharizi, transl. in Benisch, A. Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, London: Trubner & C., 1856 pp. 92-93
  10. ^ Meri, The Cult of Saints, p. 21
  11. ^ Petachia of Ratisbon, Rabbi. Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, who in the latter end of the 12. century, visited Poland, Russia, Little Tartary, the Crimea, Armenia ...: translated ... by A. Benisch, with explanat. notes by the translat. and William Francis Ainsworth. London: Trubner & C., 1856, pp. 91 n. 56
  12. ^ Layard, Austen Henry, and Henry Austin Bruce Aberdare. Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, Including a Residence Among the Bakhtiyari and Other Wild Tribes Before the Discovery of Nineveh. Farnborough, Eng: Gregg International, 1971, pp. 214-215
  13. ^ Raheem Salman, “IRAQ: Amid war, a prophet’s shrine survives,” LA Times blog, August 17, 2008
  14. ^ Yigal Schleifer, Where Judaism Began
  15. ^ Rich, C. J. Narrative of a residence in Koordistan, J. Duncan, 1836, p.391
  16. ^ Most mention the striking blue dome, a notable landmark in a region with few buildings. An example is in the memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs, who states: "That entertaining writer's mausoleum is in my opinion a seventeenth-century structure" (The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs, Ayer, 1972, p.230)
  17. ^ T. E. Lawrence, Letter of 18 May 1916, telawrence.net
  18. ^ Rawlinson rather flippantly characterises the shrine as "a kind of hotel" (Rawlinson, A. Adventures in the Near East, 1918-1922, Melrose, 1923, Ch.2)
  19. ^ Raphaeli, N. The Destruction of Iraqi Marshes and Their Revival, memri.org