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Mandaeans

During Panja every true believer should dress completely in white (this is not observed strictly), and should either wear sandals woven of grass or go barefoot. The latter is usually the custom, though priests tell me that in ancient times it was considered a sin to walk barefoot on the earth, and that the real object of the injunction was that worshippers of the Life should not wear upon their feet the skins of dead animals. No meat may be eaten the flesh of sheep sacrificed in the ritual meals for the dead. Before, its end, the consecration of the manda involves the sacrifice of a sheep and a dove. This feast bring in much revenue to the priests.

The Zanghaiia
Dogs of Nirigh
Lions of Kiwan
Fig 4. The Zanghaiia

The next feast, which falls ninety days after Panja, on the first of the month Hatia, is the Dehwa Daimana (Dihba Daima). This feast celebrates the baptism of Adam, and pious Mandaeans should be baptized like their ancestor. As Daimana now falls in the summer, it is a favourite occasion for the baptism of young children. At this feast, a person baptized in a new rasta acquires merit for sixty baptisms. On the day following, it is forbidden to slaughter animals. Abstention from animal food is the only form of Mandaean fasting. Mandaeans have told me that they observe the Moslem 'Arafat as a fast, but it is not prescribed by their holy books. All Moslem festivals are mbattal days for Mandaeans.

In the last month of the year, Gadia, or Tabith, the three days before Kanshia uZahla at the end of the month are mbattal.

Before leaving this question of calendar it is interesting to compare Petermann's record. In 1854 he notes that Awwal Gita was on February 23rd, Awwal Paiz on May 28th, Awwal Sitwa on August 26th, and Awwal Abhar on November 24th. There is, therefore, a difference of nineteen days between the Awwal Gita of 1854 and that of 1935, and the feasts are travelling slowly backwards. If Panja is to be kept at the flood-time a correction must be made before another eighty years shall have elapsed, or the feast will fall before the flood-time during the bitter cold.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that a ganzibra told me that the length of the year is based on the time that a child takes to mature in its mother's womb (which period he estimated as nine month, nine days, nine hours, nine minutes, nine seconds and a half!) together with the forty-five days of her purifications, plus the 'time that the seed was in the loins of the father'. This is a typically Mandaean speculation, but I have not yet traced it in any of the holy books.

The history of Man on earth is divided by the Mandaeans into four epochs. At the end of each, mankind was destroyed with the exception of one human couple. From the creation of Adam and Eve to the destruction of the race by 'sword and plague' was a period of 216,000 years. One pair, named Ram and Rud (Sky and River), survived disaster. Just as in the case of the first pair, a union took place between the male survivor and the light double of his spouse to ensure the continuance of the Mandaean race, whilst the rest of mankind proceeded from the ordinary union of the pair. After 156,000 years a second disaster resulted in the perishing of the human family through fire. A second pair survived, Shurbai and Sharhabi'il (the word shurbai seems to mean a spreading out, or propagation-root shrb, 'to spread out'). The processes of reproduction of Mandaeans and Gentiles were repeated in the case of each successive couple. A hundred thousand years later the Flood again obliterated the human race with the exception of Nuh and his wife Nhuraitha or Nuraitha. (The word Nuh comes from a root meaning 'the calming of tempest' and nhuraitha has, of course, a 'light' meaning.)

There is to be a fourth destruction of the world in the 791st year of the sign of the Fish (Nuna). This will be by 'wind' or 'air'. Some Mandaeans gaze at the aeroplanes which fly over their heads in modern Iraq, and ask themselves if the desctruction of man will come about in that manner. My silversmith friend, Hirmiz, interprets, 'men will poison the air and so die', which may reflect coffehouse talk about poisons gas.

These Harranians may have secured for their brethren of the marshes, a simpler and more primitive people, some degree of toleration and fair treatment. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the glimpses that one gets of the Mandaeans show them harassed by persecution. One disaster in the fourteenth century left such a mark on their memories that they still speak of it to-day. I came on a record of it at the end of a magic roll that I examined recently, and the same account is set in the tarikh at the end of a codex in Shaikh Dukhayil's possession. It tells of a frightful slaughter of Mandaeans in the Jazirah when Sultan Muhsin ibn Mahdi was ruler in Amarah and his son Feyyadh governor in Shuster. The cause was a woman, a Subbiyah, who, going down to the river on the first day of the New Year, at a time when all Mandaeans keep within doors was seized by Arabs from a fleet of boats lying in the river. Fighting ensued, and war against the Subba was proclaimed. Priests, men, woman, and children were massacred and the community remained broken and priestless for years.

'If oppressed (persecuted), then say: We belong to you. But do not confess him in your hearts, or deny the voice of your Master, the high King of Light, for the lying Messiah the hidden is not revealed.'

Such precepts from the Ginza Rba must, in the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese had a trading station in Basrah, have resulted in the Mandaean being taken for a peculiarly pernicious heretic. Urged by their clergy, the Portuguese authorities persuaded the Pasha to compel 'Christians of St. John' to come to church. Means were taken to convert them by force; some were pressed into the Portuguese army. In the early seventeenth century a number of Mandaeans were Portuguese mercenaries.

In recent times the Turks showed more tolerance, for, as war and the shedding of blood are against Mandaean tenets, the Subba were permitted to pay fines instead of serving in the Ottoman Army. It remains to be seen what will happen when Iraq brings conscription into force. The position is no longer the same, however. The hold of the religion has become so feeble that I met recently a young Subbi officer who had served in the campaign against the Assyrians, and several Subbi youths are cadets.

Indeed, modern methods, modern ways, nationalistic education, cinemas, cars, and all that make up the new Iraq, threaten the existence of this already dwindling community. In Government schools, boys conform to a pattern in dress, manners, and thought. Mandaean boys (including those of priestly caste) take to European dress and wear the sidarah cap, and, when they return to their homes, neglect and slight the percepts of the priests. In the stress of school, or later business or office life, ceremonial ablutions are seldom performed, while sons of priests cut their hair and shave, and so become ineligible for priesthood. One by one, as priestly perquisites diminish and incomes lessen, the calling becomes unpopular. If these conditions persist, the priesthood will gradually die out, and without priests to baptize, marry, and bury them, the Mandaeans as a sect must disappear, There is a further drain on the community in the shape of apostates. Subbiyah girls marry outside the faith and adopt their husbands' creeds, and youths forsake a religion so incompatible with worldly advantage and town life. In big towns the publicity of the river-side makes the prescribed ablutions and baptisms all but impossible.

According to the last census (April 1932) the number of Subba in Iraq is given as 4,805. I incline to think this an understatement, which will be revised when we get the results of the new census recently taken by the Iraqi Government. Under the mandate, communities like those at Amarah and Qal'at Salih took on a new prosperity, and independent Iraq promises protection and tolerance. The danger to the flock lies within the fold rather than from wolves without.

Abstracted from : Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, E.S. Drower, Leiden, 1962

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