Monday, 6 June 2016

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (10 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1471114716

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. Historically a tolerant faith, Islam has, since the early 20th century, witnessed the rise of militant, extremist sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction. 

Drawing on his extensive travels and research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.
  • Review

    'This beautifully written account of the Middle East's unknown and vanishing religions could not be more timely. Just as the world turns its attention to the extremist attacks on Iraq's Yazidis, Gerard Russell tells us who they are. Russell's book based on his travels among the Yazidis, Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist), Zoroastrians, Samaritans, Copts, and Druze - is the story of people and faiths that have links back to the dawn of civilization. It is travel writing in the tradition of Rebecca West and Robert Kaplan, but possibly better.' Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq 

    'Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms has the beauty, wisdom, and tragedy of the best elegies. Gerard Russell's book is both timely and necessary, a scholarly and personal observation of religions that are the heritage of all mankind, yet are rapidly disappearing. It is part travelogue and part history of some of the original wellsprings of human culture, both ancient and modern, but also a meditation upon rites and beliefs that are mysterious and fascinating but grievously threatened. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is essential reading for everyone who cares about the Middle East, religion, and indeed our common history.' Carne Ross, former diplomat and founder of Independent Diplomat 

    'As the al-Qaeda splinter group, ISIS, storms across Syria and Iraq and attempts to destroy the Yazidi religious sect, now comes Gerard Russell, an erudite, polylingual former British diplomat, who documents the fates of the ancient religions of the Middle East, many of which are on the brink of extinction. Russell writes beautifully and reports deeply, and his account of these disappearing religions will be an enduring anthropology of largely-hidden worlds that may disappear within our own lifetimes.' Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad 

    'An eloquent and sensitive portrayal of the Middle East's lesser known religions, whose existence is severely threatened by the strident nationalisms and proxy wars that are currently tearing apart a region once renowned for its tolerance. Gerard Russell gives a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, those whose traditions handed down through many centuries are being disregarded and indeed obliterated in a blaze of violence and hatred. He lifts the veil of ignorance and reveals just what is at stake both in the Middle East and around the world. Through extensive and meticulous research, and encompassing years of travel to distant places to meet in person those whose lives have been turned upside down, Mr. Russell's passionate message touches the heart and reminds us of the value and beauty of tolerance.' Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Director, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, Harvard University 

    '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. Rarely have I read anything so timely.' --Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World 

    'Gerard Russell's beautifully written book provides wonderful insights into the Middle East and the beauty of the different cultures that have flourished there for centuries. It is a welcome respite from the usual portrayal of violence in the region, and at the same time a wake-up call of what will be lost if a perverse form of violent extremism is allowed to prevail. At a time when religion is so often seen as a cause of war, this book shows how lives can be enriched by maintaining rituals and beliefs through generations.' Emma Sky, Senior 

    'Part vivid odyssey, part lucid history.... Gerard Russell's timely and humane depiction of [these cultures] is a compelling read' James Barr, Literary Review 

    'Impressive testimony to the enduring strength of British travel writing' Michael Burleigh, Books of the Year 2014, Evening Standard 

    '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 

    '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... Wonderfully intriguing... with erudition, sensitivity, humour and aplomb: a remarkable achievement' The Economist 

    '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 

    'A fascinating survey of the half-forgotten little faiths of the region' The Independent'He has gotten under the skin of many of the region's endangered peoples and what he has found is rather beautiful... Travelling by bus and taxi across the region even as IS irrigated the landscape nearby with blood, Russell's command of Arabic and Farsi (combined with prodigious scholarship) enables him to bring us this valuable compendium of fast vanishing cultures' --Evening Standard

    'He wears his research lightly, combining fairy-tale detail Yazidis sacrifice bulls and revere a peacock rebel angel with warning and elegy' --Intelligent Life

    About the Author

    Gerard Russell is a former United Nations and British diplomat. During his time with the British foreign service, which took him to Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Jeddah and Kabul, he was described as 'the foremost expert on the Islamic world in his generation.' In 2009 he moved to the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and is now working in a strategic communications consultancy in London. He is fluent in both Arabic and Farsi.

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