The Mandaeans, the last surviving Near Eastern Gnostic group from the time of late antiquity, still live in Iraq and Iran, and, due to increasing difficulties in their homelands, many have emigrated to other parts of the world. Never very numerous, the Mandaeans today total fewer than one hundred thousand. Possessors of a vast religious literature in their own language, Mandaic (an East Aramaic dialect), the Mandaeans succeeded early in achieving legal minority religion status as "a people of the book" under Islam. They convinced Muslim authorities that they possessed the prerequisites: a holy text (the Ginza or "Treasure")1 and a prophet, John the Baptist. At the time of confrontation with Islam (i.e., in the mid-seventh century) Mandaeism had already existed for centuries, originating in the Jordan/Palestinian area as an offshoot of baptismal, sectarian forms of Judaism.
About ten years ago, I began to reconstruct strands of Mandaean history, using sources no one had studied systematically. These are the Mandaean colophons, long lineages of named Mandaean scribes. Age-old standards call for these formulaic lists at the end of a copied text. Several colophons may appear if the text is a composite one, consisting of originally separate books or scrolls. The most recent scribe of a manuscript appends a postscript at the end of his copied work. To copy a text supplies religious merit, and Mandaean priests and scribes still write their texts by hand, as they have for nearly two thousand years. One may copy a text for one's own forgiveness of sins, or one may be hired to perform this task for someone else.
By comparing and correlating colophons, I have constructed a sort of weaving, a warp-and-woof "object" consisting of names and lineages of priestly families.' In time, this weaving stretches from the present century back to the third; in space, long sheets of paper placed across a sizeable floor contain a myriad of names. A computer screen is not large enough to hold sufficient information, though a film screen might be.
Among the many illustrious Mandaean priestly scribes I have found, few rival Yahia Bihram, son of Adam Yuhana.3 Together with his cousin and brother-in-law Ram Zahrun, son of Sam Bihram, Yahia Bihram was a survivor of the calamitous 1831 cholera epidemic sweeping much of Persia and present-day Iraq. The cholera erased the entire Mandaean priesthood, leaving a decimated and demoralized lay population and only three or four sons of priests. Initiating one another into priesthood, Yahia Bihram and Ram Zahrun rescued the Mandaean religion from extinction and therefore merit hero status in Mandaean history. For without priests who baptize, celebrate marriages, officiate at religious festivals and at ceremonies for the dead, Mandaean religion could not—and still cannot—be sustained.
The German orientalist Heinrich Petermann spent several months in 1854 in Suq es-Shuyuk, a village on the Euphrates in southern Iraq, where Yahia Bihram headed his Mandaean flock. Petermann had eagerly looked forward to working with a Mandaean priest, and the relationship between the two men is described in Petermann's travel account.' My object here is to transmit what I have found of Yahia Bihram's story by using information from his colophons and from Petermann's work. So, this article on Mandaean life in the nineteenth century forms a strand in an obscure part of the history of the Near East.
BRIEF NOTE ON HISTORICAL SETTING
Due to their religious duty of baptizing repeatedly in running, fresh water, Mandaeans live near rivers. In the time period I am treating, territories with Mandaean populations belong to the Ottomans, to the Persians, and to areas contested by the two powers. Bedouin tribal wars are also a factor, and Bedouins routinely challenge any power other than their own.
Yahia Bihram is born approximately 1811 and spends his childhood and early youth in his father's, the priest Adam Yuhana's, house in the important trading city of Basra on the waterway Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf.5 Basra is the center of the southernmost of Iraq's three wilayats, "provinces" (the two others are Baghdad and Mosul) under the rule of the Ottoman empire. In 1817, Daud Pasha, "pious without effect,"6 the last of the Georgia-born Mamluks, begins his reign in Baghdad. No special wars with Persia occur during Daud's time, but in 1818, at least on Persian territory, all Mandaean high priests are thrown into exile.7 A year later, crime and terrorism reign in Basra, culminating as local Bedouin tribesmen attack the city in midsummer 1820.
In 1826 the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud destroys the Janissaries, the elite military corps, in Turkey and demands identical action in the provinces. The new army, constructed on European models, is trained by a French officer and also by the British colonel Taylor (whom we shall meet as a figure in Yahia Bihram's early life), the resident of the Basra-based East India Company. The British conduct surveys of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris for steam navigation possibilities in 1830-31, but the great mutana, the cholera, soon renders all life and projects chaotic. A most riveting British witness to the cholera is J. R. Wellsted, an Indian Navy officer, present in Baghdad when the epidemic strikes there.8
Weakened by cholera, Daud Pasha is supplanted by Ali Pasha Ridha on September 14, 1831. This Pasha introduces modernizations to Iraq, such as relaxing Islamic customs and granting privileges to the East India Company. However, he loots Basra in 1837. Already four years earlier, Persians and Ottomans have fought over the town Muhammerah (present-day Khorramshahr) on the Shatt al-Arab.9
Rebellions in Iraq continue from 1833 on, with renewed outbreaks of plague, and the xenophobic Pasha Najib grasping power in Baghdad in 1842. The next ruler, Muhammad Rashid Pasha—honest, liberal, and a builder of canals—presides over a relatively quiet interim. During his reign, Petermann enters Iraq. The latter part of the decade sees much tribal warfare, and European interests in Mesopotamian river traffic come to an abrupt end with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, which renders Iraq irrelevant to the British quest for easily controlled routes to India. Two years before this date, 1867, is the last year I have evidence for Yahia Bihram's activities, so I end my historical sketch here.
YAHIA BIHRAM'S COLOPHON TESTIMONIES
As noted, all of the Mandaean priests die in the far-sweeping cholera of 1831, the so-called Plague of Shushtar. Due solely to the efforts of Yahia Bihram and Ram Zahrun, the two surviving Shgandas (ritual helpers), the religion continues to this day. Both of them are sons of famous head priests, Ganzibras, and both are prolific copyists of texts in the aftermath of the epidemic. However, Ram Zahrun gives very little information on the effects of this cataclysm on the Mandaeans. In contrast, Yahia Bihram offers vivid and moving descriptions of this and other events, and of his own life.
As the cholera begins to subside, Yahia Bihram, just past twenty, links up with Ram Zahrun, who is twice Yahia Bihram's age. In Suq es-Shuyuk in 1831, devastated by their loss of family and fellow Mandaeans, the two men join forces as the chief carriers of the Mandaean priestly tradition, for they understand the immediate need to create a new leadership for the traumatized survivors. The two consecrate one another as Tarmidas, the lower rank of priesthood, and Yahia Bihram later elevates his older cousin into the Ganzivra. In a relatively short time, the two men train thirteen Shgandas in the village of Suq es-Shuyuk. But while this laborious training and consecrations occur, precious time and fellow religionists are lost, for Mandaeans cannot get married without a proper priesthood. Consequently, many convert to Islam.10
Still, the two newly minted priests manage to reestablish their religion. Starting in 1831 and continuing through the next several decades, the two men carry on text copying, with Yahia Bihram transcribing at least six documents that now belong in the Bodleian Library's Drower Collection (DC).'' The testimonies in his colophonic postscripts describe not only the
Conditions caused by the cholera, but also later times of other hardships, including cruel persecutions. Here, then, follows information from Yahia Bihram's postscripts, more or less in temporal sequence.
Dc 35: Masbuta of Hibil Ziwa12
Yahia Bihram copies the copiously illustrated DC 35 in the year of the cholera, 1831, but his large postscript, obviously added onto later, tells of events during a time period stretching at least to the year 1848. At the beginning of his MHZ postscript, he includes the traditional formula, praying for Lightworld blessings on a number of people, including his father and mother, his teacher, his two wives, his offspring, and his siblings. At this point, a reader would not know that Yahia Bihram's parents and other mentioned persons are dead, victims of the cholera.
Despite having lost almost all of his relatives, Yahia Bihram retains at least a brother and a sister, Bibia Mudalal, the wife of Ram Zahrun. So, the two men are not only cousins but brothers-in-law. Why they were not initiated before the mutana, during the lifetime of their fathers, is a question that cannot be answered. Ironically, it is certain that the lack of early, traditional priestly status saved their lives, for otherwise they too would have perished along with the entire priesthood. Cholera contagion travels predominantly by water, and priests, who spend much of their time in and by running water and also drinking contaminated water, would become virtually instant victims.
As noted, Yahia Bihram's father and his initiator are two different men, his father having perished in the mutana. However, Yahia Bihram consistently calls himself "Yahia Bihram, son of Adam Yuhana," despite the unusual conditions of his initiation, for Yahia Bihram's cousin Ram Zahrun is his initiator. Ram Zahrun, too, designates his ancestry in the same manner, designating himself in relation to his own father. This is, of course, not orthodox, but it makes sense in the emergency situation in which the two men trained since childhood, in this way honor their fathers. The situation presents a kind of "double" teacher position, the two cousins being indebted both to their respective fathers and to one another.
Yahia Bihram copies MHZ from the text of his uncle, the Ganzivra Yahia Yuhana, son of Adam Zahrun. He concludes most of his work in the house of a fellow priest, Zahrun, in the village of Nihrat on the Tigris,13 but he draws the pictures while he is in Qurna, at the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris (perhaps a scroll there had illustrations of a better quality). For three months, Yahia Bihram stays in Zihrun's house, grateful to his host for food and kindness.14
Then, continuing his postscript, Yahia Bihram begins to tell about the past, remote and recent. His father's residence was in Basra, he says, a big house that sat next to the one inhabited by the British vice-consul J. E. Taylor, an excavator of the ancient city of Ur and a discoverer of nearby Eridu. Adam Yuhana, Yahia Bihram's father, conducted religious and philosophical discussions with the British official. In fact, when Yahia Bihram was a young man of fourteen (ca. 1825) Taylor had sent for the Ganzivra, wishing to be instructed in the religion of the Mandaeans. So successful was the Ganzivra that Taylor believed Mandaeism was the true religion,15 but for fear of the governor Taylor kept his insights to himself. Still, Yahia Bihram writes, the queen in London got wind of the events and became angry with Taylor. Yahia Bihram continues, "As for me, it was when he [Taylor] was in Basra that he taught me the language of the French, English, and the language of the Armenians—may Hibil Ziwa forgive me my sins! For when I was with these [people] I did not become an apostate. When I was little, I was with Christians and learned words of their language of all kinds and sorts; but I did not become an apostate ... nor did I eat of their food."16
Yahia Bihram does not always follow a linear trace when he recalls the past. But the MHZ postscript description of the aftermath of the cholera appears all in one piece. He begins,
And now, O, our brothers who come after us! Know that in the year [that began on a] Friday, A.H. 1247 [1831 c.E.] the great mutana came, and not one of the ganzibras or priests survived, and many people departed the body. Then, when the world was more quiet and there was calm, [we] literates17 [yalufas] rose up on the day of Parwanaiia [the intercalary five-day feast] and we prayed the devotions and we consecrated the cult-hut. After the consecration, one esteemed yalufa set the crown [raga] on one of the yalufas in the cult hut. He prayed the "Devotions" for sixty days and celebrated a death mass for his teacher,18 and they consecrated one another, one by one.19
Three or four years later in Margab, the Mandaean quarter of Suq es-Shuyuk, a quarrel breaks out between the priests and the local laypeople.20 As a result, the priests leave for Basra. Later, Yahia Bihram and some other
Mandaeans embark for Shushtar, but on the road to that town Arabs rob him. His loss is considerable, for he mentions that his parental house had been a rich one, and he had probably carried most of his belongings. Trying to recover his valuables, Yahia Bihram goes to the sheikh of the tribe of the Arabs who has stolen his goods. The thieves are apprehended, and Yahia Bihram receives a fraction of his possessions—only to the value of three hundred piastres, while the value of the entire loot is seven thousand piastres. But in the end Yahia Bihram ends up with near nothing, for fees and payments (baksheesh) take the rest—a perennial tale!
Worse is to come, dire threats being directed at Muhammerah. The governor of Syria and Iraq, Ali Pasha, is about to burn the town in retaliation for an unnamed crime.21 While in Shushtar, Yahia Bihram had obtained many Mandaean books and scrolls, which he has left behind in Muhammerah. Now, at the rumor of imminent conflagration, he sends a fellow Mandaean to warn the others to leave Muhammerah. But it is too late. The local Muslim tribes flee hastily in their barges across the Shatt al-Arab, leaving the Mandaeans behind. The only ones to escape are two Mandaean women and a seven-year-old boy. Later captured by soldiers, the boy is subsequently ransomed out of an army camp.
Yahia Bihram seems to travel ceaselessly during the years after the cholera. It is difficult to keep track of his movements. Many of the places he names are so far unknown to me and absent from accessible maps. At times, he is fleeing disasters; in other instances, he is obviously voyaging in order to instruct fellow Mandaeans. In 1837, persecuted by peasants (where is unclear) and, it seems, even harassed by fellow Mandaeans in league with local Muslims, Yahia Bihram and some other Mandaeans take refuge in the reed marshes. Returning to Basra alone, Yahia Bihram remains there for a year. Later, family members appear to have joined them. Then his daughter dies, and he despairs because the required four Mandaean bier-carriers cannot be found. At this point, he uses the traditional Mandaean expression of agony: "My heart fell from its support."22 He prays for his daughter, but, in faithful accordance with religious custom, restrains himself from lamentation.23
Again he travels, now to Upper Mesopotamia, the Jezirah. Two Mandaean priests appear, and they take him to Margab, the Mandaean quarter of Suq es-Shuyuk where, a few years before, Yahia Bihram and Ram Zahrun initiated one another and taught Shgandas. Later Yahia Bihram, at least, had to leave because of the laypeople's opposition.
A year after Yahia Bihram has arrived in Margab, the local ruler inflicts a special form of persecution on the Mandaeans. The Shaikh of the tribe, Thamir-ibn-Ghadban, circumcised all the Mandaeans that were on the lands of the tribe, women and men, boys and girls. There were a hundred souls, male and female, there. Then all the settlements where there were sons of Mars [i.e., Muslims] rose against them seeking to take us up out of the world. The Great Life quelled them.24 And those souls whom the tribe circumcised we took (them) in with us by baptism and marriage. For very fear not a person could go out on the roads, for if one did go out, they would circumcise him. For that reason we received them and took them in with us.25
To the Mandaeans, any form of bodily mutilation is a horror. Circumcision, which seems to have been a recurrent punishment meted out by hostile rulers, marks a forced conversion. Strictly speaking, such a measure would "unmake" a Mandaean, but it is a sign of great pity and solidarity that the Mandaean community takes their violated kinsmen back as their own. By baptizing their mutilated fellow religionists, the Mandaeans purify them in order to make them eligible for re-membership. Also, be-cause the Mandaean population is so decimated after the cholera, they can ill afford to lose any more of their coreligionists, even those rendered impure by forced circumcision.
While Yahia Bihram stays in southern Babylonia, in Suq-es-Shuyuk, Ram Zahrun remains in the Khuzistani towns of Shushtar and Dizful. Yahia Bihram says of his close friend, relative, and initiator, "For twelve years we have been divided and distant from one another, but the Great First Life and the Great, Precious Countenance inform us about one another and crush our enemy. For they do not forsake us but unite us together!"
Dc 24: Sharh d-Parwanaiia
In a tiny script, Yahia Bihram copies Sharh d-Parwanaiia, the (so far unpublished) scroll of priestly instruction for the intercalary, five-day Parwanaiia ritual. He completes his task in 1832 in the house of his sister's son in Muhammerah.26
Convinced that he is living at the very end of the last of the four world ages when, according to Mandaean doctrine, things are as evil as they can be, Yahia Bihram keeps his faith, in spite of the conditions. "There is no peace and no serenity. People are striking one another, blaming one another. [Our] support is the elevated King. Life be praised for ever and ever!"
Yahia Bihram assures his readers that he has changed nothing of what his father, the deceased Ganzivra, taught him. But in Margab he finds that no one knows the rahmas, a particular category of prayers, as well as he does. The other yalufas cannot understand the liturgies and other texts very well, and the laypeople too seek his help. But when Yahia Bihram offers to put in order the defective, local baptism liturgy and the rahmas, the laypeople stop him. "They are confounded, because they live in the last age," Yahia Bihram sadly concludes.
On the final day of the Parwanaiia, Yahia Bihram prays the required liturgy in terror and agony because of the lack of correct ritual tools: he has neither the priestly staff, nor a new, silk priestly crown. "The Taga of cotton sufficed, one that I had consecrated before the cholera began." Bereft of the required priest colleagues at this special ritual time, he is all alone. "I was frightened and worshipped in fear, with tremblings, and I shivered and my tears flowed without end. I prayed for compassion from Life and I consecrated the crown, so that I might not be ruined. For the Life has pity in its compassion towards [its] sons and [knows] how much they are able to endure."
Reminiscing, Yahia Bihram recalls other, long gone days before the cholera when he and his father bravely went together to Babil (probably Baghdad) to retrieve a Ginza that had been confiscated by the Muslims. "Our tongues were not stuck," he says, which must mean that the two Mandaean men were able to speak for themselves. Whether they succeeded in regaining the book Yahia Bihram does not tell.
At the very end of his postscript he states that it is now twenty years since he consolidated the illustrated scrolls and books. If he is referring to his own possible victory in arranging the books of the confused Mandaeans of Margab, which happened right after the cholera, the date of this part of the postscript must be the early 1850s. He ends with the formula, "Anyone whose soul is able: do not change!27 Establish the lofty Truth! May Life be victorious above all created things!"
Dc 47: The Spell of Rue
Drower bought DC 47, The Spell of Rue (Pishra d-Shambra) in Baghdad in 1945. A year later, she published a translation of another copy of the same text,28 but DC 47 was copied in 1833 by Yahia Bihram from his father's scroll, and he seems to have brought it with him, unstolen, on his many travels. During these years, he looks in vain for Mandaean leaders and well-ordered texts.
"I prayed to the 'utras,29 my brothers, and I was unable to prevent the disgraces of what happened when I was alone by myself." Among other towering difficulties, it seems that he has been forced to leave behind his dead or dying father without the proper rites, which would have caused him nearly unbearable pain. His mother, too, has perished. Yahia Bihram stays with a few relatives in Basra where an Arab judge comes to him, apparently to arrange the matter of the dead parents.
Yahia Bihram insists that he is writing his postscript so that surviving Mandaeans or those living at an even later time may know what happened as a result of the cholera. Voyaging down the Tigris from Baghdad to Basra together with another Mandaean, Yahia Bihram sees "foul matter of the Arabs" (perhaps corpses) floating in the river. In Basra the two Mandaeans observe New Year's, Dehwa Rabba d-Nauruz.
Later in the postscript he mentions the Englishman Joseph Auliffe and Vice-Consul Taylor, encountered in the MHZ postscript. And again, Yahia Bihram returns to his memories of the cholera. As people are dying all around him, he leaves Basra and, he says, "[I] went with all my strength to the marsh and supported myself and was saved from evil deeds. There remained none of all of our houses and [our] tribe, all except for my cousin and his wife, who is my dear sister and his wife. So, I was in the marsh for a long time"
In 1853—the year before Petermann arrives in Suq es-Shuyuk—Yahia Bihram copies DC 43, entitled The Poor Priest's Treasury, a collection of twelve exorcisms. An Arabic talisman depicting a man with letters and numbers all over his body graces the back of the scroll. Inside it are several diagrams and drawings.30
Yahia Bihram copies DC 43 for himself and for his children; he has two wives and offspring. They live in a precarious time, for the Mandaeans of Margab have just been raided, with loss of three Mandaean lives. "We fled and prayed and gathered together from the sons of the sword, from town to town, seeing nothing but persecution and starvation." With his two wives, two sons, three daughters, and a donkey, Yahia Bihram arrives in a village by a marsh, where his younger wife gives birth. His cousin Ram Zihrun joins the family. He possesses the exorcism (probably the present one) that Yahia Bihram copies. All of Yahia Bihram's own scrolls and books have been lost, looted.
After writing the last of the twelve exorcisms that make up The Poor Priest's Treasury, Yahia Bihram elaborates on the present situation. The
rulers responsible for the raid on Margab and for further persecution are the sons of Sad al-'Abas.31 "May my Lord and Manda d-Hiia save us from the sons of Krun!"32 Yahia Bihram asks Hibil Ziwa for rescue into the Lightworld (i.e., for death, which shows the depth of his desperation). "We endured robbery, murder, persecution, starvation, and disaster from them, in lower Mesopotamia . . . they broke apart the channels." Those who can, flee into the desert, suffering under the shadeless sun. Yahia Bihram him-self, along with some others, crosses a waterway on a raft made of bitumen. "Life was with us and saved us and delivered us into the marsh."
THE EUROPEAN SCHOLAR
Since boyhood, Heinrich Petermann (1801–76) had always dreamed of visiting the Orient. Three groups, especially, had caught his interest: the Druses, the Samaritans, and the Mandaeans.33 Finally, in 1851, his opportunity to travel materialized, and he obtained a gracious leave from his duties as professor of Oriental languages in Berlin, a post he had held since 1837. Petermann had royal permission to acquire Oriental antiquities, documents, coins, and other artifacts according to his own ability and discretion.
Petermann leaves Germany in June 1852 and after many adventures arrives in Baghdad, eager to meet Mandaeans. But he immediately finds that they are not there; rather, an estimated eight-day journey (it will take longer) to the village Suq es-Shuyuk is required.34 This village belongs to the Bedouin tribe of the Muntafiq, a people not to be trifled with, as Petermann will find. Cholera still persists in Hilla, south of Baghdad, where journeying by horse is substituted by a series of boat rentals. The sailing voyage takes Petermann through dangerous Bedouin territory. In the night, birds are rushed, shrieking, at the sound of the rudder. As jackals howl, Petermann's skipper is anxious about the Bedouins who, unseen on the darkened shores, cry threats toward the passing boat, "Get away from us!" Petermann relies on his two pistols and his jatagan (a type of long knife), which is used at least once to straighten out a boat rental about to go awry. The area teems with robbers.
On Tuesday, January 24, 1854, Petermann reaches Suq es-Shuyuk. Unfortunately, the powerful Sheikh Mansur of the Muntafiq is away at war camp three hours to the north, preparing to engage other, hostile Beduin tribes in battle. But Petermann desperately needs someone to accept his recommendation letters; otherwise, he will be without protection. He goes to the richest Shia in town, a hajji,35 who seems to give him a cool reception. No pipe is offered to him, for a non-Muslim would make the pipe impure and unfit for any further use. But the hajji does offer Petermann a house, a vermin-infested brick building partially used for the storage of dates. Petermann puts up his tent on the roof and together with his Maronite servant also occupies two rooms downstairs. Now, where are the Mandaeans? Petermann waits for the first one to show up.
He does. It is Yahia Bihram, who in Petermann's book goes only by his first name.36 The only priest in Suq es-Shuyuk, the forty-three-yearold Yahia is outfitted like the local Beduins in a brown-and-white cloak and a keffiyeh (head cloth). Silently analyzing Yahia's features, Petermann finds him characterized by "friendliness mixed with cunning"37 While in Baghdad, Petermann has already heard that Yahia recently promised two Englishmen all kinds of information about Mandaeism but left these matters unfulfilled.
However, the German visitor is horrified to hear that Petermann's rumor has preceded him, for Yahia already knows that the scholar is interested in the Mandaeans. Petermann worries that Yahia will tell him nothing substantial about the religion, as the Mandaeans are known to be reticent on the subject of their beliefs. Consequently, Petermann emphasizes that he is a philologist, for he wants, above all, to see the Mandaean sacred literature. Then Yahia voices his own worries. Is Petermann Jewish? Has he ever been Jewish? Or were any of his ancestors Jewish? Taken aback, Petermann in good conscience answers no.
Conscious of local custom, decorum, and the safety of his pupil, Yahia insists that Petermann must see the Muntafiq sheikh. The priest does not want to delve deeply into the Mandaean teachings with Petermann until clearance has been gained from the highest authority. Petermann waits, entertains people visiting him in his roof tent, and makes scattered observations on the weather and on the local scene. A lingering cholera still persists, with seven Mandaeans dead the past year, though it is nothing like the epidemic of twenty-three years earlier, which cut down two-thirds of Suq es-Shuyuk's population, now numbering approximately ten thousand, says Yahia.
Petermann doubts this number although he concedes that the town is of considerable size, with several markets. The Muslim population is divided roughly half and half between Sunni and Shia, and there are some Jews, who have their synagogue. A single Christian family from Baghdad also lives in the town. The rest are Mandaeans who reside in their
own quarter on the opposite river bank. Petermann's house is, of course, on the Muslim side of the river.
As the Muntafiq sheikh, Mansur ibn Sadun, does not show up, Yahia decides it is best to visit him upriver in his war camp. Yahia brings a large boat, equipped with a Persian rug and a pillow, so that his German pupil and himself may travel together in comfort. They arrive at the camp, and despite the warlike ambience, Petermann's visit goes well, and Yahia tells Petermann how much to tip the sheikh's servants. The two men return to Suq es-Shuyuk.
Now, work can begin. Yahia comes every day for six hours, except on Sunday, the Mandaean holiday, to teach Petermann the language and to read with him the entire corpus of Mandaean literature, such as it is present in Suq es-Shuyuk. Yahia is paid for his services. Petermann dares not take any notes during the lessons but writes them down after the priest has left. Yahia soon acquires respect for Petermann, who learns speedily. But Yahia cautions Petermann that Yahia's own father, Adam Yuhana, taught Taylor in Basra for twelve years,38 so how can Petermann expect to learn it all in a mere few months? Twelve years will hardly suffice for initiation into the Mandaean mysteries, he says.39
Even though Petermann and Yahia do not work on Sundays, the two do see one another on those days. In a reversal of the visiting pattern, Petermann goes to the priest on Sundays. Yahia's twelve-year-old son comes to take the scholar across the river in a boat. However, Petermann is disappointed at being barred from entering the priest's house, for he is only allowed into its courtyard. Here he sits every Sunday, smoking cigars brought from Beirut, for he dares not bring his pipe. The cigars create a stir anyway. Shut out from the main house, unclean but meriting hospitality, Petermann smokes, is served food, drinks coffee, and ponders his position. He observes that Yahia uses neither tobacco nor coffee.
The Mandaeans must originally have been Christians, Petermann concludes, though it mystifies him how they could have strayed so far from the truth. He describes the features of the Mandaean cult-hut, the Mandi, in Suq es-Shuyuk; he is allowed to come to the burial ground to see a funeral; and he witnesses festivities during Parwanaiia. He observes Yahia going from house to house to slaughter cleansed lambs for that occasion. Sitting on a carpet and leaning on a cushion solicitously provided by Yahia, Petermann watches the ritual events by the river in the yard in front of the Mandi.
priest even lights Petermann's pipe with coals from the clay fire basin, the tariana. But as Yahia, in between ritual segments, relaxes, converses, and entertains himself with his fellow Mandaeans, the slightly scandalized Petermann is struck by the lack of any sustained air of piety.
Yahia's parishioners often come around while he works with Petermann in the tent pitched atop the house lent by the hajji. Yahia is the Mandaeans' only learned man, and they need him to write letters and other documents. He is also the community's doctor, and Petermann notes that Yahia has acquired a modicum of Western medical knowledge, which he pairs with exorcisms and other traditional methods. On one occasion, a distressed Mandaean man appears, for his wife, who has recently given birth, is possessed by the devil. Yahia administers bloodletting and exorcisms. He describes the woman's symptoms to Petermann, who is up-to-date with his own culture's high standards of diagnostics and remarks to his readers that "the milk had risen to her head.."40
Petermann has his own health concerns, but he does not become ill. Around him a great menagerie of animal life carries on. The place is so arid that flies settle immediately on Petermann's field notes to drink the ink before it dries off the page. Mindful of the abundant lice, Petermann wonders whether Yahia ever washes his long, braided hair tucked up in his headgear.
In three months, Petermann has read through almost the entire Mandaean literature owned by Yahia. But then his stay in Suq es-Shuyuk comes to an abrupt, surprising end. The Muntafiq sheikh has gone to the Pasha in Baghdad with tribute—exacted from the village population at great excess. In his absence, the shiekh's brother Nasir oppresses the locals even more. During the last days of April 1854 a black slave is murdered, but the crime remains unsolved. No one comes forward, and as a result heavy fines are imposed on the entire village population. Nasir's officials conduct house searches. Muslims hide, some Jews are jailed, and all the Mandaeans flee overnight to Amara.41 Before he leaves with his family, Yahia gives some of his valuables into Petermann's care. The two men will link up a few days later.
Without his Mandaean teacher, Petermann has no reason to stay on in the town. He rents a boat and heads north toward Baghdad. When he meets up with Yahia on a canal, the priest asks Mandaean spirits of light to protect Petermann, who also receives an amulet against demons and the dangers of travel. Yahia accompanies Petermann on the boat for a little while, but then the scholar is on his own, secured by his Mandaean blessings and the amulet. It is unlikely that he ever saw his Mandaean teacher again.
Petermann's account reveals telling details about his own outsider status vis-â-vis Yahia and other village inhabitants. The Mandaeans themselves, dwelling on the river bank opposite the other villagers, remain separate from the Muslims. Together with the Jews and the single Christian family in Suq es-Shuyuk, the Mandaeans constitute the minority of "the people of the Book." Everyone—Sunni, Shia, and minorities alike—exists at the mercy of the powerful Muntafiq sheikh, as Suq es-Shuyuk lies far from any direct influence of the Baghdad Pasha.
An arresting image emerges from Petermann's account, a portrait of ever negotiated concentric circles of power and oppression. The visitor Petermann—unclean, Christian, a European scholar—merits respect and honor and depends entirely on the protection of the local ruler. At the same time, Petermann enjoys the immunity of the odd man out, for he remains secure and above suspicion in the matter of the murdered black slave. While all other Suq es-Shuyuk inhabitants suffer repercussions, Petermann calmly packs up and leaves, literally catching the next available vessel.
One might wonder why Petermann hardly ever dwells on the impact of the cholera or on any of the other kinds of calamities routinely visited on Yahia and his fellow religionists. That traditional Mandaeism would have perished without the agency of Yahia and his cousin Ram Zahrun does not appear to quite permeate the German scholar's consciousness. In passing, he notes that Yahia, "prevented by external circumstances," had been unable to become a priest until he was past the age of twenty.42 But Petermann must surely know something of the full weight of these "external circumstances."
LIFE GOES ON
Yahia Bihram makes no mention of Petermann, and the year 1854 is absent from the priest's postscripts. But in 1855, after Yahia Bihram and the rest of the Suq es-Shuyuk Mandaeans have fled, he and Ram Zahrun re-join (in Amara, it seems) and together copy DC 28: The Exorcism of "I sought to lift my eyes."43 Ram Zahrun is the main copyist, and at the end of DC 28 something specific is on his mind: intermarriage. Ram Zahrun warns against this practice, for a case of it has recently occurred in his community, a Mandaean having married a Muslim. "Guard the descendants!" Ram Zahrun admonishes. At the very end he addresses himself to the brothers (i.e., priest colleagues) who will succeed him and Yahia Bihram, and to "anyone who sees our book."
"The Scroll of the Great Over-thrower," DC 37,' comes from the hand of Yahia Bihram. The scroll contains strange diagrams and "graphics." Its date is 1861, and Yahia Bihram eschews his usual postscript but includes a lineage of sultans. Finally, as far as I know, the last of Yahia Bihram's copied texts is "The Scroll of the Great Baptism," the unpublished DC 50, copied in 1867. The text treats the purification ritual for a polluted priest, which consists of 360 baptisms. When Yahia Bihram in his postscript admonishes, "O my good brothers! Let it not be shed, the fruit that you bear, of your own!" I take his words to imply a warning against mixed marriages, a worry strongly expressed also in DC 28 above.
Again, Yahia Bihram reminisces about the effects of the 1831 cholera. As he briefly describes how he and his cousin celebrated the first Parwanaiia after the epidemic, he wants his readers to know that the priests did their utmost to perform the ritual correctly. Among other features, they included the stultifying—and now greatly increased—number of names of departed Mandaeans, a required act on that annual ritual occasion.45
Yahia Bihram finishes his 1867 postscript, "My Lord above all worlds! Behold and discern! And accept our spirits and souls! And may we be saved and rise up to the beginning!" Faithful until the end, Yahia Bihram shows no hint of self-aggrandizing; his humility remains intact. He has survived unimaginable horrors inflicted by demonic forces, while continuing to accept fully that the Lightworld rightly tests its children.
With sincere wonder, Mandaeans often ask me, why have we managed to survive? There is, of course, no simple answer. Never aspiring to worldly, political power, Mandaeans have merely wished to live in peace, at the mercy of varying political forces throughout the centuries. Today, the continued ethnic, religious, and cultural identity of the Mandaeans is threatened by fragmentation, due to difficulties in their homelands and to an increasing rate of emigration from them.
But efforts are afoot to export more Mandaean priests to countries out-side Iraq and Iran. A few are already in place in the Diaspora; whether temporarily or for a longer duration is difficult to tell at present. Mandaean priests continue to be initiated in numbers unthinkable even fifty or forty years ago. Baghdad still has the largest population of priests and laypeople. An upsurge of religious and cultural interest among the latter calls for widened opportunities to learn about their own texts and heritage. Traditionally, religious knowledge has been the sole privilege of priests and their families, but this situation is now changing.
Present-day scholars who routinely assume Mandaeism to be on the brink of extinction are so far proven wrong. Had Yahia Bihram been able to gaze into the future, he might have recognized the challenges facing Mandaeism today as different from those he experienced during his own lifetime. But while acculturation, secularization, and life in the Diaspora present new problems today, political pressures in the homelands continue to have effects that would surely be familiar to Yahia Bihram.
1. Ginza: Der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandaer, trans. and ed. Mark Lidzbarski (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1925).
2 The present article forms a small part of an ongoing research project to reconstruct segments of Mandaean history.
3. Mandaean scribes (virtually all of whom are priests) are identified as "sons" of their initiators, regardless of biology, though in many cases priestly office runs from biological father to son. A priest may initiate many candidates, all of whom then become his "sons."
4. H. Petermann, Reisen im Orient (Leipzig: Von Veit, 1865), vol. 2.
5 Or, the Arabic Gulf, depending on whose viewpoint is taken.
6 Stephen H. Longrigg, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), p. 250. In the present section, I rely to a large extent on Longrigg.
7 Ganzibras, "treasurers," are the high-ranking priest level; the lower rank is that of the tarmida. Information on the exile comes from a Mandaean colophon by the priest Yahia Ram Zihrun, whose testimony of 1818 appears in his postscript to the illustrated scroll "The Scroll of the Great Exorcism (of) the Name of the Lord of Greatness and the Image of Truth," Ms. Asiat. Misc. C 12, the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. This extraordinary scroll has never been studied by scholars; until 1996 it was even unknown to present-day Iranian Mandaean priests.
8 J. R. Wellsted, Travels to the City of the Caliphs, along the Shores of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, vol. 1 (London: Henry Colburn, 1840), esp. pp. 280-302. He begins: "In April 1831, the plague, after lurking for some time around the southern shores of the Euxine, now ravaged Mesopotamia, and gradually approached Bagdat. It stalked its awful march of death from village to village, withering, like the lava flood, all life that came under its baleful flow" (p. 280).
9 As recently as the 1980—88 Iran-Iraq war, Khorramshahr still harbored a population of Mandaeans. I was there myself in 1973 and in 1996. In the latter year the Mandaean quarter was nonexistent, bombed out, with a few houses rebuilt, but sheltering no Mandaeans anymore.
10 Some of these details come from Petermann's Reisen, p. 464n.
11 The collection contains about fifty-three numbered items, handwritten Mandaean books and scrolls that Lady Drower, the preeminent scholar of Mandaeism, purchased in Iraq from the 1930s to the 1950s. For the relationship between Lady Drower and the priest who helped her secure many of the manuscripts, see my "A Mandaean Correspondence," in Gnosisforschung and Religionsgeschichte: Festschrift fur Kurt Rudolph zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. H. Preissler and H. Seiwert (Marburg: Diagonal-Verlag, 1994), pp. 55-60.
12 The Baptism of Hibil Ziwa (Masbuta of Hibil Ziwa), trans. and ed. E. S. Drower, in his The Haran Gawaita and the Baptism of Hibil Ziwa, Studi e Testi 176 (Cittd del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1953) (hereafter cited as MHZ). Hibil Ziwa is one of the major Mandaean Lightworld beings, a mediator inhabiting the roles of messenger, teacher, and protector. is So far, I am unable to ascertain its location.
14 This and subsequent information is in MHZ, pp. 86—92.
15 Adam Yuhana also won a theological argument with a clergyman whose name seems to be Joseph Auliffe (MHZ, p. 92).
16 Ibid. (I have modified Drower's translation just slightly).
17 Learned layman or ritual helper; in practice, his duties are close to that of the shganda.
18 Prescribed acts for priest initiation.
19 MHZ, pp. 87—88 (slightly modified quotation).
20 Yahia Bihram elaborates on this in another postscript; see DC 24, below.
21 Riza Ali Pasha had captured the last of the Mamluks in Baghdad. On October 12, 1838, he burned Muhammerah, probably because it had emerged as too strong a commercial competitor to Basra. (I gratefully owe this information to Prof. John E. Woods, the University of Chicago, Center for Middle Eastern Studies.)
22 MHZ, p. 89.
23 Tears and wailing for the dead create obstacles for its soul rising to the Lightworld.
24 The Great Life is the Supreme Being in the Lightworld, the Mandaean heavenly realm.
25 MHZ (n. 12 above), p. 90. The sheikh is one of the Muntafigs,
25 The beginning of the copying work was started elsewhere.
27 Or, "Do not convert!"
28 E. S. Drower, "A Phylactery for Rue: An Invocation of the Personified Herb," Orientalia 15 (1946): 324-46.
29 Mandaean Light beings.
30 "Very curious," remarks Drower on DC 43 in her list of DC texts (DC 43 remains unpublished).
31 Not identifiable at present.
32 Krun is the great mountain of flesh, the king of the lowest of the underworlds.
33 However, Petermann was to become most famous as a specialist on Armenian.
34 "The market of the sheikhs" or "the market of the elders," explains Petermann (Reisen
im Orient [n. 4 above], p. 66).
35 A man who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
36 In fact, Petermann misunderstands Yahia Bihram's name, thinking that his name is "Yahia, son of Bihram."
37 Petermann, Reisen im Orient, p. 86.
38 The resident of the East India Company, as noted. 39 But Petermann produced the first European Ginza, furnishing a short introduction in Latin and then transcribing the entire Mandaic text, including the colophons. See Heinrich Petermann, Sidra Rabba (Leipzig: Weigel, 1867). For the Ginza colophons, see also my study, "The Colophons in H. Petermann's Sidra Rabba," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, series 3, vol. 5, pt. 1 (1995): 21-38.
40 Petermann, Reisen im Orient, p. 122.
41 Ibid.. p. 137n.
42 Ibid., p. 464.
42 The title is probably a reference to a specific prayer (no. 35) of this title in the regular collection of Mandaean liturgies. See E. S. Drower, The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden: Brill, 1962). DC 28 remains unpublished.
44 Still unpublished.
45 For the masiqtas recited at Parwanaiia, see my "The Mandaean Tabahata Masiqta," Numen 28, no. 2 (1981): 138-63.