IRAQ: Amid war, a prophet’s shrine survives


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Here on the plains of the Tigris River lies the shrine of Ezra, the Jewish prophet, who returned to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian exile. According to biblical scholars, Ezra died years later back in the Mesopotamia at age 120 in what is now called Uzair. Locals believe Ezra passed away while roaming through the area with his donkey.

His shrine still exists in this predominantly Shiite district of Amarah province filled with supporters of young cleric Muqtada’s Sadr late father, a grand ayatollah assassinated in 1999. Bashir Zaalan is the custodian of Ezra’s shrine. Zaalan inherited the job from his blind 100-year-old father, who hobbles around on crutches. Iraq’s once sizable Jewish population, which thrived in Baghdad, appointed him caretaker long ago. The capital is 268 miles away.


If the shrine was forgotten after the creation of Israel in 1948, when most Jews left Iraq, Uzair has proudly embraced its cultural heritage. Like other prophets in the Bible, Ezra is a holy figure in Islam. And the wooden shrine and blue mosaics in the domed building are treated as sacred by visitors.

A picture of Sadr’s father hangs in the room where men worship by Ezra’s wooden shrine. They touch the wood out of reverence. People visit the shrine to hold classes and deliver sermons on Islam.

‘Before, people had no idea who Ezra was!’ Zaalan said.

Zaalan guesses the brick building is 150 years old and replaced a reed structure. Until now, Zaalan says the shrine has received no funding from the national government, but he plans on heading to Baghdad to request money.

Once Zaalan and his father visited Baghdad’s old Jewish community and informed them they needed funds for renovations. They were told a committee would be sent down to inspect the building.

No one ever came, but in 2000 a contractor showed up in the village and carried out some repairs. ‘We don’t know who paid for it,’ Zaalan says.

Ezra has a special place in his family’s heart. ‘My father was always telling us about his dreams where the prophet Ezra is talking to him.’


-- Raheem Salman

Photos by Raheem Salman