Old religion survives on banks of Tigris

Iraqi devotees of an obscure religion perform virginity tests on their brides and take a dip in the murky Tigris river every Sunday to purify the soul.

"It is okay if the bride has lost her virginity. Only the ceremony would be different," Sheikh Asaad Fayyad of the Sabea Mandean Nation, a relic of the ancient Gnostic religions, said at a wedding for five couples at the sect's compound in Baghdad.

John the Baptist, New Testament forerunner to Jesus Christ, is the central figure for the world's 20,000 or so Mandeans, most of whom live in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran.

The Mandeans, forbidden to marry outside the sect, are dwindling in number. Their scholars trace the religion's roots to Adam, whom they say lived 980 million years ago -- pushing mankind's origins far earlier than those proposed by science.

Apart from a now tiny Jewish community, the Mandeans form the smallest group on Iraq's religious spectrum, which ranges from majority Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims to minority Christians and Yazidis, an offshoot of Shi'ism.

Mandeans are secretive, wary of revealing their rites for fear of antagonising their compatriots, especially after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in April.

The former Iraqi ruler did not interfere with them and allowed an Arabic edition of their holy book, Kanz Irba (Great Treasure), to be published two years ago.

Prayer and ceremonies are conducted in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The Mandean ethic is similar to the Judeo- Christian tradition. They regard Jesus with suspicion, saying he added nothing to the message of John the Baptist and prophets before him.

The Mandeans encourage procreation and prefer mass weddings.


The women examine brides before they are baptised in a pool. The grooms are baptised separately.

A long-bearded priest wearing a five-piece white robe with a turquoise sheet wrapped along his waist knocks the heads of the bride and groom together and makes them circle kitchen utensils and other household goods wrapped in white sheets.

The groom wears a small crown made of yannis, a tree that bears no fruit. The newlyweds are forbidden from seeing anyone from the community for a week after their wedding day.

The couple are handed raisins to eat from clay tablets that seem to evoke the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Mandeans are not sure of their geographical origin. Some say they first lived in Mesopotamia and were persecuted by the Sumerians, who lived nearly 5,000 years ago. Others say they came from Palestine.

Mandean secrets, such as how the earth's population grew to billions from one couple despite a ban on incest, are known only to their elders.

Almost every ceremony involves water and baptism is regarded as the means to ask for forgiveness of sin.

"Jesus would not have spread his message if John had not baptised him," said Sheikh Khalaf Abedrabbo, a senior cleric.

"John died normally and left children. Anything else is fiction," he said, dismissing the Biblical account that says John was beheaded on the orders of King Herod.

Ideally, baptism should be conducted in a river, the flow of which from source to sea symbolises life's continuity.


As part of the wedding ceremony, the five couples were baptised in a pool at the Mandean compound.

Not far away, another group of Mandeans arrived at the banks of the Tigris in a minibus. Men and women changed into white robes before descending into the water.

They dipped live ducks in the river before holding them aloft and slicing off their heads with knives.

The ducks were then barbecued for a picnic, at which discussion turned to physics and parapsychology.

The wedding music and dancing at the nearby compound made it easy to forget for a moment the distress that Baghdad has endured under Saddam and since the U.S.-led invasion.

But the Mandeans remain focused on survival.

"We are a Semitic people who were persecuted much earlier than Jews. The persecution continues, but our peaceful ethic prevents us from talking about it," said Sheikh Abu Raba.

Many Mandeans are craftsmen, especially goldsmiths, and their skills have helped keep them better off than most Iraqis, but Iraq's steep economic decline during the last decade of U.N. sanctions has taken its toll. Many want to emigrate.

Maha al-Majid is preparing to join her husband in Norway.

"There are strangers occupying our land. We have been leaving Iraq constantly. Separated from each other we will become extinct," she said during the wedding celebration.

"I wish Norway could take all 20,000 of us."