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A Mandaean priest baptises another

Priests of ancient faith threatened with extinction share their traditions for future generations

The leaders of an ancient religion threatened with extinction by conflict in the Middle East have allowed their highly complex water-based rituals to be recorded by outsiders for the first time.

The Mandaeans believe running water has spiritual qualities which purify the mind, body and soul. Their rituals involve elaborate baptisms using rivers or swimming pools - not only of people, but also of utensils, pots and even holy scriptures, which are specially engraved on metal sheets for the purpose.

Mandaean communities have lived by the great rivers of Southern Iraq and Iran for 2,000 years. In recent years war and persecution have forced this community of 60,000 people away from their homeland and they are now dispersed across the world. The numbers practising the religion are declining as young people grow up away from the Middle East and marry outsiders, a practice not accepted by traditional Mandaeans.

Many of the 42 priests fear the religion will soon die out or change forever. They have worked with academics from the universities of Exeter and Leiden, to create an online database which features documentary footage, recordings of the unique rituals and interviews with Mandaean priests around the world. An exhibition at the University of Exeter shows images and objects used by Mandaeans. This cultural preservation project is supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Followers of the religion began to leave their villages and settle in larger cities forty years ago. Many were persecuted and suffered human rights abuses after the West invaded Iraq in 2003. The largest communities worldwide are in Sweden and Australia. There are around 20 families in the UK - but no priest to perform baptisms, weddings and death rites.

Mandaeans, also known as Sabians, believe the soul only spends a small period of time in the human world before moving on, and the aim of people should be to help their soul move to the “Light World”, by doing good and living peacefully.  They may be baptised as often as four times a year. The priest dips them under the water, baptising them ‘in the name of Life, in the name of the Knowledge of Life’ in Aramaic, and then anoints them with sesame oil and gives them bread and water. The symbol of the Mandaean religion is a white cloth draped on cross of wood hung with myrtle, a holy plant which also plays a key role in wedding and baptism ceremonies.

Professor Christine Robins, from the University of Exeter’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, who led the research, said: “We hope this project will raise awareness of this endangered religion. Over the next generation it may change radically, or even become extinct. This work is a small step in giving a snapshot of the community at this crucial moment.

“We have recorded important rituals and interviewed as many priests as possible about their life and role. We are so grateful to the Mandaeans – the priests and the lay people who made time to see us and let us into their homes, and we hope our database will be a resource for their grandchildren and ours in years to come.”


Date: 22 February 2018

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