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From Babylon to the Farhud: The Ultimate Iraqi Jewish Heritage Tour

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4 weeks ago

As the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, Iraq holds a special place in both Jewish history and tradition. Following the exile of the Jews of Jerusalem to Babylon in 597 BCE, Iraq also became home to the first Jewish diaspora community.

For over two millennia, Jewish and Iraqi history were deeply intertwined. It was in Iraq that the great Talmudic academies flourished and established new rules of Jewish law, while generations of Jewish scholars firmly cemented new traditions and cultural norms into the handbook of Jews around the world.

Subsequent centuries saw waves of integration and persecution. The Jews of Iraq continued to maintain a distinct cultural identity within the broader ethnic and religious patchwork of Iraq, including a unique Judeo-Arabic dialect. In cities like Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Kirkuk, distinct Jewish quarters emerged, with the Jewish population often reaching as high as one-third of the city.

The twentieth century saw rising Arab and Jewish nationalism, with a significant increase in ethnic tensions in Iraq and the introduction of new laws persecuting Jews. Following waves of violence during the 1941 Farhud and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, by 1951 almost the entirety of Iraq’s 130,000 ancient community of Jews fled to Israel. Today, there are an estimated six Jews in Iraq.

Over the last few years, I have spent much time and many trips researching and locating Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and the stories of Iraqi Jews both in Iraq and abroad. In this ultimate guide, I share everything you need to know about creating your own Iraqi Jewish heritage tour, either in person or online.

FAQs about visiting Jewish heritage sites in Iraq

Can Jews visit Iraq? 

Technically, there are no restrictions on Jewish people holding non-Israeli citizenship visiting Iraq. In saying that, I would recommend strongly against wearing any visible Jewish clothing or symbols. It would not be prudent to share with anyone on the ground that you are Jewish.

If you are planning to visit any of the historic Jewish sites in Iraq, in many sites you will be watched very closely. I recommend introducing yourself as a student of history or religion and explaining your interest more broadly.

If any of the Hebrew writing in tombs or homes grabs your attention, make sure you do not publicly indicate that you can read it.

Can I visit Iraq if I have an Israeli stamp or visa in my passport? 

Israel has not stamped passports for many years. However, this issue does arise if you have crossed a land border between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan. For example, if you have a Jordanian land border stamp from Aqaba, it is clear you entered from Israel.

Officially you cannot enter Federal Iraq (Baghdad, Basra, Najaf) with Israeli passport stamps or visas in your passport. I will say I have never had my passport inspected.

skyline of sulaymaniyah iraq

However, in Iraq, you do pass through many checkpoints which will often look through your passport. The presence of an Israeli stamp or visa risks making your life very difficult at any of these checkpoints. In certain parts of the country – particularly on the roads between Baghdad, Samarra and Mosul – the checkpoints are often not controlled by the Iraqi army but rather by militias.

It is worth noting that this prohibition on Israeli passport stamps explicitly does not apply to arrivals into Iraqi Kurdistan, specifically Erbil or Sulaymaniyah airports.

Jewish heritage tour sites in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan

1. Biblical tombs

Since the Babylonian Exile of 597 BCE, countless historic Jewish personalities traversed the roads of Ancient Babylon. For many, Iraq was their final resting place.

I spent much of the last few years visiting the surviving Biblical tombs which, against all odds, have survived the unrest of recent years. For details on finding the sites of the Bible in Iraq, you’ll want to read my ultimate guide to Iraq’s biblical tombs which includes details on both locating and visiting these ancient sites.

2. Mosul yeshiva (or medresa)

Mosul’s former Jewish Quarter was an ISIS stronghold during the years Mosul was under the Islamic State’s rule. In the hope of avoiding aerial bombardment, ISIS used the Mosul yeshiva’s basement as a weapons depot. Much of the yeshiva has been destroyed in bombing, but some outer walls containing Hebrew scripts remain.

I wouldn’t recommend spending too long in this area. You will notice this residential area is full of CCTV cameras, as the government attempts to keep watch of former fighters – many of whom simply ‘went home’. There are rumors that the Ezra Sassoon Synagogue of Mosul also survived the war, but I have made countless unsuccessful attempts to locate it.

3. Jewish quarters

Former Jewish quarters abound in most major cities in Iraq: Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. By exploring the alleyways of these neighborhoods today, you can usually find covered up mezuzah markings in doorposts, or the former structure of Jewish synagogues, schools and community buildings. In many cities, the former Jewish quarters often remain deserted, with homes boarded up.

Keep an eye open for open balconies in former Jewish quarters; this was historically an architectural indication of a Jewish home.

Generally speaking, you will not get more than a few curious stares when exploring residential areas. Be careful if you do plan on asking about former Jewish sites. I always ensure my questions about former Jewish inhabitants are coupled with questions about Christians (مَسيحي; masahi).

4. Mysterious Jewish grave, Amedi

In the northern mountains of Kurdistan is the extremely picturesque town of Amedi – which was once estimated to be between 30-50 per cent Jewish. Today there are no Jews in Amedi, but many Jews from Amedi continue to use the name ‘Amedi’ in their surnames (including the Fauda actor and singer, Idan Amedi).

Beside the ruins of the former Amedi synagogue lies a mysterious Jewish grave. Local legends abound about this who this person could be. This is presumed to be a grave of high honor, as it sits on the synagogue grounds itself. Could it be Asenath Barzani, the 16th century head of the Amedi yeshiva and the first female Rabbi recorded in Jewish history?

5. Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, Babylon

No site epitomizes the Jewish history of Iraq more than the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon. As you walk through the Ishtar gate and along the main promenade of the palace, you can get a feel of what the hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves from Jerusalem would have felt upon entering Babylon in 597 BCE.

I would highly recommend having a guide for Babylon, who can talk you through the descriptions of the palace.

Many of these descriptions are corroborated by descriptions in the Babylonian Talmud.

Jewish history nerds will also enjoy seeing the main temple complex at Babylon. Here, Daniel allegedly refused to bow to the idols, leading to his banishment in the famed lion’s den.

6. Abraham’s house, Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur is one of the most remarkable ancient archaeological sites of Iraq. About two kilometres from the ziggurat, archaeologists found an ancient sewage system, which led to excavations of a residential area of ancient Ur. In turn, one area of the archaeological site was coined ‘Abraham’s house’. While Jewish people don’t exactly recognize this as Abraham’s home, it has become an important Christian pilgrimage site.

The residential area isn’t accessible as part of the entrance to the main Ziggurat of Ur. You will need to find the local caretaker and beg him to open the gate for you.

In Arabic, you will want to ask for Beit Ibrahim or Beit El Nebi. From there, you will need to drive along a path (he will drive alongside you) where you will find the ‘residential’ area.

7. Jewish Baghdad

For much of its history, Baghdad was close to one-third Jewish. By the time of the Jewish exodus, Baghdad’s Jewish population was spread across much of the city. This means a visit to Baghdad often becomes a Jewish heritage tour when you least expect it.

Bataween neighborhood

The neighborhood of Bataween is one of the abandoned Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad which has remained abandoned. It was originally built as a middle to upper class neighborhood, close to the Tigris River.

Today, Bataween is considered Baghdad’s red light district and one of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods. To admire the dilapidated empty homes, I’d recommend driving through in a car (rather than walking).

Meir Tweig Synagogue

Meir Tweig is the last surviving synagogue in Baghdad (out of an estimated 400+). I have been fortunate to gain access only once in my various visits to Baghdad. Sadly, the honest truth is that it is near-impossible to visit the Meir Tweig Synagogue today. If you do somehow manage to gain access, don’t miss out on seeing the 500+ year old Torah scrolls.

Visitors can admire the synagogue from the outside – although the building has been completely disguised from street view.

Shorjah neighborhood

The central Baghdad neighborhood of Shorjah is one of the few former Jewish quarters which has been repopulated. Historically this neighborhood was home to the Great Synagogue of Baghdad and a few historic tombs. Today, not much remains but it is still extremely atmospheric to walk around.

For a classic account of the final days of Jewish Baghdad, I strongly recommend Naim Kattan’s ‘Farewell Baghdad: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad‘.

Tomb of Joshua, the High Priest

The first post-exile High Priest of Jerusalem, Joshua, is buried in the outskirts of Baghdad. For more details on visiting his tomb, you’ll need to read our comprehensive guide to visiting the biblical tombs of Iraq.

8. The meeting point of the two rivers, Al Gorna

According to Jewish and Christian tradition, the meeting point of the Tigris and Euphrates is often considered the starting point of the Garden of Eden. This specific point at Al Gorna is also referenced and described in the Babylonian Talmud.

meeting point of euphrates and tigris at el gorna

Today, you can find a small garden including a decorated ‘Adam’s tree’. You’ll also find a lovely little teahouse where you can sit and soak in these two great rivers of human civilization.

Beyond Iraq

Today, the Jewish community in Iraq is more or less extinct. To learn more about contemporary Iraqi Jewish culture, don’t miss our comprehensive guide to the Iraqi Jewish heritage sites of Israel and beyond.

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