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Finding the Bible in Iraq: Ultimate Guide to Biblical Tombs

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As the crade of civilizations, it’s no surprise that Iraq’s cities and towns hold deep religious, cultural and historical significance. Many of the characters, legends and stories of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, took place in the lands of Ur, Babylon, Mesopotamia and Nineveh, the predecessors to the current borders of contemporary Iraq.

The Babylonian Exile of 597 BCE is one of the major events of the Bible, marking the beginning of the forced exile of Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon. From that moment on, Jewish and Iraqi history became deeply intertwined, often articulated in the prose of the Bible and the later Babylonian Talmud.  

In this ultimate guide, I share many years of researching and locating the Biblical tombs which remain in Iraq. After millennia, nobody can be absolutely certain as to who is actually buried at these sites. However, centuries upon centuries of pilgrimage and conquest has resulted in these being among the most atmospheric places to visit in Iraq.

If you are able to read Hebrew, I recommend being extremely discreet when reading inscriptions in the tomb. In light of the difficult history of Iraqi Jews, the caretakers can sometimes be very suspicious of foreign visitors to Biblical tombs.

We have many years of experience in bringing tour groups and private tourists to Iraq through Fiery Hearts Tours. If you are interested in visiting Iraq, and any of the sites in this guide, please do contact us for further details.

1. Tomb of Daniel, Kirkuk

Who is Daniel?

Daniel, the main character of the Book of Daniel, was a Jewish youth from Jerusalem brought to Babylon in the 6th century BCE. He is most famous for the biblical legend of being saved by angels from the lion’s den.

Where is the tomb of Daniel?

Iraqi Jews maintain a tradition of the tomb of Daniel sitting atop the Kirkuk citadel.

Kirkuk is a major multi-ethnic city, dominated by a political struggle between Baghdad and Kurdistan. Today, Kirkuk is under the effective control of the Federal Iraqi government in Baghdad.

kirkuk citadel ruined synagogue church area

Kirkuk has a small international airport (with direct flights to Istanbul) and is well connected by road to Kurdistan and Baghdad.

Visiting the tomb of Daniel

Gaining access to the Kirkuk citadel can be a little tricky. In short, you are at the whim of the guard at the bottom which will very much depend on the political circumstances in Kirkuk (which can often be a little dicey).

The Kirkuk citadel is not in the best shape, with many buildings in ruin or highly dilapidated. However, though the tomb of Daniel remains in a good state, since the exodus of Iraq’s Jews, the tomb of Daniel has become a mosque and is closed for all visitors. The surrounding area is almost entirely ruined, but includes many historic synagogues.

Other tombs of Daniel

It’s probably worth noting that other major Jewish commentaries understand that the tomb in Kirkuk is not the actual tomb of Daniel, which is located in Susa, Iran. Other commentaries suggest other sites for the tomb, including a fascinating theory that Daniel’s body was taken to Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

2. Tomb of Ezekiel, Al Kifl

Who is Ezekiel?

Ezekiel is most famous as the Jewish biblical prophet who, in 592 BCE, prophesized about the restoration of Jerusalem and return of the Jews from Babylon.

Where is the tomb of Ezekiel?

The tomb of Ezekiel sits in the small town of Al-Kifl, just 30 minutes outside of the pilgrim city of Najaf and is very easily visited on the road between Karbala and Najaf.

For Iraqi Jews, Ezekiel’s Tomb was a site of historic pilgrimage during the festival of Sukkot. Estimates suggest historically nearly 100,000 Jews each year would descend on Al-Kifl, often camping in the tomb’s grounds.

Visiting the tomb of Ezekiel

The tomb itself is incredibly old, with written records of its existence dating back to 700 CE. The interior of the tomb still shows original Hebrew inscriptions, included carved stones with poems about Ezekiel and his prophecy. The interior is normally locked and you can only see the Hebrew when peering through a gate.

The caretaker of the tomb usually refuses to let people into the inner tomb to see the Hebrew up close.

After a little chat, some smiles, thank yous and perhaps a small contribution to the tomb’s upkeep, the door has miraculously opened for me in the past…

Today, the tomb is used only as an Islamic shrine and is sacred for being one of the sites (maqam) where Imam Ali prayed.

As you stand in the courtyard of Ezekiel’s Tomb, you will see some ruined buildings surrounding the tomb. These were likely synagogues which historically surrounded the tomb.

I would always recommend a walk around the adjacent Daniel Market, named for the historic Jewish custodians of Ezekiel’s tomb. With centuries old architecture and lots of little tea shops (don’t miss out on limon chai basrawi), Al Kifl is one of the most atmospheric small towns in Iraq.

3. Tomb of Ezra, Al Uzair

Who is Ezra?

Commonly known as ‘Ezra the Scribe’, Ezra is most famous for leading the Jews back to Jerusalem from their first exile in Babylon 457 BCE. According to historic legend, Ezra later returned to ancient Babylon where he died.

Where is the tomb of Ezra?

The truth is Al Uzair is really in the middle of nowhere. The closest major city is Basra, about two hours south, but do plan around the bottleneck traffic getting in and out of Basra. Al Uzair can also be tagged on to a visit to the Mesopotamian Marshlands (about 1 – 1.5 hours away).

Visiting the tomb of Ezra

Unlike the tomb of Ezekiel, which sees occasional foreign visitors on the way to Najaf, the caretakers at the tomb of Ezra will be very surprised to see a foreigner. While my first visit was difficult to navigate, in later visits the caretaker has been extremely friendly and welcoming.

In the tomb itself, you can still see Hebrew calligraphy on the roof and Hebrew carved stones in the interior doorways. The tomb today is an Islamic shrine, and the best part of Ezra’s tomb is hidden on the women’s side of the shrine.

Once you are in the women’s section, you will see a small, peeled back piece of the Islamic wooden tomb. Here, you can peak inside to the original Jewish grave. You can still see hand-carved Hebrew calligraphy on the wooden tomb, with the older stone slab beneath.

Every time I visit Ezra’s tomb, I am struck by the surviving handwritten notes from Iraqi Jews. These notes were left here over 50 years ago and have survived the test of time.

Next door to the main tomb, you will find an old synagogue, with Hebrew inscriptions lining the walls. Today, the old synagogue operates as a mosque.

Historically, Ezra’s grave was a site of great pilgrimage particularly around Jewish festivals. The old infrastructure for this is scattered around the tomb (historic caravanserais and later hotels).

If you walk around the left hand side of Ezra’s tomb, you will find a boarded up area of a historic caravanserai and pilgrim rest houses.

4. Tomb of Jonah, Mosul

Who is Jonah?

Jonah is an important Biblical prophet and the main character of the Book of Jonah, read by Jewish communities on Yom Kippur (Day of Repentance).

Jonah is famous for attempting to escape God’s call and boarding a ship, which subsequently sinks, resulting in Jonah spending three days in a whale’s stomach. The story of Jonah and the whale is of great theological significance – often considered a starting point for Abrahamic religious conceptions of repentance.

According to legend, following his encounter with the whale, Jonah is rescued and returns to Nineveh (today’s Mosul) to preach.

Where is the tomb of Jonah?

The tomb of Jonah is in central Mosul, in Iraq’s Nineveh province.

Visiting the tomb of Jonah

Unfortunately, the tomb of Jonah in Mosul was completely leveled by ISIS. Like most of Iraq’s sacred Jewish sites, the Jonah’s tomb had been venerated as an Islamic shrine in the years following the exodus of Jews from Iraq.

Today, the Iraqi government is rebuilding the Islamic shrine in this spot. You can usually find older Muslim pilgrims gathering by the gates of the construction site and praying.

The tomb sits atop a hill above a busy strip of outdoor market which offers an excellent viewpoint over Mosul.

5. Tomb of Joshua the High Priest, Baghdad

Who is Joshua the High Priest?

Joshua the High Priest is a historic figure in the Jewish history of Iraq. After Cyrus the Great permitted the return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, Babylon-born Joshua served as the first Jewish High Priest of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period (generally believed to be 515–490 BCE).

Where is the tomb of Joshua the High Priest?

The tomb of Joshua the High Priest can be found in Baghdad.

For centuries, the Jews of Baghdad prayed by a particular tomb which was historically just outside Baghdad city. Today, this tomb is within the Baghdad city limits. However, there is no clear historical record whether or why Joshua returned to Babylon.

Visiting the tomb of Joshua the High Priest

The tomb of Joshua the High Priest is within a large, guarded fenced off complex, which also happens to have a very eerie collection of former Iraqi railway trains. Don’t be deterred: the guards are relatively friendly and will let you enter. However, they may ask you to leave your passport at the checkpoint.

This complex houses a number of Seljuk-era tombs and Shia pilgrimage sites and you will likely find tour groups from Iran or Pakistan nearby. The tomb of Joshua the High Priest is generally not visited by Shia pilgrims and the old female caretaker on site will be extremely excited to see you. She usually greets our groups with a huge smile and a plate of dates!

There are no remaining Hebrew inscriptions in the tomb and the decoration is now entirely Islamic in character.

6. Tomb of Nahum, Al Qosh

Who is Nahum?

Nahum is a minor prophet in the Bible and central character of the Book of Nahum. He is most famous for his seventh century BCE (extremely vivid) prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital.

Where is the tomb of Nahum?

Despite being in Nineveh province, the Assyrian town of Al Qosh is under the effective control of the Kurdistan government. This means you do not need a Federal Iraqi visa to visit the tomb of Nahum from major Kurdish cities like Erbil or Dohuk.

Visiting the tomb of Nahum

Recently restored with US Aid money, Nahum’s tomb is the only remaining Jewish site in Iraq which recognizes and acknowledges the Jewish history of Iraq. You will find surviving Hebrew inscriptions, calligraphy and a dedicated prayer area.

Most tourists to Iraqi Kurdistan stop by Al Qosh on their way to the majestic Rabban Hormizd Monastery, one of the most sacred Christian sites in Iraq. The tomb of Nahum is only a short 5-minute drive from the monastery, and any Iraqi Kurdistan guide can arrange access for you.

The tomb of Nahum is often kept closed. However, it is generally possible to arrange access through the Al Qosh mayor’s office. To get in touch with the office, try the Al Qosh Heritage Museum (around the corner from the tomb) or any locals passing by will gladly help to make some calls.

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