Jewish Shrine Defies ISIS on War’s Edge

By Monday, January 11, 2016

They belong to the ages.

On Iraq’s plains and river valleys are tombs where Hebrew prophets rest, but where none of their caretakers rest in peace. Islamic State soldiers are eager to destroy these sites – or simply loot them. They believe that the veneration of tombs of any kind is heretical and a travesty of faith.

The potential targets are many: Outside of Israel, Iraq has the greatest treasure of buildings and tombs holy to Jews and Christians, as well as thousands of sites linked to ancient Sumer, Babylon and Persia.

The locales that are sacred to Jews and Christians include the tomb of Ezekiel on the Euphrates River near Babil, the tomb of Ezra in Azair, the tomb of Daniel in Kirkuk and the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. ISIS already destroyed the Jonah site with sledgehammers and bombs in early July 2014.

Then there is the archaeological gem of the tomb of Nahum just a few miles away from the fight in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.

About 34 miles to the East of ISIS-held Mosul, the ancient Hebrew Prophet Nahum, seventh in the line of minor prophets, rests in a revered synagogue within the city of AlQosh. Nahum either predicted or recorded the downfall of Assyria 2,600 years ago in a vivid poem that later influenced Reformation theologian John Calvin. Nahum, taking words from Moses himself, has shown in a general way what sort of “Being God is,” according to Calvin.

AlQosh is an ancient center of Iraq’s Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians. The ancient synagogue has been preserved and protected for more than 60 years by one Assyrian-Christian family over two generations, according to Benjamin Kweskin, a Jewish-American journalist who visited the tomb and interviewed the caretaker in May 2015.

Nasir Sami and Benjamin Kweskin


Kweskin confirmed facts about the tomb of Nahum reported by journalists from National Geographic and Haaretz newspaper during the last two years. Jews in the area were forced to flee AlQosh in 1948, at which time the iron keys to the tomb were handed to an Assyrian-Christian man named Sami Jajouhana who agreed to look after it, according to Peter Schwartzstein’s report in National Geographic. The Jajouhana family lives next-door to the tomb and has been taking care of it since 1948. Jajouhana’s son, Nasir Sami Jajouhana, a 60-something Assyrian Christian resident of AlQosh, now holds the keys to the synagogue’s outer door and gives visitors tours on request.

Although a stone retainer wall has partially collapsed, spilling stones up against the walls of the synagogue, the site still maintains an ethereal majesty. The younger Jajouhana told Kweskin that the last Jewish congregation using the building had emigrated to Israel during a time of rising persecution. Jajouhana’s wife sweeps and cleans the interior every week.

Kweskin and his wife made a visit to the shrine on May 23 during the holy day of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. “Mr. Nasir told me less than 100 people a year visit the Tomb, which is open for visitors year round. So far, it is not a place of international recognition,” Kweskin said.

AlQosh is in the foothills of the Nineveh Plain just a few miles south of the border from the Kurdish Regional government. For the time being, it is within a perimeter of safety provided by Kurdish military, the Peshmerga. Kweskin reported that thousands of internally displaced residents have returned to the city after the panicked departure of August 2014, but the safety of the unique synagogue around the tomb is anything but assured. ISIS fighters with vehicle-borne explosives and suicide bombers attacked Kurdish troops to the west, east and southeast of Mosul during three days in mid-December. Air strikes on Jan. 5 were loud enough to break windows in the town.

The tomb, as well as local churches and monasteries in AlQosh, are some of the last redoubts of Iraq’s pluralistic religious identity. The significance of the minority religions in Iraq is sometimes missed by the media coverage of terrorism. Numerous et AlQosh ethnic and religious communities in the land of the two rivers have defied over millennia assimilation to the culture of conquering armies, including Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Turks, Mongols and Arabs.

Yet the condition of Christians in Iraq today is dire. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians of various denominations were 1.3 million strong. Today, after the brutal Islamic State invasion in 2014, there are an estimated 350,000 Christians in Kurdistan, including 150,000 in IDP camps and hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees in neighboring countries. Assyrian Christians have political representation in the national assembly in Baghdad, as well as in the KRG parliament in Erbil. They have a reputation as the party of moderation in an otherwise fractious environment. Advocates for Iraq’s persecuted Christians have argued that the nation needs its religious and ethnic minorities who offset the radical parties of Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

The dilapidated, moisture-damaged stone synagogue protected by Christian stewards is an outpost of civilization in a land that has witnessed barbarities aplenty for 5,000 years. To lose this marker of pluralism to the latest wave of barbarism would be a sad day for Judaism, Christianity and the West.

Douglas Burton

Douglas Burton is an independent writer in Washington, D.C. who spent two years in the U.S. State Department during the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2005-2007. Message him at BurtonnewsandviewsATgmail.com.