Mission & Ministry - Book of the Month Review: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

The Bishop's Institute Book of the Month: November

"Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms" by Gerard Russell; reviewed by Gray Hodsdon

We in the West are no strangers to news surrounding the Middle East. Islam, terrorism, war, Al Qaeda, and ISIS: All have captured headlines for decades and caused anxiety and fear for Europeans and Americans alike. Such anxiety is justified, as terrorist groups from the Middle East have shaken the fabric of Europe and America, and today's brand, known as ISIS or "Islamic State", is arguably the biggest threat of all.

Beneath all the turmoil and persecution throughout the region, however, lies a rich cultural and religious history. The Middle East has been the hub of numerous religious groups beyond the mainline Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Unbeknownst to most of the world, a number of these religions are still followed today, some so isolated and private that many of their own followers are left in the dark about their beliefs and traditions.

With such groups overshadowed and obscured from our view, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms brings them to life. A former diplomat with fifteen years of experience in the Middle East, Gerard Russell takes his readers on a journey into the depths of Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, uncovering some of the mysteries that have surrounded these religions for millennia. Even when faced with people that are secretive or simply ignorant about their religion, Russell's relentless efforts yield substantial insight for his readers.

Through his encounters with groups such as the Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Samaritans, and Copts, Russell brings to light the impact of their traditions and practices throughout history. And while these religious groups may seem far removed from our worldview, we in the West are no exception to their influence. From mathematical theories to popular Biblical stories, these ancient Middle Eastern religions have quietly left their fingerprints on our cultures and religions. Now, thanks to Russell's research, we can see more fully the scope of their influence.

One of the most effective elements of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is Russell's personal touch. Not only does he provide insight into each religion, but he also interviews numerous individuals along the way, allowing them to tell their story through his writing. The effect is profoundly personal and relatable, and gives the reader an intimate look into their specific experience as well as the experience of their people. One memorable example is Russell's driver through Minya, Egypt, who speaks about life as a Coptic Christian. He says to Russell, "Tourists are never interested in Coptic sites… They only ever want to see things from ancient Egypt. I tell them about our churches and they never want to visit them" (p. 207). Such personal comments give a human element to the story, something Russell incorporates throughout the book with enormous success.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms provides a window into the rich history of a region now decimated by tragedy. Due to mass annihilation and immigration, a number of religions that once flourished remain only shadows of their former selves. The Yazidis, for example, have caught the world's attention only due to tragic persecution by ISIS. The terrorism towards such groups has led to a diaspora, with many flocking to Europe and America. We are so far removed in the West from the atrocities taking place in the Middle East that it is easy to place the knowledge of such terror into the back of our minds. Yet with Russell's work, these religions are brought to life, and the crimes against them are impossible to overlook.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Russell's work is that, despite uncertain futures, it preserves a memory of these disappearing religions and opens our eyes to a reality of the Middle East that is much richer and more significant than we ever would have known. Indeed, Russell's work ensures that these once great kingdoms will never be forgotten.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East by Gerard Russell. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014 is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Click here to see the page on Amazon.