How Baghdad got its Jewish cemetery

With thanks: Lisette

An Ottoman miniature depicting the Sultan Murad 1V

For centuries, until 1639, Baghdad did not have a Jewish cemetery.

This state of affairs dates back to the Mongol conquest of Baghdad. In the 14th century theMongol leader Hulagu made his Jewish doctor prime minister, conferring
on him the title Sa’d el-Dawla. According to amateur historian Sami Sourani, this Jewish prime minister  was given a free hand to impose law and order. He relied on Jews and Christians to administer the country. In Mosul, he appointed only Jews to his staff.

The local Muslims, says Sami, “reacted very badly, because they were superior and should never take orders from a non-Muslim, especially if he is a Jew. ”

The Muslims  established an underground resistance movement called “Al-Hashashin”. They recruited young boys, train them to kill and give them drugs, so that when directed to kill they could do it quickly and efficiently. From the word Hashashin came the English word Assassin,  meaning killing for some holy cause.

An Assassin killed the Jewish prime minister. Hulagu, who had been cured by his doctor-cum- PM, fell sick again, had aheart attack and died. The whole country descended into chaos.

The Muslims now wanted revenge from the Jews. They looted their homes and killed many, forcing the survivors to live in a ghetto with no right to have a cemetery for the community.

They forced them to bury their dead around their houses and in their basements.

The main Jewish cemetery was designated as a main place of burial for Jews  by the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV around 1639.

In a story befitting a tale from the Arabian nights, it is said that a poor Jewish woman was granted the Jewish cemetery after she had shared her bread with the Sultan, who was planning to conquer Baghdad from the Safavid Persians.

Here is her story.

On the eve of his army’s attack, the Sultan entered Baghdad on foot disguised as a poor Dervish.

Through the window of a shack  he saw a woman baking pita bread. He knocked on the door. The woman opened the door and he implored her to share her food with him. She told him that all she had
was a small pita for each one of her sons: she was ready to share her own pita with him. She gave him half. He told her God would bless her many times over and that she would be rewarded for her kind

The Sultan went back to his camp with the half pita in his hand. He  told his soldiers: ”  this is a sign that God is with us and we shall attack Baghdad the following morning
and capture the city.”At dawn, he moved  his army toward Baghdad, attacked the city and by mid -day he had expelled the Persians. He became the ruler of Baghdad. Some historians say that nearly 2,000
Jewish men supported him.

He asked his men to fetch that poor woman who was generous enough to give him half a pita.  When she saw the soldiers she panicked and cried, thinking that she had committed a sin or a crime, for nobody left the
governor’s office alive. She followed thesoldiers to the court of the Sultan. She entered the court and she stood before him. 

The Sultan revealed himself as the Dervish who came begging for food the night before and that she was kind-hearted enough to share with him half of her small pita. “If you are well off and  help people, society will thank you for your generosity, he told her. “But if you are poor and ready to share
the last piece of bread with other needy people, your reward comes from Heaven.”

He then handed her two bags full of gold and silver coins and he said, “This is my gift to you. Now make a wish.”

 She asked him, “What is a wish?” He answered that it is something you want to get for yourself but you cannot afford. The woman answered that she did not want
anything for herself but for her community. She said the community did not have a cemetery: poor people did not know where to bury their dead.

She requested that he may be kind enough to earmark a piece of land as a cemetery for the Jewish community. 

He agreed and a large piece of land was designated as a Jewish cemetery in a suburb of the city. This cemetery was the main Jewish cemetery from that time until 1959 when the Iraqi Government decided to
demolish it after the exodus of the Jews in 1951-52.  It was the main Jewish cemetery from 1642 to  1952, over 300 years. In that cemetery,  great Rabbis were buried. Also located here was the mass grave of the Jewish victims killed in 1941 Farhud. 

This woman  became a celebrity in the Jewish community. Some people said  that she had received a gift from Heaven: in Persian “Para Azada”, twisted  into Parizat.   The alley where she lived becamethe Alley of “Bet Parizat”. Others saw in her story the Biblical proof
that  God’s mercy can change things in the blink of an eye;  the stone that all builders hate, turns out to be the cornerstone. Others said that the Sultan was, in fact, a personalization of Eliyahu
Hanabi who came and blessed her house. To attract Eliyau to their houses, women developed the tradition that when they bake, they leave aside a piece of bread  for Eliyahu; perhaps he might come disguised as a poor
person asking for help.

When Iraq was captured by the British in 1917 the welfare of all the Jews of Iraq was entrusted to the Israelite Community of Babylon, with its seat in Baghdad. The Jewish community in
Baghdad took responsibility for the Jewish communities in towns and villages throughout the country.

The name  “Israelite Community of Babylon” dated back to 1841 when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire introduced a bill for freedom of all minorities. The head of the Jewish Community was called Hakham Bashi. The name of the community was changed in 1947 to “the
Community of the followers of Moses ( Moussawi) , because the Iraqi Government objected to the name Israelite.

The Jewish cemetery in Sadr City has been in use ever since the main Baghdad cemetery was destroyed by the Iraqi government in 1959

Historian Sami Sourani adds that a large number of Geonim (Biblical scholars) were buried around the Shrine of Joshua the High Priest who was exiled to Babylon together with King Joachim.
Joshua was said to descend from the Prophet Samuel. Today his shrine  has been converted to a mosque called,” The Mosque of God Prophet Joshua Hacohen”.

The Jewish community was in charge of burial and fees were paid according to the financial situation of the family.

Poor Jewish people were exempt from paying burial fees. It was the policy that every Jew deserved to be treated with dignity in his final hour in this world.

After the Exodus to Babylon in 586 BCE, one of the rabbis (  Geonim) introduced the policy of simple burial. Until the 4th century BCE, Jews who had the means, had expensive burials, probably influenced by their non-Jewish neighbors.

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