The lost Jewish history of a Baghdad holy shrine

The New York Times has published an article,Tomb of Joshua, Revered Prophet, Beckons Believers in Baghdad,” on the purported Iraqi holy site that is also known as the Shrine of Jeshua the High Priest. It begins by misleading readers into thinking that this is the tomb of the Prophet Joshua, who never set foot in Iraq. The American Sephardi Federation (ASF) criticises the piece for not noting the history of the tomb:

The article mentions in passing the “Jewish neighbors that some in the neighborhood still remembered” 20 years ago and how these Jews were “descendants of Jews in exile in Babylon, and an important part of Iraqi society until most were forced to leave in the 1950s.”

 Unfortunately, the Tomb’s Jewish history goes unnoted. That history includes the major 19th century fight over the burial of Baghdad’s Chief Rabbi Hakham Abdallah Somekh (an ancestor of former US Department of State Special Envoy to Monitor & Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr) in the courtyard and how the Farhud’s first victims may have been pilgrims en route to or from the Shrine for the annual Sukkot pilgrimage.

Top: the tomb of Joshua the High Priest with Haham Ezra Dangoor. Bottom: the Hebrew inscriptions and distinctive decoration have been painted over in recent times.

Diarna,  an independent digital reconstruction project in partnership with the ASF, has this history of the site:

The burial of Chief Rabbi, Hakham Abdalla Somekh, in the shrine’s courtyard in 1889 led to the persecution of Baghdadi Jews by the city’s governor, who even imprisoned the new Chief Rabbi. The governor was removed after a “memorial on the subject was addressed to the marquis of Salisbury (Oct. 25, 1889, on behalf of the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association).”

 Decades later the shrine featured in the Nazi-inspired pogrom in Baghdad known as the Farhud. According to the Government Committee for Investigating the Events of 1-2 June 1941 (as summarized by Dr. Zvi Yahuda in Nahardea: Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, No. 15, Winter 2005/2006):

“The riots broke out on the morning of Sunday, 1 June 1941 (the first day of the Pentecost [Sukkot] festival), next to the al-Khirr bridge situated in al-Karkh, the western part of Baghdad, on the main road to the tomb of Joshua the High Priest. Soldiers of the Iraqi army together with civilians fell on Jews making their way to visit the tomb, as was their custom in celebrating the Pentecost holy day. The writers of the report believed that this onslaught, which was not put down right at the start by the army and police authorities, was the direct cause of the riots at al-Rusafa, the district in Baghdad where concentrations of Jews were located. However, local Jewish sources, who agree with what the report contains as to details of the incident, in which soldiers and Muslim civilians injured the Jews, diverge from its contents regarding the background to its onset. These sources maintain that this was not the Jews’ setting off to celebrate the Pentecost festival by visiting the tomb of Joshua the High Priest but their participation at a reception held for the Regent and his entourage on their return to Baghdad.

Questions linger about the Jews who were first attacked, whether a delegation of Jewish notables who had been attending a reception with the Regent at the Palace of Flowers (Qasr al-Zuhur), or “a different group of Jews, defined as young people, who were on their way to the festivities at the tomb of Joshua the High Priest and crossed the bridge after the deputation of Jewish notables had returned.” If, as the report maintains,the attack on the Jews [took] place close to the palace where the Regent and his retinue resided and operated, and on the main road connecting the Palace of Flowers to the Baghdad international airport and the British Embassy… How did it happen that at a place so sensitive to the security of the British and the rulers who supported them, riots could erupt, and a bloody incident could occur in which Jews were injured and killed? Had the British neglected the security of the road connecting their Embassy with the residence of the Regent and allowed the assembly of armed soldiers and civilians who opposed them and their supporters among the domestic rulers?

Unfortunately, “the report of the Committee and the British sources did not trouble to address these questions.”


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