The Believers

One autumn afternoon in AD 312, Constantine the Great searched the sky to determine which gods he should enlist in his campaign to win control of Rome. According to legend, what he saw above the noonday sun signaled both a turning point in world history and a radical shift in the meaning of the symbol that would soon dominate Western civilization. “He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens,” the fourth-century bishop and historian Eusebius wrote, “and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS.”

Conquer he did. Within a year of the following day’s victory, Constantine began the process of finding a place for Christianity within the formerly pagan Roman Empire. He refused to recognize the ancient idols, issued edicts outlawing the persecution of Christians, and eventually elevated a subversive cult to the status of a state religion.

Not only was Rome changed by the cross; the cross was equally changed by Rome. Ever after, Christ became a king and conqueror; Christendom became synonymous with wealth and power. From the medieval Crusades to the “clash of civilizations” mind-set that has fueled our own century’s wars, the implications of the faith Constantine remade in his image perdure.

It’s quite possible, of course, that Constantine had entirely practical reasons for conversion that weren’t conveyed via writing in the clouds. But if you accept the account at face value, the pivotal role played by a single symbol here inspires a battery of counterfactual questions: Would Christianity have spread so quickly if not for the events of that day? Is it possible that some other obscure faith could have risen to such heights? What if another divine insignia had been seen lingering above the horizon? The Zoroastrian fravahar, for example, with its impressively winged bird-man, would surely have made a fine banner for an imperial army. Or perhaps the Mandaean darfash, depicting intersecting beams of wood draped with the robe of John the Baptist, would have suggested that the emperor himself was the anointed one whose reign was foretold by the prophets of old. Had Constantine conquered his world aided by either of these totems, our own world would likely not be quite as Jesusy as it is now. The Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda or the Mandaean prophet Mani might be thanked for Super Bowl triumphs, while the contraption used to execute a first-century wonder rabbi would be a graduate student’s footnote instead of a tchotchke available from Amazon in ten thousand styles.

But thanks to Constantine’s “cross of light,” and the very many crosses that came after it, it is difficult to ask what might have been had Christians not won antiquity’s spiritual lottery. Far more fruitful is to ask what became of those who were not so lucky. According to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, some are still in the running for at least a measure of regional influence. Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, Druze, and believers in a handful of other minority traditions born in this cradle of belief have survived in the shadow of alternative religious empires for far longer than one might assume. Their adherents, diminished though they may be in numbers and spirit, never lost faith. As one of the roughly one million Druze in the Middle East tells the author on hearing the title of his book, “‘Forgotten kingdoms’? We have not forgotten.”

Russell, a former British and UN diplomat who speaks both Arabic and Farsi, spent the better part of two decades working and traveling in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon. Along the way, he writes,

I encountered religious beliefs that I had never known of before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory mustaches, and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural beings that take human form, in the power of planets and stars to steer human affairs, and in reincarnation. These religions were vestiges of the pre-Christian culture of Mesopotamia but drew as well from Indian traditions that had been transmitted to the Middle East through the Persian Empire, and from Greek philosophy.

They are, in other words, living reminders of just how inadequate the nineteenth-century classification of the “great world religions” truly is. In their stubborn refusal to fit neatly into categories more commonly recognized by scholars and demographers, the devotees of these “disappearing” communities serve as time capsules. They bear witness to an era and an environment that regarded belief as endlessly diverse, and they now render the boundaries between traditions far more porous than we often assume them to be.

No academic monograph, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is more of a nation-hopping guidebook to the theology and customs of believers who can’t fully inhabit the imaginations of many Western readers without a proper introduction. Russell notes that the investigations that led to the book were both “informal and personal,” yet it seems very much a diplomat’s tale. In seven chapters, each devoted to a particular sect (in addition to the ancient faiths named above, he reports on the Yazidis, the Samaritans, the Copts, and the Kalasha), he schedules meetings with academic experts and religious leaders, asks questions over tea, and ruminates on the answers he has received. Still, even as Russell makes his presence known on every page, he keeps his narrative focus on the stories of others—via both interviews with the individuals he meets and his reconstructions of the larger histories that inform their beliefs.

Zoroastrian temple, Yazd, Iran.
Zoroastrian temple, Yazd, Iran.

At times this approach can yield unexpectedly dramatic moments. During a meeting with a Mandaean high priest in Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel, Russell learns that most members of the sect are desperate to leave the country and have deputized the priest to meet with Russell not only to share information but also to ask for help. “I had encountered the link to the ancient culture of Iraq that I had been looking for,” he writes, “and it was vanishing almost before my eyes.” Other times, some of the answers he coaxes out of his respondents are less than illuminating; one Druze informant sums up the tenets of his creed with a checklist of vague notions: “Reincarnation, respect for all heavenly religions, and a belief in the Universal Mind.” Another Druze smiles guardedly when pressed on certain esoteric articles of his faith. “He had obviously decided that a non-initiate could not be given the answer to this question,” Russell writes.

Yet the enlightening outweighs the perplexing here, and in both cases Russell’s account is engaging and informative. He introduces a cast of characters who, even when offering cagey responses to his earnest questions, humanize groups that news reports tend to treat as extras on the world stage. Thanks to Russell’s patient investigations, religious strictures that may seem absurd to some readers—such as the northern-Iraqi Yazidis’ avoidance of lettuce and the color blue—come across as unexceptional.

Despite occasional lighthearted interactions between Russell and the people he meets, a sadness also pervades these pages. Part of this certainly is due to the elegiac nature of the project. After all, these are communities that have managed precariously to sustain their traditions for centuries but are now finding that their time may finally be running out. The July massacre of the Yazidis at the hands of Islamic State militants in Iraq has made Russell’s book timely in a way that no author would hope for.

The potential disappearance of these religions is not the only source of gloom. Russell’s book has a crepuscular feel thanks to the point of view from which he recounts these religious odysseys. As a diplomat in the early aughts, Russell inevitably spent much of his time in the Middle East in Baghdad’s fabled Green Zone, “a five-square-mile twenty-first-century dystopia filled with concrete berms and barbed wire, highway bridges that ended in midair where a bomb had cleaved them, and tunnels walled off to block intruders.”

His experiences there emerge unexpectedly throughout the narrative. He writes that during his Green Zone exile, he suffered “not from fear but frustration”; still he finds the unbidden memories of Baghdad all carry a penumbra of catastrophe. “Each day new tragedies were reported: the decapitated head of a girl, implanted with explosives so that it became a booby trap for her family when they tried to recover it; men kidnapped and released for ransom, but with their eyes gouged out and their feet cut off. . . . All of this was happening,” Russell notes, “in the place where civilization began.”

With such grim events making up the bulk of your day job, who wouldn’t want to go out and chat with people about the Universal Mind for a while? The American occupation of Baghdad furnishes the background for Russell’s religious recovery mission—but he doesn’t go beyond treating it as an incidental context, which is a shame. He briefly evokes Constantine’s conversion as a key long-ago determinant of the complex religious scene in the contemporary Middle East—so how much more of a stretch would it be to unpack the role of another empire in the region? Given his own description of the city he had a hand in remaking, with its barbed-wire barricades and overpasses into the void, one wonders what will come of the next would-be emperors looking to the sky for a sign on the eve of battle. Which beliefs will rise and fall when they see only bridges to nowhere?

Peter Manseau is the author most recently of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown, 2015).