It might not be the Tigris or the Euphrates, but the Nepean River in Western Sydney is vital to the Australian adherents of one of the world’s most ancient religions.
Thought to have originated 2,000 years ago in Mesopotamia — modern day Iraq and Iran — the Mandaean community reveres John the Baptist, who they call Yehyea Yahana, and water’s purifying force.
Unlike Christians, Mandaeans regard baptism, or masbuta, as the key ritual of their faith — one that may be practiced hundreds, even thousands of times over the course of a person’s life.
(Religion and Ethics Report)
It’s estimated there are between 60,000 to 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide. Australia is home to 10,000, around half of whom live in or near Sydney’s western suburbs.
Following baptism, Mandaeans chant in their ancient Eastern Aramaic dialect, Mandaic. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
This week marked Kahshuzahly, or Mandaean New Year’s Eve, and Mandaeans around the world flocked to flowing rivers for a special ceremony.
Anwar Hasan, the 13-year-old daughter of a local priest, was one of the 100 or so Mandaeans who went to the banks of the Nepean River.
Baptisms, she said, are an opportunity to cleanse and refresh one’s life and soul.
“We’re normally baptised in a river because it’s fresh and, as they say, it’s flowing — where the life is always flowing,” she said.
“We wear white because it’s pure. White represents faith, white represents the cleansing.”
After the ceremony, Mandaeans return to their homes for 36 hours, marking the time it took for the “spiritual soul” to create the world and the first man, Adam.
Anwar Hasan and her father, a Mandaean priest, came to Australia in 2003. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
“When the spirit came forth into him, it took 36 hours for the creation, and [so it’s] 36 hours for us to stay in our homes,” Anwar explained.
“And within those hours we teach his stories, we continue in his path.”
Fasting is also key to this experience, but the word means more than abstention from food.
“When we say fasting we mean not fasting about the food and water, we mean fasting the great fast,” she said.
“So fasting with our mouths, we shall not lie, or fasting with our eyes, we shall not see the wrongdoing, or fasting with our legs, we shall not walk into the wrong path.
“That’s what we mean by the fast. Many people think that we fast with food and water. Food and water is part of it, but not all of it.”
A persecuted minority
The persecution of Mandaeans since the rise — and fall — of Saddam Hussein has been well documented.
Monther Amer, a member of the Sabian Mandaean Association in Liverpool, said the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw a rise in attacks on Mandaeans.
“After 2006, the terrorists needed our money,” he recalled.
“They killed many of the Mandaeans, they kidnapped them, they took the women. And because we have no special area in Iraq, no-one can protect the Mandaeans.”
He believes the peaceful mindset of Mandaeans has made them easy targets.
“We cannot kill anyone. Our religion says ‘you cannot kill anything’. Not just the human, also the animal, we cannot cut the trees. It is a very peaceful community.”
Most of Iraq’s Mandaeans fled to refugee camps, and have since been resettled in Australia, Europe and the United States.
Anwar, whose own family moved to Australia in 2003, believes the persecution of Mandaeans has wounded the confidence of believers.
“The sad thing is that many people don’t think we exist, many people don’t believe in us,” she said.
“Mandaeans themselves, because of that problem, actually fear being a Mandaean. They don’t stand as proud of being a Mandaean because they just think they’re worthless and they’re alone, but they’re not.”
Strict codes around marriage — Mandaeans must marry within the faith — have also contributed to the religion’s declining numbers. Some followers worry that Mandaeism in danger of dying out.
Rishmah Salah Choilli, a Mandaean community leader in Australia, understands this concern.
“We are scared this community will become smaller and smaller,” he said through a translator.
“We need to, all the Mandaeans, keep our relationship with the religion.”
An experience for all
On the banks of the Nepean River, rows of robed Mandaeans lined up for icy submersion.
Some carried pots and pans, others brought glass bottles. One man had a rusty knife — his favourite for making tabouleh.
These items, made from natural materials, also underwent a baptism of sorts, a purification for future use.
Anwar decided to sit out this baptism — she was too cold — but her grandfather and grandmother, both in wheelchairs, were rolled into the river.
A group of men, some wearing sunglasses, huddled around the elders to ensure their wheelchairs remained afloat.
It takes a team of men to carry Anwar’s grandfather out from the river. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)
This coalescence of modern technology with an ancient ritual sums up what is to be a Mandaean in 2017.
“I actually tend to forget that I have a smartphone and forget that I’m living in the 21st century,” Anwar said.
Cloaking her now-baptised grandmother in a warm blanket, she said she was happy to straddle both ancient and modern worlds.
“I’m so into my religion, I love it so much. I even forget that this world is slowing fading away.”
Suddenly, a mobile phone rang — the familiar iPhone jingle — and the ancient scene was transported back into the 21st century.