Jewish Shrine of Prophet Ezekiel’s Tomb Open to Visitors in Iraq’s Shi’ite Heartland

KIFL, IRAQ – A prayer in Arabic resounds around the ancient shrine, seeming to ricochet off the walls with their faded Hebrew texts. Reciting loudly, a corpulent Iraqi soldier stands next to the tomb, which is covered with a green cloth featuring a Quranic text embroidered in gold. He is addressing the Prophet Ezekiel next to what used to be the synagogue of Kifl, a small town in the Shi'ite heartland of Iraq.

For centuries, the synagogue and the purported grave were a pilgrimage site for Jews from all over Iraq, but most of them fled to Israel in the early 1950s, and most of the rest left in the 1970s. Now the synagogue built around Ezekiel’s purported tomb, together with part of the old Jewish quarters attached to it, is part of the Shi'ite mosque of Al-Nukhailah.

But Ezekiel’s tomb is slowly becoming a site of pilgrimage again – this time by Muslims and even the tensions between the United States and Iran that are playing out in Iraq do not affect it. With the American drone attack on an important Iranian general in Baghdad, the retaliatory rockets fired by Iran and pro-Iranian militias at American troops in Iraq, and the thousands of protesters who have been on the streets since October demanding an end to corruption – the ancient shrine remains a quiet and magical place that is open for all visitors.

After a dip in the numbers in October, when people from outside the area were afraid to travel because of the demonstrations all over the South of Iraq, they are now back to normal again.

For Ezekiel is not only known to Judaism and Christianity: he is also one of 24 Christian and Jewish prophets listed in the Quran, says Ahmed Abdelrahman, 31. He was hired as a guide to inform visitors about the shrine and thus attract more pilgrims. According to him, the shrine’s building is over 1,800 years old.

Ezekiel’s Tomb, a shrine in Kifl, IraqJudit Neurink

– Al-Kifl, Iraq

Al-Kifl, IraqGoogle Maps

In the Quran, Ezekiel’s name is Thel Kifl (though Iraqis call him Hidkel), and the town was called after him. Yet until the recent extension to the mosque, most Muslims considered the shrine to be purely Jewish. “They hesitated to come here,” Abdelrahman says, hence his appointment.

He also has a personal connection to the site: his grandfather Haji Thrab, who Abdelrahman points out in photographs from 1932 wearing Arab dress among a group of people in the old synagogue. “They are all Jews,” he says about the group, some of whom are wearing European clothes, others flowing robes and a fez. Because of his good relations with the Jews, Haji Thrab was appointed the synagogue’s caretaker when they left Kifl.