Art And Culture

Sabian Mandaic Script Listed as Cultural Heritage

Sabian Mandaic Script Listed as Cultural Heritage
Sabian Mandaic Script Listed as Cultural Heritage

The written traditions of Sabian Mandaeans, a minority living in Khuzestan Province and southern Iraq, were listed as national intangible cultural heritage earlier in February. Recently head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization has asked the governor of Khuzestan to support efforts that help preserve the heritage.

The call was made in a letter by Ali Asghar Mounesan to Governor Gholam-Reza Shariati, ILNA reported on its Persian website.

The religion of Sabian Mandaeans is a form of Gnosticism with a dualistic worldview based on the practice of baptism.

The written tradition of this small community is rather extensive and diverse. It consists of ritual books (liturgies, prayers, hymns) and commentaries, theological or mythological tractates, illustrated scrolls, legends and mystic texts, according to an article by German researcher of Gnosticism and Mandaeism Kurt Rudolph in Encyclopedia Iranica.

Since the names and dates of the authors, redactors, or compilers are not known, it is very difficult to give exact information about the origin and duration of the literature. It can be said that the compilation of many writings into “books” had already started before the introduction of Islam into Mandaean settlements in Mesopotamia.

The existence of the liturgical and poetic writings must be postulated already in the third century AD. The script of the texts was probably developed in the second century or earlier in order to preserve the more ancient religious tradition, which probably originated in Palestine and Syria and was brought orally to Mesopotamia.

Among the most important Mandaean texts is “Treasure” or “Great Book”. It is in two parts, the larger “Right Ginza” and the smaller “Left Ginza”. The former is a collection of 18 tractates with predominantly cosmological, theological, and didactic (including ethical) content, while the latter deals only with the ascent of the soul to the realm of light; therefore this part is also called “Book of the Souls”.

The “Book of John” or “Books of the Kings” is also a collection of mixed content. The main parts report on the “sermons” of John the Baptist, the “discourses” of Šum (Shem), the appearance of Anōš (Enosh), the first son of Seth, Adam’s third son, in Jerusalem, and the story of the conversion of Miryai.

The liturgical hymns, prayers, and ritual instructions are assembled in “Canonical Prayer Book.” The first two parts of it contain the liturgy for baptism and the mass for the dead, called “ascent” of the soul; both are still used today by Mandaean priests.

Some of Mandaic scrolls are illustrated, like the interesting Diwan Abathur, which deals with the ascent of the soul through the heavenly purgatories of the planets and the signs of the zodiac, or the “Diwan of the Rivers”, which gives an impression of the traditional worldview of the Mandaeans.

The absence of sufficient historical evidence makes it difficult to trace the origins and early history of the Mandaeans. The oldest dateable sources are magic texts from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD in Mesopotamia, which contain elements of Mandaic mythology (names of spirits and demons).

Mandaeism was influenced by the surrounding cultural environment, which starts with old Mesopotamian magic rites and proceeds to incorporate baptism and the bible, early Christian and Gnostic texts, Iranian traditions, in particular Zoroastrianism.

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