The 2,700-year-old tomb of an ancient Hebrew prophet in one of Iraq’s last remaining synagogues is at risk of destruction by the rapidly advancing Islamic State – as the family who has maintained the crumbling site for three generations pledged to keep guard over the crumbling site for a dwindling number of Jewish pilgrims.
The tomb of Nahum the Elkoshite – named as a minor prophet in the Hebrew bible – is said to have attracted thousands of pilgrims each year, mainly at Shavuot, before the Jewish exodus from Iraq between 1949 and 1953. A local Assyrian Christian family have served as the custodians of the site since the last Jews left Al Qosh, and now the dozen annual pilgrimages that might have been expected have been cast into doubt – with Iraqi Kurdish fighters staving off ISIS attacks only ten miles away.
The hand-built synagogue has fallen into disrepair, though remains mostly intact despite two walls having partially collapsed. It is surrounded by barbed wire and a metal awning erected by the Iraqi government, and its Christian caretaker Asir Salaam Shajaa – who is confident that ISIS will fail to capture Al Qosh – says that “no one can decide what to do with the place”.
Shajaa, whose grandfather was asked “to watch over the tomb, to keep it safe” by the last Jews to leave the city, added that fighting in the region meant that plans made by “wealthy Jewish people” to rebuild the temple have been put on hold indefinitely.
His desire to leave Iraq – like many Christians in the country – adds further uncertainty to the future of Nahum’s tomb, which the family have looked after under their own auspices for decades.
He said: “I keep an eye on this place. My wife comes and sweeps the floors every week, and when we have a visitor who wishes to see or worship at the tomb, they are told to come to my house, I open the gates for them and let them in. We don’t get many visitors, though.
“I’m not sure how long my family will continue to stay in Iraq, we want to leave, most of the Christians want to leave.
“My brother says he will stay though, if my family gets to leave Iraq my brother and his children will look after the tomb. It will stay in the family, God willing.”