According to Iraqi Jewish tradition, the biblical prophet Ezekiel is buried in a tomb next to a covered bazaar (market) in al-Kifl near the Euphrates River. Over 2,500 years ago, Ezekiel preached to the Jews who had been exiled from Israel to Babylon.1 The town of al-Kifl may also be the site of the academy of Sura that codified the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of laws that shapes Jewish life to this day.
Origins: The famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Ezekiel’s tomb in the 1170, the earliest written account of its existence. His trip report states that the synagogue attached to the tomb contained a torah scroll written by Ezekiel himself along with books from the period of the first Temple in Jerusalem. In the 1300s, Muslim officials turned the synagogue on the site into a mosque, which was ruined by flooding in 1778 (though the minaret still exists).2 Until the 1820s, Jews were banned from passing through the external courtyard to the tomb.3
In the 1840s, Jews reclaimed control of the site after appealing to Ottoman authorities. A yeshiva with scholars from Baghdad was established, and craftsmen from nearby Hilla and other cities settled there. Disputes over the site flared up again in both 1860 and the 1930s, when the synagogue was taken over briefly by Muslims. To try to resolve tensions, Jews and Shi’a had different prayer times inside the shrine.
Navigation: The shrine is located off a covered market established by local Jews. In fact, many stalls owned by Jews who left in the early 1950s remain empty. Decayed Jewish homes and store rooms also remain along the back side of the shrine. The entrance from the market opens onto a courtyard of mud buildings with olive, palm, and fig trees growing in the center. The small rooms surrounding the courtyard were used a guest rooms by Jewish pilgrims, who would come in large during important holidays, including Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, and the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.4
A green wooden door off the courtyard opens into a room that was once a synagogue. Hebrew writing remains on the wall: “And this is the gravestone of our prophet Ezekiel.” A second room off the synagogue also features Hebrew inscriptions and holds the wood-paneled vault surrounding Ezekiel’s tomb. Faded floral designs are painted on the wood. A tiny door at the bottom can be opened, revealing a concrete tomb featuring two tablets inscribed with the Hebrew name for Ezekiel.5
Caretakers: For many years, a local Jewish family named Khalastchi served as caretakers of the shrine, holding the key and administering the guest rooms. (Celebrated Iraqi-Israeli author Eli Amir is a member of the family.) Today, a Muslim man named Abu Khadum and his son serve as caretakers, welcoming people of all faiths to visit the shrine.6
Status: Until the 1960s, Iraqi Jewish families used to make pilgrimages to this site, often staying overnight in the guest rooms outside the shrine. While no more Jews live in al-Kifl, a Muslim family guards the shrine, which is visited regularly by Shia pilgrims.