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Located on the western bank of the sweeping Tigris river and hidden from full sight by palm trees, the tomb of Ezra has been a source of mystical light appearances and inspiration for dozens of travel writings. A significant pilgrimage site for thousands of years, Ezra’s Tomb was sought out by numerous travel writers and pious Jews and Muslims who journeyed on foot for days to reach the tomb. It is an unusual shrine in that it comprises of worship spaces for both Jews and Muslims and allows for cohabitation of the two groups who both highly revere the biblical scribe. It is located in Al-Uzayr (Uzayr is Ezra in Arabic), a village near Basra in southeastern Iraq and about 30 miles upriver from Qurna.
7 And there went up also to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants. 8 And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
From the Book of Ezra, Chapter 7, Verse 7-9
Ezra: A highly respected figure in Judaism, Ezra was a Jewish scribe and priest who lived approximately from 480 to 440 BCE. His name derives from the Hebrew word Azaryahu, which means "God helps." According to the Book of Ezra, he was a major figure in rebuilding the Temple and reintroducing the Torah to the Jewish people in Jerusalem after returning from the Babylonian exile. Ezra was both a priest, descending from the line of Aaron and Seraiah the high priest, and a scribe well educated in the Torah (1). While living in Babylon, the Persian king Artaxerxes issued Ezra a royal edict allowing him to return to Jerusalem with a large group of Jews. In Jerusalem, Ezra reinforced observance of the Torah and exhorted Jewish men to separate from their non-Jewish wives.
History and Significance of the Tomb: The Bible makes no mention that Ezra returned to what is now Iraq or that he died in Iraq; in fact, the whereabouts of Ezra's death and burial are not recorded in the Bible at all. However, a number of traditions speculating Ezra's burial site has risen since the post-exilic period. In the first century CE, the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that Ezra was buried in Jerusalem. Later traditions by the Jewish community in Mesopotamia that began circulating around the year 1050 claimed that Ezra's tomb was located along the right bank of the Tigris (2). This tradition, lacking any substantial evidence, most likely originated from Iraqi Jewry's desire to lay claim to memorial sites of important biblical figures to solidify their diasporic identity and importance (3).
Nevertheless, the tradition of the Tigris location of Ezra's tomb persisted, and it is this location that is repeatedly mentioned in various travel writings in the following centuries. For example, in early 13th century, the Andalusian poet Judah al-Harizi recorded stories he had heard on his journey to the Near East regarding the tomb of Ezra and the light emitting from it (4). Al-Harizi wrote, "There goes up from his grave on certain nights an illumination that dispels the thick darkness. Because of this phenomenon the people believe that the Glory of the Lord shines upon him, and many people make pilgrimage to him" (5). Similar accounts of light ascending from Ezra's tomb are recounted in the writings of the 12th century Jewish traveler, Petahiyah of Regensburg, who stated that "Ezra, the scribe, is buried on the boundary of the land of Babylon. When the pillar of fire is over his grave, the structure erected on it is not visible on account of the brightness over his grave" (6). The mystical illumination of Ezra's tomb is also mentioned in the writings of the 11th century Yasin al-Biqai in his Concise Pamphlet Concerning Noble Pilgrimage Sites, Rabbi Yishaq Elfarra of Malaga in 1414 CE, and Benjamin of Tudela in the 13th century.
Though Benjamin of Tudela portrayed Ezra's tomb as a revered pilgrimage site for Jews and Muslims alike, he explained the interaction between the two groups at the tomb as cohabitation rather than one of co-mingling. The arrangement and structure of the tomb allowed Jews and Muslims to worship in separate spaces; each had their own distinct places of worship next to the main burial chamber. Benjamin described that "in front of the tomb, [the Jews] built a large synagogue [keneset]. And on the other side, the Ishmaelites built a prayer house [mosque], on account of their great devotion [to Ezra]" (7). The two groups seemed to have worshipped at Ezra's tomb without major conflicts.
Before technological modernization revolutionized Iraqi Jews' lifestyle and daily routines, visiting Ezra's tomb was a common communal holiday tradition for Iraqi Jews on Shavuot, Hanukah, and on the eve of the new month of Tevet (8). Ezra's tomb was also a popular destination for many Jews from Baghdad and Basra celebrating the Feast of Weeks, so much so that their Arab neighbors anticipated these pilgrimages to the tomb around that time of the year and cleared the way (9). Even after the mass emigration of Iraq Jews to Israel in 1951, Ezra’s tomb remained an active pilgrimage site for Shi’a Muslims of Southern Iraq, and its Hebrew inscriptions remained intact.
Appearance of the Tomb: As aforementioned, the tomb of Ezra featured worship spaces for both Jews and Muslims, and had a blue-tiled dome. In 1824, a Polish rabbi named David D'Beth Hillel relayed on his observations about Ezra's tomb to a missionary named Joseph Wolff, in which he described Ezra's Tomb as being "situated in a large court, having many houses for the benefit of the people who come to visit there. [Ezra] is buried in a large box equal to that wherein Ezekiel the prophet is buried; but is covered with a green cloth" (10). Covered by rich tapestries, the catafalque stood at 16 feet long and 10 feet high in a room full of rich decorations, and the four sides of the catafalque were covered by inscriptions, some of which were in Hebrew (11). Hebrew letters of God’s name were also displayed in the worshipping room. Nearby, there was an area where Arab and Jewish merchants set up shop during periods of high visitor traffic, especially between Passover and Shavuot. Visitors and pilgrims lit candles and prayed in the tomb (12).
There have been varying reports of what happened to the tomb of Ezra in recent years. In early February of 2015, for example, it was reported that Islamic militants gained control of the shrine and destroyed large parts of it with the intention of using it as their headquarters in southern Iraq (13). Other sources also from February of 2015 claim that the tomb of Ezra has been turned into a mosque (14).