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As Old as Water Itself – the Mandaeans of Iran

Ancient baptism ritual still performed in southwestern province.
By Hasan Sarbakhshian
  • Salem Chahili, a priest who is also secretary of the Mandaean Association of Iran, prepares jasmine for the baptism ritual on the banks of the river Karoun. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Salem Chahili, a priest who is also secretary of the Mandaean Association of Iran, prepares jasmine for the baptism ritual on the banks of the river Karoun. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Mandaeans at their weekly baptism ritual in Ahvaz, a town on the Karoun river in Khuzestan province. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Mandaeans at their weekly baptism ritual in Ahvaz, a town on the Karoun river in Khuzestan province. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • A priest baptises a woman in the river. The rite goes back to John the Baptist.  (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    A priest baptises a woman in the river. The rite goes back to John the Baptist. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Water is a central theme in Mandaean religious practice. Everyone is immersed in the river, from young to old. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Water is a central theme in Mandaean religious practice. Everyone is immersed in the river, from young to old. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • The priest helps a woman out of the river. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    The priest helps a woman out of the river. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • A wedding in Ahvaz. The bride sits behind partition with her back to the groom, as Mandaean community leader Jabber Tavousi (right) prays for them. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    A wedding in Ahvaz. The bride sits behind partition with her back to the groom, as Mandaean community leader Jabber Tavousi (right) prays for them. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Newlyweds tie rings of jasmine around each other’s fingers to symbolise the start of married life. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Newlyweds tie rings of jasmine around each other’s fingers to symbolise the start of married life. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Priest Salem Chahili hands bride and groom holy water to drink. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Priest Salem Chahili hands bride and groom holy water to drink. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • The couple are given items symbolising their daily life ahead – dates, bread, a comb, soap and some coins. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    The couple are given items symbolising their daily life ahead – dates, bread, a comb, soap and some coins. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • The married woman on the right has come to the wedding in the hope her own desire for a child will be granted. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    The married woman on the right has come to the wedding in the hope her own desire for a child will be granted. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • This part of the marriage ceremony involves only the groom. Priests recite verses from Mandaean holy scripture in Aramaic. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    This part of the marriage ceremony involves only the groom. Priests recite verses from Mandaean holy scripture in Aramaic. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • A Mandaean family after the weekly baptism. Many Persian-speakers mistakenly believe the Mandaeans are part of the Arab community of Khuzestan. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    A Mandaean family after the weekly baptism. Many Persian-speakers mistakenly believe the Mandaeans are part of the Arab community of Khuzestan. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • The younger generation attend religious lessons at the Mandaean Association in Ahvaz. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    The younger generation attend religious lessons at the Mandaean Association in Ahvaz. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Few young people are able to read the Mandaean religious texts written in Aramaic. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Few young people are able to read the Mandaean religious texts written in Aramaic. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Salem Chahili, secretary of the Mandaean Association of Iran, makes a phone call in Tehran. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Salem Chahili, secretary of the Mandaean Association of Iran, makes a phone call in Tehran. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Chahili in his office in Ahvaz. The photo on the wall shows the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini meeting Mandaean leader Jabber Tavousi. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Chahili in his office in Ahvaz. The photo on the wall shows the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini meeting Mandaean leader Jabber Tavousi. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Jabber Tavousi and his son at home in Ahvaz. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Jabber Tavousi and his son at home in Ahvaz. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • In Ahvaz and other towns in the southwest, many jewellery shops are owned by Mandaeans, who are traditionally goldsmiths by trade. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    In Ahvaz and other towns in the southwest, many jewellery shops are owned by Mandaeans, who are traditionally goldsmiths by trade. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • Another line of work – building industrial pumps. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    Another line of work – building industrial pumps. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
  • A photo showing a past generation of Mandaeans. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)
    A photo showing a past generation of Mandaeans. (Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian)

These pictures offer a rare glimpse into the lives and religious practices of the Mandaean community in Iran.

As followers of John the Baptist, members of this small faith group, numbering between 5,000 and 10,000 in Iran, immerse themselves in moving water every Sunday. Because the rituals of birth, baptism, marriage and death centre on water, the Mandaeans have from time immemorial lived close to rivers - the Karoun in Khuzestan province of southwest Iran, and the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq.

Muslims count the Mandaeans, also known as Sabians, as "people of the book" like themselves, the Christians and the Jews, and Shia clerics do not see them as a threat as they never seek new converts. Yet the community in Iran is disadvantaged because unlike other minority faiths, it is not mentioned in the constitution and has no representative in parliament.

Their refusal to sanction marriage to outsiders has meant the Mandaeans are a shrinking population. In recent years, though, emigration from Iran and especially Iraq has slashed their numbers in the Middle East.

For more about the life of this unique community, see Mandaean Faith Lives on in Iranian South.

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