On his family's journey from Bombay to Iraq in 1910, escorted by the Daniels, David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), grandson of the great philanthropist David Sassoon, kept a diary in Hebrew. David Sassoon Junior found the Jews of Hillah oppressed by the local sheikhs, who had rigorously applied the strictures of dhimmitude (including the Shi'a idea that a Jew was 'unclean' or najas) until a few years before. As rumours this week of a plan to build a mosque on the site of Ezekiel's tomb are being denied, Sassoon records earlier Muslim attempts to claim the holy site as theirs.
Here are extracts from David Solomon Sassoon's diary, via The Scribe:
"Hillah is a very small town surrounded by a wall built not in very good fashion from bricks taken from the ruins of ancient Babylon. The colour of the water is so bad that one is frightened to drink. To the north and south, the city is surrounded by date palms.
"The number of Jews in Hillah is 500 persons and they have two synagogues. The first is called the big synagogue not for its great size but because it is larger than the small one. I found a stone tablet on a small well in the big synagogue. It turned out to be a tombstone dated 1232. The land of Babel is not stony and thus such a tombstone is a rarity in these parts. It would be required to bring it from distance of 10 days journey at least. This shows the importance of the person buried. It was found by Arab farmers 4 1/2 hours distance from Hillah 120 years ago, and was brought to Hillah by a Jew named Shikuri who had it put in the synagogue by the Hechal (Ark).
"Twenty years ago when they rebuilt the synagogue it was placed in its present position where I found it and subsequently bought it.The second synagogue was built by David Sasson in 1862/3 and is named after him. It is near the big synagogue. At the entrance there is a plaque which reads that David Sasson built this synagogue and a condition was made with the community of Hillah that half the proceeds of the synagogue should go for the upkeep of the Yeshiva of our master, Yehezkel Hanabi.The Tebah (pulpit) is very large in this small synagogue. Nearby is a very big tree said to be over 100 years old.
"The order of the prayers is as in Baghdad. The Jews are very poor and oppressed by the Sheikhs. Till a few years ago the Jews had limited rights. They had to wear a red patch on their outer garments. They were not allowed to ride on a donkey or horse in town. They were not allowed to walk in the streets on a rainy day in case they would splash water on a Moslem. They were not allowed to wear green – the holy colour of the Moslems. If they would, the Moslem would take it from him and give him a good beating. When they walked in the streets they had to keep a good distance away from the Moslems in case their clothes would touch and defile them. They were not allowed to touch the fruit or vegetables in the shop before buying and if they did touch anything it was considered defiled and they had to buy it. They were not allowed to build their houses higher than the Moslems or to build a balcony over the streets because a Moslem could not walk under a Jewish house and other similar restrictions.
"On Shabbat morning the 2nd Kislev – December we went to the David Sasson synagogue where I was given to read the Maftir. The Parashah was read in a Sefer Torah donated by my great grandfather Sheikh Sassoon. I saw the two houses of Menahem Sliman Daniel, which are now in a very forsaken condition, also the spot where an Arab shot him in 1890. The office of the Daniel family is here from where they run their land business. In these days the working on the land is not successful, as the Euphrates has changed course causing a detrimental effect on the area.
Shrine of Yehezkel Hanabi: "At 5.00 pm we arrived at Al-kifil a small village by the Euphrates. When we arrived there was a funeral procession going to the Cemetery. It was the aunt of Sasson Effendi the sister of his mother who passed away yesterday in Hindiyah at the age of ninety. We went straight to the grave of Yehezkel Hanabi. We arrived just in time to pray Minha and we prayed in the synagogue next to the grave. In my opinion the lovely building over the grave is extremely old, built from very big stones said to be the work of King Yahoyakhin. Above the doorway was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it – ‘this is the tomb of our master Yehezkel the prophet, the son of Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all Israel. Amen."
"The room with the grave is very high and has flowers painted on the walls and the names of important visitors to the grave. It is mentioned that my grandfather David Sassoon repaired the building in 1859. The grave is very large: 12 feet 9 inches long, 5 feet 3 inches wide and 5 feet 1 inch high. It is covered with a decorated Parochet, which was sent by David Sassoon from Bombay. It is also written on the walls of the visit of Menahem Saleh Daniel to the grave in 1897/8 and his donation to redecorate the grave. Nearby, in another room, which has 5 tombs of Geonim (Sages).
"In another part of the courtyard is another room in which is buried Saleh Menahem Daniel, between the graves of two Sadikim who without a doubt are also Geonim. He was the father of Menahem and Sasson Daniel. Hakham Yosef Haim made the words on his tomb. Saleh Daniel spent his last years in Al-kifil because his desire was to be buried there. When he became very ill he was carried to the doctor in Hillah for treatment and died there but he was subsequently brought back to Al-kifil to be buried in the grave that he bought in his lifetime.
"Since our intention was to leave early morning, I spent the remainder of the evening in search of manuscripts. In the synagogue are 16 Sefer Torahs in silver cases. However, I did not find books or a library, neither did I see or hear about a Sefer Torah which was said to have been written by the prophet Yehezkel. Binyamin of Tudela mentions such a Sefer Torah, which is read from only on Yom Kippur. In my opinion he should have said a scroll on which was written extracts from the book of Yehezkel, some examples of which I found here. They are read at the grave by visitors. Apart from these scrolls I bought some other scrolls but these are just transcripts from the book Mamlechet Cohanim by Hakham Yosef Haim. This holy shrine was really nearby to us. This happened in 1860 at the time of the rule of Mustafa Pasha in Baghdad.
"Two influential Moslems claimed that the tomb belonged to Moslems on the pretext that only mosques have minarets. The Ministry of Holy Sites instructed to list it as Moslem property and this caused great suffering to the Jews. Hakham Sasson Smouha the Hakham Bashi of Baghdad and the Dayanim, together with the help of Saliman Daniel, objected to this and a special Minister was sent from Constantinople to investigate the matter and he ruled in favour of the Jews. Sir Moshe Montefiore’s name is also mentioned in this connection for his support in this matter.
"In the village lived one hundred and fifty Jews. The time for visiting the grave is from the middle of Iyar until the beginning of Sivan. There are the Khan hotels by the tomb, one donated by a Yaakob Semah in 1844/5. The house of the Daniel family is close to the tomb. From the roof we enjoyed the wonderful sunset and the beautiful view.
4th Kislev – December 1910 : "We woke early to pray Shahrit (morning service). The group travelled back to Hillah except for Ezra and Saleh Daniel who agreed to wait for me and accompany me back to Hillah. I decided to remain until I had photographed the place, especially the internal view of the tomb since this had never been done previously. After I completed this job we then travelled back to Hillah arriving at the Mashad gate at 6.30 pm.
Shrines of Sadikim in Babel: In Babel there are four known shrines of great men:
The prophet Ezekiel in Al-Kifil – a distance of seventeen hours by caravan riding on animals or eleven hours by cart pulled by animals till Hillah. From Hillah till the village Kifil six hours riding on animals. (According to Hakham Yosef Hayim in 1908).
Ezra HaSofer (Ezra the Scribe)
Yehoshua Cohen Gadol – near Baghdad. Baghdad is built on the banks of the river Tigris, mainly on the eastern bank where the Jewish Quarter was. On the western bank was the Quarter where only Moslems lived. About one mile from this settlement was the grave.
Sheikh Yishak Gaon – died in 688 CE. Buried in Baghdad in the Jewish Quarter.