Nahum's Tomb: A Shavuot Like No Other

This site in Iraqi Kurdistan was a major Jewish gathering spot on Shavuot.

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Reprinted with permission from the Diarna Project.

At the foot of a mountain alongside a Christian village in Iraqi Kurdistan lies a partially collapsed compound: the tomb traditionally believed to belong to the biblical prophet Nahum.

For centuries the tomb and surrounding landscape, now largely in ruins, played host to a major Shavuot pilgrimage with elaborate rituals, which last occurred in 1951. In the words of a popular Kurdish Jewish saying: "He who has not witnessed the celebration of pilgrimage to Nahum's Tomb has not seen real joy."

Little is known about the prophet Nahum, with the opening verse of the biblical book named after him only revealing that he is from El-Kosh. It is unclear which town this refers to, or whether Nahum is actually buried in this shrine that bears his name in al-Qosh, Iraq. (Indeed, several other sites also claim to be Nahum's tomb.) Nahum's prophesy in the Bible is a rousing call made while in exile, which perhaps resonated with Kurdish Jews and prompted the multi-day pilgrimage each year.

The Physical Structure

While al-Qosh is a Christian village, Nahum's tomb was until about the middle of the 20th century owned and administered by the Jewish community. According to sources, the complex is hundreds of years old and underwent a major renovation in 1796, funded by Jewish communal leaders from Baghdad and Basra.

Families from the Jewish community in the nearby northern Iraqi city of Mosul took responsibility for maintaining the compound and hiring a guard. The last Jewish guard to live there was Moshe al-Qoshi and his family. In the 20th century, Sasson Rahamim Tzemah of Mosul spent many years and significant funds renovating the site.

When the majority of the Kurdish Jewish community moved to Israel in 1951, following the passing of the Denaturalization Law, the tomb was left in the hands of Sami Jajouhana, a Chaldean, who has struggled mightily to maintain the site ever since.

A visitor to the shrine during World War I described how the shrine's door was opened to visitors by a guardian with a large key on a long chain attached to his clothing. Persian carpets covered the floor. The walls of the compound contained hand-written Hebrew notes with prayers left by visitors, similar to notes tucked into Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.

In the middle of the main room, closed with an iron lock, stood a tall case covered in a green calico cloth with a gold crown on top, where Nahum's remains are said to be interred. In addition to the main hall surrounding Nahum's tomb, the compound had apartments and rooms to accommodate pilgrims.

Today, a faded green cloth still surrounds the sarcophagus and Hebrew plaques remain on the walls, though the roof of the shrine has partially collapsed and several walls are crumbling.

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