The Mandaeans of Shepparton

A small community of Mandaeans have settled in Shepparton, and have commenced taking up their baptismal practices. Members of the Shepparton Interfaith Network attended one ritual and met new members of the Mandaean community of Shepparton.


Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist. Their ancestors fled from the Jordan Valley about 2000 years ago and ultimately settled along the lower reaches of the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran. Baptism is the principal ceremony of the Mandaean religion and may only take place in a freshwater river.

Mandaeans are theists and pacifists. The Mandaeans have a number of Holy Books, the greatest of which is the Ginza. The Mandaean Holy Books are written in the Aramaic language and the Mandaean script. The Ginza itself consists of 21 books. The Ginza teaches love and kindness:

“If you see anyone hungry, feed him; if you see anyone thirsty, give him a drink” (Right Ginza I.105)

“Give alms to the poor. When you give do not attest it. If you give with your right hand do not tell your left hand. If you give with your left hand do not tell your right hand.” (Right Ginza II.i.34)

“Ye the chosen ones … Do not wear iron and weapons; let your weapons be knowledge and faith in the God of the World of Light. Do not commit the crime of killing any human being.”

“Ye the chosen ones … Do not rely on kings and rulers of this world, do not use soldiers and weapons or wars; do not rely on gold or silver, for they all will forsake your soul. Your souls will be nurtured by patience, love, goodness and love for Life.”

Mandaeans in Australia
Mandaeans began to settle in Australia around 1981. Ganzevra Salah Chohili arrived in 1996. The Mandaean people approved the Constitution for the Mandaean Community in Australia and accepted Ganzevra Salah Chohili as the religious leader of the Mandaean Community in Australia in a voting process conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission on 16th December 2007.

With the approval of the Penrith City Council, a set of steps into the river was erected at Tench Reserve (near the mooring of the Nepean Belle) to facilitate the conducting of these baptisms. After the settlement of Ganzevra Salah Chohili, the Mandaean Community also took steps to organize itself as a religious denomination.

The Sabian Mandaean Association purchased land on the Nepean River at Wallacia for the erection of a mandi (place of worship).

 

Sikanda Armin and Tarmina Nabil at the Causeway – Photo courtesy Shepparton News

About Mandaeans

Mandaeans witnessed the rise of Christianity and Islam. They survived the Mongol massacres, attacks by Arab tribes, the arrival of Europeans and the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein. According to historians, they did so by keeping to themselves and, when necessary, camouflaging themselves within surrounding religions. “The complete portrait of Mandaean history through the centuries is impossible to acquire, but glimpses appear here and there,” wrote an internationally recognised specialist on the Mandaean religion, Jorunn J. Buckley, in her book The Mandaeans.

Also known as Sabeans, Mandaeans practise Mandaeism, a mysterious religion, a brand of Gnosticism that predates Christianity. Followers claim to be descendants of Adam, revere Noah as a prophet and John the Baptist, whom they do not consider to be the founder of their religion but he is revered as one of their greatest teachers. Mandaeans are born into the religion and must marry within it. It does not accept converts.

Mandaean Baptisms are administered by a ganzevra (bishop) with the assistance of tarmidi (priests) and ishkandi (deacons). Baptism may only take place in a free-flowing fresh-water river. All Mandaean ceremonies are conducted in the Mandaean Aramaic language in accordance with the Mandaean canonical books, with the most Holy one being the Ginza Raba.

 

Right Ginza – Holy text of the Mandaeans – Photo courtesy Shepparton News

There are about 10,000 Mandaeans in Sydney, and they are working to establish a community in Shepparton, where there are 28 Mandaean families. There is no priest locally, and priests have to come from Sydney for them to practice their rites. They can only live near a river with flowing water, for it is needed for baptising. Mandaeans baptise every Sunday (Sundays are festival days for Mandaeans) and follow a special program of focussing on their rituals for 36 hours afterwards.

The community is working to establish a space for a place of worship (called mandi) for Shepparton’s Mandaeans, as well as somewhere they could regularly conduct baptisms.

 

Baptism in the Goulburn River, Shepparton – Photo courtesy Shepparton News

Mandaeans were unknown to the West until Ricoldo da Montecroce, a 13th century Dominican monk, went to Mesopotamia and wrote about them. He described them as a very strange and singular people in terms of their ritual: “They live in the desert near Baghdad … Many of them came to me and begged me insistently to visit them. They claim to possess a secret law of God, which they preserve in beautiful books … they live near a few rivers in the desert. They wash day and night so as not to be condemned by God.”

Read The Mandaeans – their history, religion and mythology

Download The Mandaeans – A Story of Survival in the Modern World (from Refugee Transitions, Issue 32, October 2017)

 

 

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