At the end of the street, from the rail yard where plastic trash piles up next to rusting freight cars, angels arrive each night to guard Josué’s grave. A sanctuary servant, Um Junayd, says she sees them.
“When I open the prophet’s door at night, I find many birds on his grave,” he said. “They spend the night with him and leave in the morning. These birds are angels.
She asked to be called simply Um Junayd, the mother of Junayd, her eldest son, because divulging her full name would be immodest. Her late husband’s family has been caring for the shrines in this neighborhood for 600 years.
In the Old Testament, Joshua was Moses’ companion, he led the tribes of Israel in battle, and, as the hymn relates, he brought down the walls of Jericho.
There is no historical evidence that Joshua actually existed. If he existed, his tomb is said to be in at least three other places, including present-day Israel and Turkey.
But that doesn’t matter at all to Um Junayd or to the crowds that flock to this shrine since Baghdad was founded 1200 years ago.
“He prayed to God that he could come to Iraq and die in Iraq“Um Junayd said when asked how Joshua got here from Jericho. “This is his grave.”
The deputy director of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim shrines, Sheikh Suhaib Yas al-Rawi, said he knows it is Joshua’s tomb because there was a sun etched on the original walls, along with the name Joshua bin Nun, a reference to the father of the prophet. In the Old Testament, God stopped the sun for Joshua.
Um Junayd, 70, wears a wraparound black cloak over a dark green velvet tunic and plastic sandals. She exudes serenity and, at times, when describing the wonders that are revealed to her, a radiant joy.
It tells of visions of a bird surrounded by Qur’anic verses, of such blinding beauty that it cannot describe its colors, and of the visit of an angel in the form of a white bird so large that its wings shook the ground.
Behind her, sparrows chirp and a bulbul, a songbird, chirps from the branches of a sacred tree. With the birds completely hidden behind a profusion of shiny green leaves, it seems even the tree is singing.
The grave itself is located on the other side of the low door of a brick domed shrine, partially renovated in recent years by Iraq’s Sunni Muslim religious authority. Inside there is a large rectangular coffin made of sandalwood and covered in dark blue velvet embroidered with gold and silver calligraphy. On the vaulted ceiling there is a star-shaped mosaic with missing mirror tiles, with a dark green net to catch the insects before they fall onto the coffin.
Like refracted light, over time the prophet of the Hebrew Bible has come to be revered by multiple faiths, including Islam. The Koran considers him the helper of Moses.
More than 1,200 years ago, during the golden age of Islam, when Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, Sufi Muslim philosophers, scholars and mystics paid tribute to Joshua, and some are buried near the shrine.. The faithful who wait for their prayers to be answered and the sick who seek to heal are drawn to this place.
The Joshua shrine is surrounded by the tomb of Saint Junayd of Baghdad, a Sufi teacher who died in 910, and the tomb of Bahloul, a judge and poet who lived almost a hundred years earlier. There is also a shrine dedicated to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, who is said to have visited Baghdad and spoke about theology in the spirit of Bahloul.
The stories from centuries ago place the sanctuary an hour’s walk for pilgrims from the city. One recent day, Salih Ahmed Salih and his wife, Arwa Sameer, got out of a yellow taxi with their two children in what is now a crowded Baghdad neighborhood.
Salih said that no doctor had been able to alleviate the pain from his wife’s herniated disc. Sameer followed Um Junayd, who read her verses from the Quran in hopes of healing her and prescribed a verse for her to recite 30 times a day at home. Then, inside Joshua’s shrine, Sameer placed his right hand on the velvet covering under the crumbling vaulted ceiling and prayed.
“This is medicine for the world of believers,” said Um Junayd, who never learned to read but knows the Qur’an by heart.
Basheer Abdullah, a government employee, arrived with his daughter and two sons. “Mom is sick,” said her son, Gaith, 4, when I asked why they had come.
Abdullah’s ancestors are buried in a nearby cemetery, where graceful date palms cast their shadow over centuries of tombstones.
“Our grandparents said that the prophet Yusha is buried hereí, ”he said, using the Arabic name Josué. “The prophets are known from generation to generation.”
A burly man dressed in the beige clothing of a combatant, with a plastic knee splint, limps into the shrine and puts his pistol on the carpeted floor as he prays. A smiling man in a white crocheted prayer cap, who studies Sufi Islam, approaches to pay his respects to the prophet.
Um Junayd only talks to women. Says he’s not interested in the outside world, where people talk about topics that don’t interest him, like new cars and furniture. She feels blessed to be able to clean the street the prophet once walked on.
Her husband, Abu Junayd, died a decade ago.
“He had a good heart and people loved him. He had a face like the moon, ”he said, using a common Arabic expression to denote beauty. “God gave it to me as a blessing”.
I met Abu Junayd when I visited the shrine in 2001 with my friend Nermeen al-Mufti, an Iraqi journalist who twenty years later brought me back. Twenty years ago, Abu Junayd told us about the Jewish neighbors that some in the neighborhood still remembered, descendants of Jews exiled in Babylon, and an important part of Iraqi society until most were forced to leave in the 1950s.
He told us about the snake that protects the sanctuary at night and appears through a crack in the ancient wood of the prophet’s coffin.
Um Junayd said that during the day the snake wanders around protecting the neighborhood. At night, he said, they can hear her return. Beyond that, he can no longer tell us.
“This land is blessed and has secrets,” he said. “Some things are obvious and some are not. We cannot answer everything. “
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