Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, spent three months in Baghdad with his associates Bhai Mardana and Bhai Bala on his return to India from Mecca and Madina.
Bhai Mardana (1459 — 1534) was the first Sikh and longtime companion of Guru Nanak. Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, accompanied Guru Nanak on his journeys. Bhai Bala was a childhood friend of Guru Nanak and his lifelong companion. He traveled with Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana on all of their great journeys around the world including China, Arabia, and around India.
I was planning to visit the holy site with my colleague and friend Mohammed Al-Samarrae for a couple of years. The place is in the backyard of Baghdad railway station surrounded by graveyards.
I connected with Dr. Mehiyar Kathem, a Research Associate at University College London (UCL) through Twitter. His NGO, Nahrain Network, work in Iraq for funding the development of heritage places. He was also interested to visit the shrine of Guru Nanak.
Dr. Mehiyar is now in Baghdad, and we planned to go together to visit the area. Since there is no Gurudwara existing now, we have to explore the area known as Sheikh Maarouf cemetery, which is being used since the Abbasid era (750 – 1258 CE) in Baghdad and is still being used today.
Mohammed Al-Samarrae also said that he would accompany us too. We decided to meet at 10.00 AM on Friday, 11 November 2022 in Mansour. Mohammed and I waited for a few minutes and Dr. Mehiyar joined us and we proceeded towards our destination with the help of Maps.
From Google Maps, we found that it is near the tomb of the 9th-century Sufi saint Junayed Al-Baghdadi. He is a central figure in the spiritual lineage of many Sufi orders.
When we took the turn from the road towards the shrine, we were stopped at the checkpoint. We were allowed to go in only after we deposited our ID cards with them. The police didn’t tell us the reason. Maybe because we were entering the backyard of the Baghdad central railway station and the rail siding.
While exploring the area, we crossed the tomb of Pir Bahlol. We found another structure and went to check for that. We were surprised to find that the place is being said to be the tomb of the Prophet Joshua.
Prophet Joshua was mentioned in the Quran and the Torah. There is no historical evidence confirming that he was buried in Iraq, as he had at least 3 other shrines, including northern Palestine and Turkey.
The Old Testament states that the Prophet Joshua was a companion of the Prophet Moses, but no one knows for certain if Joshua, actually lived or where he might be buried. But for over 1,000 years, the sick and faithful have visited this Baghdad tomb said to be his.
A caretaker at the tomb of Joshua informed us the shrine of Guru Nanak is next to the tomb of Pir Bahlol. We then went to the tomb of Pir Bahlol. A caretaker there showed us a courtyard next to the tomb as the place where Guru Nanak stayed.
There used to be a Gurudwara. Now, it’s a desolate courtyard lacking maintenance. War, insurgents or looters have wiped any trace of a historical footnote that had preserved the memory of the Sikh Guru’s 16th-century journey through Arabia and his stay in Baghdad, hailed by Sikhs as an early example of inter-faith dialogue.
A memorial in the form of a platform was raised after Guru’s departure, where the Guru sat and discoursed. Later room was constructed and a stone slab with the inscription was installed on it. The Gurudwara was founded by Mohammad Pasha Amoot, a follower of Pir Bahlool after Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad in 1520. Baba Nanak Shrine or Sikh Gurdwara in Baghdad, which was rediscovered by Sikh soldiers during World War I, and was repaired and rebuilt during World War II, by Sikh soldiers again; existed till 2003 in good shape.
Historic relics such as an old plaque with text inscribed in Arabic, existed in the Shrine till the Iraq war in 2003, were looted. In the chaos following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, vandals stripped the monument of religious texts and the plaque commemorating the meeting. There is no trace of anything Sikh on the site now.
Let’s hope that this early example of inter-faith dialogue is not erased from the memory of the people and a plaque commemorating the three-month stay of Guru Nanak is placed on the wall.