History/Founder/important persons/saints: The exact origins of Mandeism are unknown, and scholars argue dates ranging from the first to the fourth centuries. Because they speak a form of Aramaic, some credence is given their claim that they are descended from followers of John the Baptist; others believe they may be descended from the Essene sect.

Current leader/governing body: Mandeans live in small communities in Southern Iran and Iraq.

Number of Adherents: About 20,000 in Iraq and Iran.

Clergy: Mandeans have an active priesthood that requires extensive training and a seven day initiation.

Church/temple: The Mandi, a small open-ended building with a pool (connected to a nearby river) for baptism.

Scripture: The Ginza, or prayerbook, and the Book of John the Baptist.

Required observances, dietary restrictions: Mandeans follow purity laws similar to those in Judaism. Men are required to wear white turbans.

Code of Conduct: Mandeans follow a complex system of Morals, much of which is laid out in the "Book of John." The main prohibitions are:

1 Blasphemy
2 Murder
3 Adultery
4 Theft
5 Lying and perjury
7 Being disloyal
8 Lust
9 Magic
10 Circumcision
11 Drinking alcohol
12 Charging interest
13 Mourning the dead
15 Divorce
16 Suicide
17 Self-mutilation, including tattoos and piercing
Holidays: Important holidays include the Mandean New Year, and the Dehwa Hnina (little feast). The Mandean calendar has twelve months of thirty days each; the intercalary days make up the difference, and are the time of the Greatest Mandean feast, the Panja.

Basic teachings and Beliefs: The Mandeans are the last remaining continuous Gnostic sect- Mandean is from the word "Manda," or "secret knowledge.". They practice weekly Baptisms as a sacrament, and claim to follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They reject Jesus as a false prophet, who mislead people and revealed religious secrets.

The Mandeans are considered by Muslims to be "People of the Book" and the Sabeans of Koranic legend, but Mandeans give Mohammed less credit even than Jesus, identifying him as a demon.

The practice of ecstatic rituals (see shamanism) may be another link to the early Gnostics, and the mysterious substance haoma bears and interesting linguistic similarity with the Hindu Soma.

Interestingly, the Christian New Testament tells of an episode where the missionary Paul encounters a group of "disciples," followers of John the Baptist, who have never heard of Jesus! (Acts 19) Part of the Mandean account of Jesus:

"While John lives in Jerusalem, gaining sway over Jordan and baptizing, Jesus Christ shall come to him, shall humble himself, shall receive John's baptism and shall become wise with John's wisdom. But then shall he corrupt John's sayings, pervert the Baptism of Jordan, distort the words of truth and preach fraud and malice throughout the world."

Symbols: The main symbol of the Mandean faith is a cross swathed in fabric, surmounted by a wreath.