are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country. The origin of Jewish
Diaspora in Persia is closely connected with various events in Israel's
ancient history. At the time of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser
III (727 BC) thousands of Jews were deported from Israel and forced
to settle in Media. According to the annals of another Assyrian king,
Sargon II, in 721 BC, Jewish inhabitants of Ashdod and Samaria in
present day Israel were resettled in Media after their failed attempt
against Assyrian dominance. The records indicate that 27,290 Jews
were forced to settle in Ecbatana (Hamadan) and Susa in South West
Persia. These settlers are referred to as one of the 'Ten Lost Tribes
of Israel' in biblical records.
The next wave
of the Jewish settlers arrived to escape persecution from the Assyrian
king Nabuchadadnezzar II. Many were settled in Isfahan around 680BC.
The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great the founder of Achaemenian
Empire also brought many Jews into the country. In 539 BC, Cyrus entered
Babylon with little resistance. The temple of Marduk their major deity
was restored and Cyrus crowned himself in the name of Marduk.The Jewish
exiles in Babylon were permitted to go home and reconstruct the temple
of Jerusalem and some chose to emigrate to Persia. The restoration
was confirmed by Darius the Great and commenced at the time of Artaxerxes
I. Under Darius around 30,000 Jews left Babylon to start work on the
Yedidya Shofet, shlita
the Former Chief Rabbi of Iran and
current Spritiual Leader of the Worldwide Persian Jewish community
The mild treatment
Achaemenian accorded their conquered subjects was part of the Imperial
doctrine. The policies of the central administration encouraged autonomy
in internal affairs with little intervention from the Persians. For
instance, the Satrap (Governor General) of Judah, which constituted
the fifth Satrapy, had his own local governor in Samaria with the
right of supervision over the deputy in Judah.
From 516 BC,
there was no Persian deputy in Judah. At first Shabazzar from the
ancient Davidic House was the regional leader in Jerusalem. He was
followed by Zerubbabel another Jewish aristocrat. In the fifth to
fourth century BC, the rulers of Judah where also appointed among
the local residents. Seals used by the ruler of Judah in the fifth
century BC identify him as Yehoazar. In 458 BC, the Jew Ezra is appointed
the deputy of Judah. The same Ezra had served up to this time as a
scribe in the central administration in Susa, the Capital of the Persian
Correspondence left by Ezra and his successor Nehemiah, who likewise
had been in Susa prior to this, indicates a strong Jewish community,
united around the local temple and headed by the high priest. This
community had its own organs of self-administration, in whose affairs
the Persians did not intervene. Gradually, the high priest became
the governor of Judah.
temple communities were not exclusive to the Jews. They existed throughout
the Persian Empire. Cyprus, Cilicia, Lycia and other Phoenician cities
and principalities in Asia Minor had their own local rulers. Even
such remote tribes as the Arabs, Colchians, Ethiopians, Sakai, etc
were governed by their own local chiefs. All kept their religion and
gods with little interference from the Achaemenian administration.
the highest positions in the state apparatus. At the same time they
extensively utilized cultural, legal and administrative traditions
of the conquered nations. In the Murashu family documents (present-day
Iraq, ancient Babylonia) of the 23 high royal officers, only eight
have Iranian names. Various ethnic and religious minorities followed
their own legal code in personal matters such as marriage and family
law. For example Jewish settlers of Elephantine (Egypt) under Persian
administration remained monogamous and the husbands did not have the
right to take a second wife. Monetary and property disputes were settled
and decided by the special "court of the Jews".
The conquered people were also given land allotments in exchange for
taxes and military service. Among these settlers were all groups such
as Babylonians, Aramaeans, Jews, Indians and Sakai, etc. In Susa itself,
besides the local population and the Persians, there were large number
of Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews and Greeks.
There were no
restrictions with respect to religious freedom and practices. Hundreds
of objects regarded sacred by various ethnic and religious groups
are discovered both in Susa and Persepolis. In the Fortification texts
discovered at Persepolis many foreign deities are mentioned. These
cults and their priests received rations and wages for maintenance.
A priest serving
the Elamite god Humban receives 4 marrish of beer, of which two were
for the Akkadian god Adad. In 500 BC, the priest Ururu, having received
80 bar of grain from the storehouse, exchanged it for eight yearling
sheep, of which two were used for sacrifices to the god Adad. The
Persian religion was against offering of livestock for sacrifices
and Zoroaster banned the practice, however others were not prevented
from practicing such rituals.
The Elamite god
Humban is mentioned more frequently in the texts than other foreign
gods. As evident from the Fortification texts, both Elamite and Persian
priests served this deity. Cambyses (Cyrus' son and successor) frequently
expresses his respect for all things sacred. He worshiped Egyptian
gods and goddess and patronized the Elephantine temple of the Jews.
In a mosaic in British Museum, Darius is crowning himself in Egypt,
in the name of Egyptian gods, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh.
testify to mixed marriages amongst all groups including Jews. The
practice was so common that the Jewish governors Ezra and Nehemiah
objected it. They clamped down on these marriages and punished Jews
who would marry outside the religion. Many documents, texts and contracts
mention Jewish names engaged in trade, disputes or as property owners.
In the fifth
century BC, in Nippur documents, 100 such Jewish families are identified.
They are land owners, tradesmen or were in the royal service. For
instance a certain Hannani, the son of Minnahhin, occupied the post
of supervisor over the king's poultry". The Jew Nehemiah was
a confidant of Artaxerxes I, occupying the important post of royal
cupbearer in the civil service hierarchy.
Jews often appear
also as contracting parties and witnesses. One Elephantine papyri
mention an Iranian, Choresmian Dargamana, the son of Harshina, who
served in the Elephantine garrison in the detachment of the Persian
Artabana. He owned his own house and made claims to some plot of land.
Daragamana complained to the judges that a certain Jew from the detachment
of the Iranian Varyazata had occupied the field unlawfully. In the
court the defendant sworn by the god Yahu (Yahweh) that Dargamana
himself has transferred to him the lot in question, the plaintiff
gave up his claim.
In another document, the Carpian Bugazusht, the son of the Persian
Bazu, sold a house to a Jew. This house was located beside the house
of another Persian, Shatibar. Various documents show, Egyptian, Aramaeans,
Jews and Phoenicians entered into joint business deals, contracted
mixed marriages, adopted each other's customs and worshiped not only
their own god, but also the gods of the aliens who lived in one city
In short, freedom
of religion, movement, occupation and marriage were guaranteed under
the Achaemenian. Such tolerance is not strange or unusual since the
ancient religions including Judaism prior to Ezra and Nehemiah were
not dogmatic and intolerant to other beliefs. In the ancient Near
Eastern religions there is a complete absence of the concept of false
faith or any form of heresy. Nor there seems to be any notion of racial
hatred or any feeling of the superiority of one people over another.
would be treated as such, not because of their ethnic make up or religion.
Even captive Jews brought into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II, retained
their faith in Yahweh and practiced their rituals and prospered economically.
Zoroastrianism was also geared to tolerance, for it made a place for
foreign gods as helpers of Ahura Mazda. One Aramaic inscription of
the time speaks of a marriage between the Babylonian god Bel and the
Iranian goddess Dayna-Mazdayasnish. In this document Bel appeals to
his spouse with the words: " You are my sister; your are very
wise and more beautiful than the other goddesses". At times Jews
and other groups under Persians were mistreated and rebellions were
put down. There is no evidence that such actions were based on race
or religion. Persian kings were ruthless and firm with all rebellions
including the ones by the Persian Satraps and members of the Royal
The biblical texts have valuable information with respect to the Jews
in Achaemenian times. Persian conquest is greeted with enthusiasm
and Persians are praised and mentioned in the books of Daniel, Ezra
and Ezekiel. The Book of Esther tells of the fate of the Jewish Diaspora
under Xerxes. Esther the niece of Mordecai, an assistant to the Persian
king, takes the place of Queen Ahashwerosh, who is banned, from the
palace by the King's order. The Jewish population of Susa is not liked
by some, the King is persuaded to order their total eradication. Esther
intervenes with several Persian noblemen who pretend to be Jews. The
decree is reversed and all are saved. Though the account is not supported
by historical evidence, the writer is very accurate in his description
of the Persian court life and costumes. This occasion is still celebrated
by all Jews in the Pourim Festival.
After the collapse
of the Achaemenian Empire, the later dynasties, i.e. Selucids and
Parthians followed the same policies. Persian, Aramaeans, Babylonian,
Greek, Christian and Jewish temples were present in all the Major
cities. The Jewish chronicles mention the Parthian period as one of
the best in their history. Centers of Jewish life in the Parthian
Empire were situated in Mesopotamia in Nisibis and Nehardea. Jewish
chronicles state that they enjoyed a long period of peace and maintained
close and positive contacts with the reigning dynasty. This is proved
among other things, by the participation of the Jews in the rebellions
against Trajan (the Roman Emperor) in Mesopotamia (116 AD). In addition,
the Jews took an active part in organizing the silk trade, an advantage
they owed to the evident support of the kings.
No later than in the second century AD, a representative of Davidic
origin called 'exilarch' represented the Jewish minority at court
and also carried out functions of a political-administrative nature.
Religious persecution of Jewish rebels in Palestine by the Romans
in 135 AD, also brought many Jewish refugees into the Parthian empire.
Philo and Flavius Josephus the famed Roman historians have documented
the relations between Jews and Parthians.
On the whole,
religious conformity was not demanded as a mean to safeguard the reign.
The ruling principle was always the advancement of reliable groups
and communities and the punishment of disloyal ones. The Jewish communities
proved to be loyal and reliable and as a result experienced a time
of unprecedented prosperity and cultural-religious creativity.
The reign of
the Sassanid dynasty from 205 AD to the conquest of Muslims in 651
AD, is full of contradictory and extreme policies with respect to
the treatment of religious minorities. For the first time there is
systematic oppression of different religious groups. In his inscriptions,
the 'priest' Kidir (the chief Mobad) states that thanks to his efforts
under King Bahram II (276-293), Zoroastrianism was promoted in the
empire and other religious communities were persecuted. In one part
of the inscription he declares:
doctrines of Ahriman and of the idols suffered great blows and lost
credibility. The Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman),
Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and
Manichaeans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed,
and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes
and seats of the gods".
are not very clear with respect to the Jewish persecution at this
time. Though we know a lot about the Christian, Manichean and Mazdaean
persecutions, we hear nothing about the persecution in the Jewish
records until the fifth century. The Jewish centers in Mesopotamia
at this time were not as significant to the political processes as
the Christians, Manichaeans or Mazdakites.
There is a phase
of uncertainty and repression under Ardeshir (the first Sassanid king).
Jews having had excellent relations with the Parthians were suspected
to be collaborators with the deposed dynasty and their movement was
restricted. Under Shapur I, the rabbis and the Jewish representative
at the court (exilarch) came to an understanding, by which the Jews
were granted more freedom of movement and the Sassanid could count
on their compliance with taxing and general legal prescriptions. Shapur's
antagonism against the ruler of Palmyra (in Syria), who had destroyed
the Jewish center of Nehardea when he invaded Babylonia, helped the
situation and eased the tension between Shapur and his Jewish subjects.
In the wars between
Rome and Shapur II, the Jews unlike Christians were decidedly loyal
to the Persian king, with the exception of a few messianic groups.
The later massive repression of the Jews under Yazdgird II, Peroz
and Kavad was a result of political actions by such messianic groups,
who anticipated the imminent arrival of a new Messiah on the 400th
anniversary of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
mention attacks by the Jews of Isfahan on the city's Magi. Later persecutions
were also politically motivated. Khosrow's general Mahbad killed the
Jewish followers of the pretender to the throne, Bahram Chobin. A
further messianic revolt in Babylonia was ruthlessly put down in 640.
At the beginning of the seventh century, the Jews watched the Sassanian
offensive against Byzantium with great expectancy and joyfully welcomed
the conquest of Jerusalem. At the same time Christians were massacred
in great numbers.
Little is known
about the number of the Jewish inhabitants in the Sassanian Empire,
but it must have been quite considerable, especially in Babylonia.
By far the majority of Jews made their living by farming, although
handicraft and trade also played a part. They lived predominantly
in villages, but also with many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups
in larger towns and cities. There is no indication they were forced
to live in closed Jewish quarters (Ghettos), as was the case in Islamic
They are mentioned
as physicians, scholars and philosophers. They taught at famous Iranian
universities amongst other Christian, Indian, Roman, Greek and Persian
scholars. Jewish Physicians along with Christians ran the famous Medical
school Jundishapur for decades. Several members of the famous Christian
families of Bukhtyishu and Masuya were involved in this school and
had many Jewish assistants. Hunain b. Ishaq is the most famous Jewish
physician of the early Islamic period. His family served at Jundishapur
and he is credited with the best translations of Hippocratic and Galenic
corpus into Arabic at the time of caliph al-Mutazid.
Continue to Part 2.