((PSA, A Word About the Book of Esther, and The Cyrus Cylinder
little Achaemenid Iran’s first interaction with Yehuda, or Ancient Israel :)
As we know, modern Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, aside from Israel. Iranian Jewry is considered one of the oldest of Jewish diaspora with a rich history extending back thousands of years to the pre-Islamic eras of Iran, and with a great amount of Jewish contribution to the Iranian social and historical fabric. Here is part 1 of my post series about Judeo-Iranian history on ask-Iran!
Pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid Era: The Ancient Iranian empires [Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid dynasties] held an extensive dialogue with Ancient Jewry for the majority of the pre-Islamic empires’ existence, and are looked upon positively in regards to the long history of Judeo-Iranian interconnection. However, Iranian Jewry did not develop at the inception of the Achaemenid empire. In fact, the first settlement of Jews in the ancient Iranian territories is said to have been at least 200 years prior to the rise of the Achaemenid empire, in Khorasan, due to the Assyrian empire’s incursion into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and later the Babylonian invasion of the Southern Kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE. [It is said in the Book of Kings 11:17, that the Assyrian king, in 721 BCE, “conquered the Kingdom of Israel, exiled parts of the tribes of Israel into the lands of Assyria and Media, and settled them in Hara and in Habor by the river of Gozan”, a northwestern area of former Mesopotamia]. A result of the latter Babylonian invasion was the complete destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, an excruciating and tragic loss for the Jewish people. Not only did they suffer the loss of the First Temple, but they were forced into exile and captivity from Jerusalem and into Babylon, “which occurred in two cycles during the years 598 to 597 BCE”, where they would remain for nearly 70 years.
Such forced exile and captivity came to an end at the arrival of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty after defeating the Median empire, when he conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and annexed the lands into the growing Iranian empire. Upon his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus the Great allowed for Jews to return to Jerusalem and granted them the opportunity to build a Second Temple, in place of the ruins of the First, as well [though, the Second Temple would be completed during Darius the Great’s rule from 520-516 BCE]. This event in particular was a pivotal point in the cultural, political, and historical ties between Jews and Iranians, evident in the reverent place Cyrus the Great occupies in current Jewish and Iranian imagination as a pragmatic politician and liberator, and recorded in the Bible admirably and as “God’s Anointed” [some have even regarded him as a messianic figure or misah]. Though Cyrus the Great’s supposed benevolence may have been more of a political gesture, with the knowledge that to control an empire so vast would require allowing relative freedom. It’s also to be noted that while many Jews returned to Jerusalem, some Jews migrated to the area of Arya, the territory we associate with the current geographical boundaries of Iran, or remained in Babylon—continuing to exist within the diaspora. To participate vicariously in the return to Jerusalem, it is said that the Jews who chose to stayed offered goods, coins, and livestock for those traveling to Jerusalem. In regards to the lives of Jews in Babylon, during their exile and in the early years of their liberation [572-484 BCE], the Akkadian-language “Al-Yahudu” [“village of Judea”] tablets recorded and contained information on “customary agricultural and commercial activities, such as land leases, receipts for payments in dates and barley, sales of livestock, house rentals, silver loans, paying taxes, and slavery transactions”. By the time Cambyses the II’s reign, son of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid empire’s borders would stretch to the Indus and into Egypt as well, the latter being the origin of the Elephantine Papyri. The Elephantine Papyri, a collection of ancient Jewish texts of various subjects like legal contracts and letters, also documents “a community of Jewish soldiers loyally serving under the Persian king” from 495-399 BCE. Included in the Elephantine Papyri is a letter written in 407 BCE by the Jewish community addressed to the Persian governor or Judea, Bagohi. The letter asks for the Persian governor to provide assistance to rebuild the Jewish temple, which was previously destroyed in an anti-Semitic riot. Bagohi eventually granted the Elephantine Jewish community to rebuild the temple.
Under King Artaxerxes*, two biblical figures, Ezra and Nechemia, would also be important factors in documenting an obscure and mostly unknown period of Iranian Jewry. In the book of Ezra, Ezra returns to Jerusalem on the King Artaxerxes demand with a group of Jews from Babylon for a “a second wave of Jewish settlements….to ancient Palestine [the Land of Israel]” on religious mission. Nechemia, who served under Artaxerxes as his cupbearer [a position that would require Nechemia to put his life at risk often, as the cupbearer to the Iranian king would taste the wine to ensure there was no poison], was then appointed governor of Judea during the purported years of 445-433 BCE. In being appointed governor of Judea, Nechemia requests of Artaxerxes to be sent to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the walls that once surrounded Jerusalem. Nechemia spends 12 years in Jerusalem, completing the wall despite various opposition and obstacles, and eventually returns to the Iranian empire’s capital of Susa. The Iranian Jewish community remained resilient in numbers as they continued to inhabit the areas of western Iran, Babylon, and Iranian-ruled Mesopotamia, and played a substantial role in the development of Talmudic law.
*note: Various sources conflict regarding Ezra’s chronological timeline as the Book(s) of Ezra-Nechemia does not specify which King Artaxerxes’s reign they lived. Mehrdad Amanat in his book “Jewish Identities In Iran”, for example, writes that the second wave of Jewish settlements under Ezra occurred in 398 BCE which would situate Ezra’s return to Israel in Artaxerxes the II’s reign, but several sources cited in Encyclopedia Iranica’s entries on Iranian Jewry presume the events of Ezra-Nechemia occurred during Artaxerxes the I’s reign.
Next: The Parthians, The Sassanids and the rivalry with the Romans and Byzantines.))