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A BRIEF HISTORY OF IRANIAN JEWS
(Continued)
By Massoume Price

 

 
Nations conquered 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 household.

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:

"The false 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".

Historical records 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.

Iranian sources 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 times.

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.

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