Jews 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 temple.
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 Empire.
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
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
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 or another.
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.