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By Massoume Price


Iranian 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.

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.

Semi autonomous 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.

Persians occupied 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.

Marriage contracts 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 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.

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