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The Jews of Classical Persia

02/06/2014 10:52 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

"When Persian steeds once more quarter in Israel's stables, know ye that the Messiah's hour draws near."

A common refrain, almost-prayer, amongst our people, in the first centuries CE.

Deep, then, the friendship between Jews and Persians in classical antiquity.

Jerusalem, Babylon. By received wisdom, the twinned poles around which Judaism then cohered, with our Persian community merely adjunct to the Mesopotamian. Yet from our ever-improving understanding of Central Asian history is slowly arising a subtler, more evocative picture: Of Persian Jewry as a third albeit smaller pole possessing cultural, intellectual, political influence nearly equal to those of the two more famed communities -- of Persian Jewry wielding this influence, with the quiet self-effacement that remains the community's hallmark, to inestimably better the course of Jewish, Persian, and indeed human history.

Persians:

Cousins to India's most sophisticated civilizations and to the savage Scythian nomads, ancient Persians were at once highly cultured -- bequeathing the world one of its first and profoundest wisdom literatures -- and fearsome warriors. Yet plagued by division, they were forever being conquered by such regional powers as the Assyrian empire.

Khourush-Bozorg, Cyrus the Great. In 550BC he unified the Persians, bringing first Assyria and then the balance of the lands between Arabia and northern India under his sway, thus founding the first of three colossal pre-Islamic Persian empires that would bestride Western Asia for a millennium -- and which, for e.g. granting their subjects' religious freedom and fostering of globally crucial learning centers, are widely regarded as high points of early human history.

Jews:

By 700BC, the vicissitudes of war, largely with Assyria, and trade had scattered Jews throughout Western Asia. Not-inconsiderable numbers of us ended up in Persia. Mounting evidence that we immediately began cultivating settlements as well as localized trade and credit networks strongly indicates that Persians and Jews -- both proud, much-historied warrior-scholar peoples sore beset by Assyria -- cottoned to each other early on.

In 587BC, Assyria razed Israel, destroying our Temple, blinding our king and whipping him forth to lead the entirety of our landed class into penurious exile -- most to Babylonia, a sizable minority to Persia. Persian Jewry succored the first lot, easing them towards their magnificent destiny, and gladly embraced the second. With the manpower influx, the community expanded their networks nationwide. Their standing fortified, they grew ever closer to their hosts, as evidenced by the profound intercultural exchange that sprang up in these years.

When glory beckoned Persia, then, the nation's Jews rushed to service. In short order, their dedication made their networks lynchpins of the imperial economy; won them writs to found wholly Jewish settlements in Persia's heartland, most notably Yahudiyah, that'd soon become the dazzling World Heritage City, Isfahan; and elevated them to the pinnacle of the empires' military, academic and administrative establishments.

And so:

Even whilst toppling Assyria, Cyrus inducted Israel into his empire's ranks, rescinding the Mesopotamian exile and committing to funding our temple's rebuilding--for which Jews yet revere him as a kind of harbinger to the messiah. Though Cyrus died shortly thereafter, his inheritors not only upheld his word, but extended protection to Jewish communities adjacent to Israel. These kindnesses have been credited primarily to Babylonia, the community then in its powers' first fullness. It's becoming ever clearer though, that Babylonian efforts were driven home by a discrete, intense lobbying campaign waged by high-ranking Persian Jewish nobles -- who were alive in ways outsiders couldn't be to Persia's need to establish bulwarks on its Mediterranean border, and could frame and press wholly Persian arguments championing Israel and its satellites for the role.

Imperial writs or no, though, for the next five centuries our Near Eastern communities' security would emanate primarily from our restored homeland's economic and political-military backing. When Rome destroyed Israel, then, these outposts became embattled--and with Christianity's rise, nigh perished. If small questions remain regarding Persian Jews' role in the events surrounding Israel's restoration, it is shiningly clear that they'd become besieged Near Eastern Jewry's greatest protectors. Their works crescendoed with their rescue of our entire Armenian community, resettling tens of thousands in Yahudiyah-Isfahan.

And so:

Imperial Rome and Persia, forever warring.
Rome lost often and badly, Antony himself crushed. Yet occasionally, the legions would prevail, even penetrate Persia's heartland. Each time, and even whilst tendering military service and paying allotted taxes, Persian Jews seem to have marshaled their every resource to secure more funds, materiel. And as their pockets had grown deep by Imperial Rome's day, the community then entrusted with steering the glass, silk, and other markets deemed critical to the empire; as they appear to have been able to secure their hosts credit from such mighty Babylonian-Jewish trading houses as Egibi and Murashu, and to obtain for them significant reserves of Indian arms that utterly outmatched Rome's -- the community seems to have repeatedly tipped the scales toward Persian victory.

And so:

Thoroughly humanist, possessed of soaring mythologies, profound ethics, sophisticated early blueprints for scientific thought, Persia's native creed -- "Zoroastrianism-Manichaeism" for our purposes -- stands among the greatest monuments to human spirituality. It was this faith that moved Persia's emperors to found the shining academies in which East's and West's wisdom was yoked to Persian brilliance, to produce the irrigation canal, the windmill, other technologies that fed, clothed the world. This faith that so impacted upon Babylonian and thus global Judaism; reshaped Platonic Realism; against and in dialogue with which Christianity defined itself, viz. St. Augustine's early encounters with Manichaeism.

Throughout, Persian Jews participated strongly in Persian intellectual activity, and, via trade and correspondence with Near Eastern and European Jewry, disseminated and illuminated Persia's innovations for their cousins -- and so ensured that Persia's thought could be spread the world over.

Further, even as they exported Persia's, so they imported, curated, supported important repositories of, European thought -- which repositories soon fostered the Islamic Golden Age that in turn gave rise to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, modernity itself.

Shields, it would appear, then, to Judaism entire; steadfast helpmeets to classical Persia; vectors of globally pivotal knowledge. And Persian Jewry's finest hour was yet to come...

For more on our unfolding understanding of the fascinating early chapters of Persian Jewry's grand saga: The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 1-3b; Jacob Neusner's History of the Jews in Babylonia, Vol. 1.
Do stay with us as we continue to explore our Persian community's remarkable history in the run-up to Purim -- the holiday devoted to celebrating the community's greatest heroes!

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