THE BLOG

The Jews of Medieval Persia

03/07/2014 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2014

In the greatest fullness of their splendor, the latter Sassanid emperors at long last realized resounding victories over Rome's Eastern remnants, at long last reached forth their bright-mailed hands to encompass virtually all of those nations that had once bowed before the Achaemenids.

Basest collapse cannot help but follow close upon such glory's heels.

With the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad, Arabia's tribes were forged into a unified whole, made over into one of the most effective fighting forces in history, cast forth to drive the nations of the world before them. The Sassanid's treasuries, their subjects and client kingdoms, utterly exhausted by decades of war, they could not hold against Islam's fierce harbingers. In no more than the blink of history's eye, then, the titanic Persian empire was overrun.

Would, almost, that Persians hadn't had memories, remnants of past grandeur to stiffen their spines--they might have submitted more readily. Instead, they waged a dogged resistance that rendered the Arabian conquest into a prolonged exercise in brutality. Only after the utter razing of whole regions of their heartland, only after the very flower of their culture had been slaughtered or transplanted into Indian, Chinese soil, would Cyrus's heirs kneel before the Caliphate. For five centuries thereafter, a succession of Muslim conquerors--Abbasid replaced by Umayyad Arabs, deposed in turn by Turkic Seljuqs--would war over the grievously wounded Persian body politic. And then, the Mongolians.

The last decades of Sassanid rule hadn't been entirely happy for Persian Jewry, the dynasty's militant turn accompanied by a rising nativism. For all of that, when the great catastrophes came, the community fought, suffered, with the Persians who'd become as family to them; the militias of Luristan's Zagros Hills, for instance, long the most painful thorns in the Abbasid's side, were largely manned, funded, by Persian Jewish clans.

While they were of Persia, though, our people were after all not entirely Persian--and where the Abbasids deemed the Persians unreconstructed heretics, us they regarded as spiritual kith; "Ahl al-Kitab" in Islamic parlance. For this, for our eminent standing in Persia, the Abbasids appealed to Persian Jewry to serve as the core of the apparatus they'd erect to administrate the newly conquered territory, intermediaries between themselves and the ever-recalcitrant natives. Bearing no love for the invaders, yet seeing that the war was lost, reckoning that only by advocating for them in the halls of Arabian power could we indeed succor Persia as it had us over the centuries, we reluctantly agreed--and so, within scant years, were made over into one of the most efficient bureaucratic mechanisms in history, yoking every bit of our intellectual and financial muscle to the service of the ancient people we loved so well. And so, when the time for rebuilding came, each subsequent wave of conquerors would call upon Persian Jewry to serve in like capacity.

A succession, then, of such Jewish luminaries as the great physician-vizier Muhasib Ebheri would deftly move Persia's foreign rulers to e.g. replace the fiscal licentiousness which ever attended upon Persia's despoilings with highly progressive tax regulations and repair as well as ensure the safety of travelers upon the nation's ancient trade roads. To, in short, time and again restore Persia's lifeblood, its native merchant class. The revenues thus generated were leveraged to such ends as repeatedly rebuilding and summoning forth torrents of wisdom from the great Persian universities--and being pillars of Persia's medical firmament, the community would eventually play a major role in the exportation of the Persian teaching-hospital model throughout the Islamic world. In a very real sense, this is to say that Persian Jewry undergirded perhaps the greatest of Islam's many august contributions to humanity's weal. For his grand part in these and like monumental undertakings, Ebheri is yet celebrated in Persian history as "Sa'd a-Daula", Felicity of the Nation, his administration remembered as a "sanguinary and golden" era.

The community's chiefest glory:
From Huntington to Anderson, modernity's greatest political minds concur: nations cohere around culture; culture coheres around those grand histories-cum-mythologies that peoples cherish down through the generations. What, then, when these stories are reft away--as they were from the Persians, sore beset for centuries with a succession of conquerors bent on eliding the native culture in favor of their own? Until these narratives' restoration, a people so deprived must perforce languish prostrate, ruined.

Scion to one of Persian Jewry's most distinguished families, groomed from childhood to imperial service, Rashid al-Din Hamadani ascended to the Ilkhanate court well before his majority and shortly thereafter, to the Grand Viziership. From this lofty perch, and even as he e.g. oversaw an unprecedented expansion of Persia's infrastructure and several glorious military victories, he set about fulfilling his true calling.

Painstakingly assembling those shards of Persia's history that yet abided, he labored for years to produce the first unified if perforce partial account of the great nation's history since its conquest. Correspondingly, he made the better part of historic Tabriz over into a university-city, dedicated solely to extending his scholarship--to disinterring Persia's great works, yea even to the Sogdian era; to appropriating the Islamic, Mongolian influences that had for so long occluded the native culture and either eliminating or redeploying them as subordinate components of a new-old heroic Persian dialect. In a word--and all whilst never giving the Ilkhanate grounds to suspect that by breathing life into the embers of Persian culture he'd touch off a nationalist conflagration--Hamadani forged Persian culture anew.

To whatever extent nations indeed coalesce around a hard cultural core, then, we must apportion Rashid al-Din much of the credit for the renaissance of Persian glory that followed close upon the Ilkhanate's collapse. And so we have, entering the great man into history's ledgers not merely as "Persia's greatest historian" but as "the most distinguished figure in Persia during Mongolian rule"; "the greatest vizier of the Il-Khan dynasty, and one of the greatest men the East has produced."

For more on this fascinating era in Persian Jewish history: The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 5.

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!