03/10/2014 02:50 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

The Jews of Early Modern Persia

For nearly a millennium, waves of conquerors washed over, threatened to drown, the mother of empires. With each successive flooding, hosts of Persians -- typically those who'd mounted the fiercest resistance to the invaders and so had the most to fear from them in the aftermath of Persia's defeats -- fled to the high mountain fastnesses on their nation's northwestern border. Eternally loyal to the cause of Persian independence, they marshaled their strength for generations against the day when they might make their return. When the Mongolian empire, then, grew doddering, crazed, they marched. Within scant decades, they'd regained Persia and soon thereafter, very nearly the balance of the territories once claimed by the Sassanid. The Safavid Empire was born.

Recall from our last post, the imperially-sanctioned nativist tormenting of Persian Jewry in the last days of pre-Muslim Persia. Recall Muhasib Ebheri, the physician-vizier yet honored in Persian histories as "Felicity of the Nation", Rashid al'Din, greatest champion of classic Persian culture -- both flowers of Persia itself, and not just of the Persian Jewish community; yet both were cut down, their families extinguished root and stem, the handiwork of Persian mobs whipped into a frenzy by changing political winds. These were far from isolated occurrences.

Harsh tempests, then, had always threatened, often raked, Persian Jewry.

With the Safavid's rise, though, the storm truly came for our community.

For all that they'd hewed closely to their native traditions, the future Safavids had nevertheless absorbed considerable foreign influence in their time abroad in Central Asia. Chiefest of these was a version of Shi'ite Islam that looked considerably less kindly upon apostates, very much to include Jews, than had the brands of Islam previously introduced to Persia--which version the exiles had adopted both on grounds of personal belief and because it won them the support of the fearsome Shi'ite Qizilbash mountain tribes, without the support of which it would have been impossible to reclaim Persia. With the reconquest, this brand of Islam was officially made the empire's religion. Restrictive laws against Jews were instated soon after, a terrible grinding roar that built within decades to government-sanctioned persecutions and ultimately, pogroms more murderous than any the community had experienced.

Persian Jewry wouldn't again know peace for four centuries.

The sun did occasionally shine through of course, and perhaps all the more brilliantly for the backdrop of roiling thunderheads. Shah Abbas I, greatest of the Safavids, the most credited for rendering Persia one of early modernity's greatest Gunpowder Empires: cast very much after Cyrus' mold, he'd do away with the Qizilbash , centralize his government, become one of the emerging European powers' primary trading partners--in particular, striking a portentous union with the British East Indian Company and establishing Persia as a major destination on the grand global tours in which Europe's nobility and burgeoning middle class, newly flush with the spoils of the Atlantic trade, had become wont to indulge. Thus hearkening back to classical Persia's heralded cosmopolitanism, Abbas restored our community to imperial favor, made of us the backbone of his bureaucracy, the catalysts of his economic reforms, the cement (capitalizing on Persian and western Jewry's assiduously cultivated connections) tying him to the continent. With Abbas' death, though; with the deaths of the few future emperors who'd tread in his steps--e.g. the Afsharid Nadir Shah who'd foster the Jewish presence in historic Mashhad in order to catalyze northeastern Persia's economy, grown moribund by the 18th century--the harrowing of Persia's Jews would resume, the mobs raging all the more for having their hands stayed for decades.

Yet the story of Jewry, always, everywhere, is the story of triumph in adversity.

Sore pressed, we'd draw together, finding shelter, warmth, safety, in numbers. The Safavid era would thus mark the great ingatherings of Persia's Jews, such that where once it was possible to speak of the community in pan-Persian terms, it now becomes necessary to speak of the Jews of Isfahan (Yahudiya-that-was) Shiraz, Tehran, Mashhad. And in Isfahan, our people would swiftly revive that city's ancient, august medical traditions, before long become Eurasia's most notable physicians--throughout the Age of Discovery, Europeans of all religious and ethnic stripes flocked to the city, to sit by Jewish physicians' knees, to learn of their teachings; dozens of original Isfahani Jewish medical texts and Enlightenment-era translations thereof are to this day preserved in French, British universities. Persian Jews' assembling in Shiraz, city of poesy and gardens, begat oenological and viticultural advances that made Shirazi wines a pillar of Persia's burgeoning international trade, staples of the finest cellars from India to France. In Mashhad, our congregating portended a revival not only of northeast Persia's economy, but of its heralded artistic and scholarly traditions.

We wept, then, that Persia's re-awakening, the renaissance of the culture we'd loved so well and labored so long to preserve, spelled our decimation. And even as we mourned, we set about writing the next chapter in Persian Jewish history, a chapter more dreadful than those that had come before, to be sure, yet in its own way, every bit as glorious.

For more on these centuries of sorrow and joy commingled: The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 6
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!