What We Know about Jews in Persia’s Ancient Capital

April 16 2018

Readers of the book of Esther are familiar with “Shushan the capital,” the seat of the Persian empire where the story’s action takes place. In recent years, archaeologists have learned quite a bit about this ancient city, known in the West as Susa and located in modern-day Iran. Lawrence Schiffman writes:

In [one ancient] inscription, the two individuals identifiable as Jews living in Shushan are witnesses in a loan document written in Akkadian, the language of Babylonia, not long after Babylonia was conquered by Persia. What this shows is that a Jewish community already existed in Shushan soon after the establishment of the Persian empire [in 550 BCE]. We can speculate that some Jews had moved there in the earlier Babylonian period, as Shushan was only a short journey eastward from the areas in which the Judean exiles were settled by the Babylonians after the destruction of the First Temple [in 586 BCE].

It wasn’t long before Shushan was home to a substantial Jewish population. . . . It was only natural that Jews would be attracted to this city. The emperor Darius I, [who ruled from 522 to 486 BCE], selected Shushan as his main capital. He also had a capital at Persepolis, which has also left behind beautiful archaeological remains. But Shushan was a natural choice for his primary capital, as it was the center of an empire reaching “from India to Ethiopia,” as the book of Esther repeatedly puts it. Furthermore, the Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Darius built a royal road to facilitate travel and shipping all the way from Shushan to Sardis in Turkey. . . .

The royal complex, which has been excavated thoroughly, was surrounded by a massive wall, and its buildings were about 50 feet higher than the lower city. Its main components were the actual fortified citadel, the palace (called the apadna, a term also used in Daniel 11:45), and the attached residential area (referred to as “the house of the king” in Esther 5:1) that included the harem, also mentioned in Esther. . . .

[T]he city entered a period of decline and insignificance after Alexander the Great conquered the Near East. . . . Some [talmudic sages] came from the province of Khuzestan, of which Shushan was the capital. However, we know nothing about its Jewish population from the Muslim conquest up until the earlier Middle Ages. By this time the tomb of Nabi Danyal (Arabic for “the prophet Daniel”) was being venerated in Shushan. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (ca. 1162) reported that it had a Jewish population of about 7,000 and fourteen synagogues. . . . By the 19th century it was home to several thousand Jews, and the village was called Shush. But a recent list of synagogues in Iran contains no entry for Shushan, and it appears that its community is no longer in existence.

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More about: Archaeology, Benjamin of Tudela, Daniel, Esther, History & Ideas, Persia

“Ending the War in Yemen” Would Lead to More Bloodshed and Threaten Global Trade

Dec. 13 2018

A bipartisan movement is afloat in Congress to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition currently fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. With frustration at Riyadh over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, reports of impending famine and a cholera outbreak in Yemen, and mounting casualties, Congress could go so far as to cut all funding for U.S. involvement in the war. But to do so would be a grave mistake, argues Mohammed Khalid Alyahya:

Unfortunately, calls to “stop the Yemen war,” though morally satisfying, are fundamentally misguided. . . . A precipitous disengagement by the Saudi-led coalition . . . would have calamitous consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and the world at large. The urgency to end the war reduces that conflict, and its drivers, to a morality play, with the coalition of Arab states cast as the bloodthirsty villain killing and starving Yemeni civilians. The assumption seems to be that if the coalition’s military operations are brought to a halt, all will be well in Yemen. . . .

[But] if the Saudi-led coalition were to cease operations, Iran’s long arm, the Houthis, would march on areas [previously controlled by the Yemeni government] and exact a bloody toll on the populations of such cities as Aden and Marib with the same ruthlessness with which they [treated] Sanaa and Taiz during the past three years. The rebels have ruled Sanaa, kidnapping, executing, disappearing, systematically torturing, and assassinating detractors. In Taiz, they fire mortars indiscriminately at the civilian population and snipers shoot at children to force residents into submission.

[Moreover], an abrupt termination of the war would leave Iran in control of Yemen [and] deal a serious blow to the global economy. Iran would have the ability to obstruct trade and oil flows from both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait. . . . About 24 percent of the world’s petroleum and petroleum products passes through these two waterways, and Iran already has the capability to disrupt oil flows from Hormuz and threatened to do so this year. Should Iran acquire that capability in Bab el-Mandeb by establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden, even if it chose not to utilize this capability oil prices and insurance costs would surge.

Allowing Tehran to control two of the most strategic choke points for the global energy market is simply not an option for the international community. There is every reason to believe that Iran would launch attacks on maritime traffic. The Houthis have mounted multiple attacks on commercial and military vessels over the past several years, and Iran has supplied its Yemeni proxy with drone boats, conventional aerial drones, and ballistic missiles.

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More about: Iran, Oil, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen