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

The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey