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

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror