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The Jews of Iran
By Marty Talman - January 25, 2009


Smuggled Jews Arrive in Israel (Photo: Getty Images)
Jews have been living in Iran, which was once known as Persia ever since the Babylonian Crown Prince Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple of Israel in the 7th century BCE and took ten thousand captives from Jerusalem to Persia. While many Jews returned home after Cyrus the Great granted them freedom some had grown accustomed to their life in exile and preferred to stay where they were. These became the nucleus of Jewish settlement in Iran and became known as the “Lost Tribes of Israel”.

In the writings of Ezra, a Jewish priestly scribe and later Nehemiah there are references to a large Jewish presence in Susa and stories in biblical texts about both Daniel and Esther who lived in Susa at one time. The records also indicate that the Jewish community there had its own autonomy and was headed by a high priest who oversaw the functions of the local temple.

Although they had many religious freedoms there are also biblical stories of Jewish persecution and the Book of Esther tells of a conspiracy to eliminate the entire Jewish community in Persia but Esther saves the day. Jews commemorate this story with the Jewish holiday of Purim. But mostly it appears that Jews had a relatively peaceful time of it in ancient Iran and even took an active part in organizing the silk trade in that part of the world.

This all changed during the Sassanid dynasty from about 205 AD and continued through the Muslim conquest in 651 AD. At various times Jews were outlawed and persecuted and under Ardeshir, the first Sassanid king Jews were suspected of siding with an enemy group and their movements were severely restricted. Another particularly difficult period came when a group of Jews, convinced that the Messiah would be coming on the 400th anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem made attacks on city officials in Isfahan but were repelled and killed by the forces of the Iranian King Khosrow.
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