Esther’s Tomb

Iran's Jewish queen defies decay and dissolution.

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This article is dedicated to Sylvia Guberman ZT”L, a woman of valor in the spirit of Esther.
Reprinted with permission from the Diarna Project.

According to the biblical book named after her, Esther was a beautiful young Jewish woman who caught the eye of the Persian King Ahasuerus, became queen, and with the assistance of her uncle Mordecai, saved Jews throughout the Persian Empire from annihilation. Every year, on the holiday of Purim, Jews around the world celebrate this miraculous salvation by reading the Book of Esther, dressing in costumes, and eating delicacies. Iranian Jews similarly mark the holiday, but for centuries have also made a pilgrimage–throughout the year, but especially on Purim–to a shrine in the city of Hamadan where, according to tradition, Esther and Mordecai are buried. The origins and contents of this shrine are cloaked in legend and mystery.

 

esther's tomb
Photo courtesy of Yossi (Elias) Gabbay.
 

Hamadan, known in antiquity as Ecbatana, is in the Kurdish region of Iran. Mount Alvand, which overlooks the city proper, hosted the summer residence of Persian royalty of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550?330 BCE, the period when the Purim story is believed to have happened). Tradition has it that Esther and Mordecai–after spending their final years at the royal resort–were buried in the city, next to one another, with a shrine constructed over their graves.

While the original shrine’s date of construction is unknown, its date of destruction, at the hands of Mongol invaders, purportedly occurred in the 14th century. Historian Ernst Herzfeld contends that the current structure may actually belong to Shushan Dokht, the Jewish queen of King Yazdagerd I (ca. 399-420 CE), who is credited with securing permission for Jews to live in Hamadan.

Herzfeld dates the current structure to 1602 CE, partly on account of its traditional Persian architectural style (known as Emamzadeh), which was ubiquitous amongst the shrines of Muslim religious leaders built in that era. In most cases, these buildings include an entry hall and a main square hall with a domed ceiling that surrounds the sarcophagus (stone coffin). 

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