Iran's Jewish queen defies decay and dissolution.
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.
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).
For centuries, Iranian Jews, Muslims, and Christians, particularly women praying for fertility, venerated the modest brick shrine. The first detailed accounts in the historical record are from Christian tourists in the 1800s and early 1900s. These records, which include outstanding illustrations, descriptions, and even photographs, were recently digitized--and provide a rare glimpse into the condition of the shrine in the past and the particular observances once held there.
One 19th-century visitor describes a marble plaque on the interior dome walls claiming that the structure was dedicated in the year 714 CE (Jewish calendar year 4474) by "?the two benevolent brothers Elias and Samuel, sons of Ismail Kachan." Other visitors describe rooms covered in pilgrims' graffiti in various languages as well as darkened by candle smoke; a stork's nest sitting atop the shrine's dome; and a prayer area within that was designed to enable worshippers to face the tombs and Jerusalem at same time.
They also recount that notes in Hebrew script were placed near the tombs, similar to how Jewish worshippers often tuck prayer notes into the stones of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. For Iranian Jews, who could only reach Jerusalem with great difficulty, the shrine served as a stand-in place at which to pray and weep.