In the year 602, thirty years before the Muslims rolled over Eretz Yisroel, the Persians launched a last, mighty attempt to derail the Christian Byzantine empire. This was the final and most devastating of the many wars fought between the two kingdoms in previous years. The results of the war were a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it brought about a short lived Jewish sovereignty over Yerushalayim, the last until modern times. Some claim the Jews even attempted to rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh at the time. On the other hand, the war paved the way for the Muslim storm that took over much of the world and is presently threatening Western civilization.
World Powers Grapple for Supremacy
In 602, the two world powers were the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian (fire worshipping) Persian Empire. That year, Khosroe II of Persiaattacked the Byzantine Empire, capturing huge swathes of their territories including the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Egypt. Eretz Yisroel was also included in their bag.
Some historians define the Christian counteroffensive against Persia as the first Crusade. To finance the war, they stripped metal and bronze from monuments and even from the Hagia Sophia, the most important church of the capital (nowadays a prominent mosque and Istanbul’s most famous landmark). Towards the end of the campaign, his armies even surged up to the walls of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine kingdom. In the end, Khosroe was thwarted by the Byzantine leader Heraclius, one of the greatest military geniuses of history. Although both empires survived intact, years of war left them too weak to withstand the Muslim juggernaut that rolled in afterwards.
Khosroe’s lost campaign had a profound impression on history. HadPersiabeaten the Byzantines and consolidated their power, Christianity may have dwindled and Islam may have remained a backwater sect in the Arab Peninsular.The world would have been dominated by the Persians, and fire worshipping temples would have sprouted on every block. Hashem decided otherwise. The two kingdoms ate each other alive and the Muslims took the leftovers.
During the crucial fight, Jews took an active part in supporting the Persians. Many of them may have thought this was the last struggle before the final ge’ulah. It is reckoned that about 20,000 Jews helped the Persians on their march against the Byzantines. Binyomin, a wealthy and learned Tiberias Jew, encouraged the Jewish communities of his area to join the Persian march towards Yerushalayim.The Byzantine governor of Yerushalayim was so nervous that the few Jews living in his city (in spite of the old ban against their residence) might help the Persians, that he forced them to convert in 607.
The Persians captured Yerushalayim in 614 after a twenty-one day siege. Tens-of-thousands of Christians were slain and to add insult to injury, the Persians carried off a scrap of wood the Christians regarded as originating from Yeshu’s cross. (It has been said that over the centuries, the amount of wood purported to come from this cross would have been enough to crucify a regiment.) It appears that in return for the Jews’ help, the Persians formally promised to hand over Yerushalayim to Jewish rule.
In accordance with this agreement, the Persian general, Romizanes, known as Shahrabaz (the Shah’s wild boar), handed over the city’s administration to the Jews and the Jewish leader named Nechemiah (said by some to be a son of the Reish Galusa in Bavel) may have restored the korbonos. But the Jews’ hope was shortlived. After about three brief years, the Persians figured the Jews were expecting more than they had been conceded and reneged on their agreement. The Persians suppressed the Jewish regime in Yerushalayim, forbade them to live within three miles of the city, and deported a number of troublesome leaders. Nechemiah, the Jewish leader, was assassinated, and by 625 Yerushalayim was reconquered by the Byzantines. The Jews’ high hopes were dashed.
An old piyut found in theCairo Geniza seems to echo the hopes and disappointments of the epoch:
“When Assyria[Persia] came to the city and pitched his tents there, the holy people were a bit relieved because he permitted the reestablishment of the Bais Hamikdosh and they built there the holy altar and offered upon it holy sacrifices. But they did not manage to build the Temple because the moshiach had not yet come.”
A Grisly Remnant of the Past
Adjacent to the Jaffa Gate of Yerushalayim’s OldCityis the Mamilla district, famous for the Shabbos protests sparked by its public parking lot. Between 1948 and 1967, the place was a no-man’s land. In 1989, the city council started the Mamilla Project that presently includes an upscale residential area, and a modern commercial area comprised of gift and clothing shops, restaurants, and a hotel.
In Israel, no one is allowed to build without prior archeological excavations to prevent priceless artifacts being destroyed by the bulldozer and spade. Gideon Avni, Director of Excavations and Surveys Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority, describes how archeologists excavating Mamilla came across physical evidence of the Persian capture of Yerushalayim360 yards west of theOldCity. Although six other large collections of human bones exist from those times, they were never pinpointed to the time of the invasion.
“The most explicit of these [gravesites],” he writes, “is a rock cut cave located in Mamilla, about 120 m. west of Jaffa Gate. It was part of one of the urban cemeteries of Jerusalem, which was in use from the eighth – seventh centuries BCEto the Byzantine period. Among the common types of tombs and burial caves was a cave exceptional in its shape and contents. This elongated cave, c. 12m. long and 3 m. wide, was filled with heaps of human bones. In front of the cave was a small chapel with an apse facing east…. A four-line inscription within a tabula ansata was located near the entrance to the cave, containing a prayer ‘for the redemption and salvation of those, God knows their names.’”
The excavation of the cave yielded hundreds of human skeletons, he reports. An anthropological analysis indicated that the deceased were relatively young compared with those in contemporary cemeteries, and that women outnumbered men. All this suggests that the deceased met a sudden death during war when men were away at the front.
“The finds inside the cave included cross-shaped pendants, candlestick lamps, and about 130 coins, the latest of which was a gold issue of emperor Phocas (602-610 CE),” he continues. “These findings connected the mass burial to the Christian population ofJerusalem, pointing to the early seventh century as the date of entombment and connecting it to the Persian invasion.”
He adds that the location of the cave near Jaffa Gate and about200 m. east of the large Roman period Mamilla Pool, correlates with one of the thirty-five locations mentioned by the Christian historian Strategius where the Christians of Jerusalem were buried by the Persians after the conquest. He mentioned Mamilla explicitly, writing, “Those whom they found they collected in great haste and with much zeal, and buried them in the grotto of Mamel.”
Another claim of the historian Strategius is less substantiated by archeological evidence. He writes: “Holy churches were burned with fire, others were demolished, majestic altars fell prone, sacred crosses were trampled underfoot, life-giving icons were spat upon by the unclean… When the people were carried intoPersiaand the Jews were left inJerusalem, they began with their own hands to demolish and burn such of the holy churches as were left standing.”
So far, Gideon Avni writes, archaeological evidence has no clear indications of widespread destruction of the city’s churches.
The Muslim Conquest
In 626, the Persians made a final push to capture Constantinople and failed. After invading deep into Persian territory Heraclius sent Khosroe an ultimatum: “I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything.” When Khosroe rejected the ultimatum, the Persian army rebelled, overthrew Khosroe, instated his son, and sued for peace.
Heraclius imposed mild terms on the Persians because his empire was on the verge of collapse; he also initially pardoned the Jews. But later, the Church proclaimed a special “fast of Heraclius” to secure his atonement for breaching his oath to the Jews and opened the way to prosecutions and mass lynchings. Finally, Heraclius returned to Constantinople with the recaptured “true cross” and as he raised it aloft on the Hagia Sophia’s altar, many were convinced that this signified a new, golden era for their empire. They were mistaken.
By then, the two main sides of the conflict were so worn out that they were almost helpless against the Muslim invasion. The entire Persian Empire was destroyed, and the Byzantine Empire was stripped of its territory in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, the Muoslems seizing control of Eretz Yisroel by 638. Even Heraclius was powerless to stop the human tsunami. In desperation, he adopted the panic measure of forcing all Jews to convert so they should not join the Muslims. The measure failed. The Byzantines held on to a residue of their territories and repulsed later Arab attacks on the capital in the 7th and 8th centuries. But they lost everything to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. During that last battle for the city, the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine IX Palaiologos, was last seen throwing off his royal vestments and throwing himself into hand-to-hand combat after the walls of the city were lost.
As for the Jews, any who thought the Muslim invasion was a harbinger of redemption were soon grievously disappointed. This was the story of the last attempt of the Jews of Eretz Yisroel to attain independence or autonomy over their own soil and possibly rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh.
(Sources: Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, New York: Columbia University Press, 1937. Gideon Avni, The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 CE) – an Archaeological Assessment.)