Hamadan, a major town in northwestern Iran, has two claims to fame: Jews living there alleged that their forbears traveled there during the exile to Bovel, and Hamadan is one of two purported burial places of Mordechai and Esther. Although few Jews live there nowadays, an Israeli organization has organized krias hamegillah there for the past few years.
TOWN OF TYRANNY
In addition to the staunch tradition of local Jews that Hamadan was the burial place of Mordechai and Esther, an old Jewish-Persian source recorded that Mordechai and Esther went there a few years before their deaths, perhaps to benefit from its cooler weather, and died at the site of the tomb. Mordechai passed away first, followed by Esther an hour later.
First to describe the tomb in later times was the famous traveler Binyomin of Tudela who visited Hamadan in 1106 and succinctly noted that it “was the metropolis of Media, and contains about fifty thousand Jews. In front of one of the synagogues is the sepulcher of Mordechai and Esther.”
The first Jew officially recorded as living there was Queen Susandokt, daughter of a Persian reish golusa, who tragically ended up marrying King Yazdegerd I who ruled Persia from 399 to 420. She bore his son, King Bahram Gor, whom one source credits with founding the town of Hamadan.
The German historian Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) theorized that the tomb of Mordechai and Esther might actually be that of the Jewish Queen Susandokt who was also forced to marry a non-Jewish king.
Hamadan was an important Jewish Torah center until the 18th century but its Jews suffered much persecution. The Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906 sums this up in the following terms:
“The Judeo-Persian poet Babai b. Luṭaf of Kashan described in verse the persecutions of the Jews throughout Persia under Abbas I (1595-1628), Abbas II (1639-66), and under the first kings of the Afghan dynasty. The Jews of Hamadan suffered especially at the hands of Mohammed Bey, the fanatical vizier of Abbas II., who gave them the alternatives of embracing Islam or of leaving the country empty-handed. Those who refused to do either were put to death. The offer of rich rewards for apostasy occasioned a considerable number of conversions among the poor Jews. Maḥmud Shah (1725) massacred a great number of Jews, among them being the rabbi of Hamadan, Mulley Musa. Another massacre occurred by order of Taḥmas Kuli Khan, better known as ‘Nadir Shah’ (1735-47).
“In spite of these persecutions there [were] still a considerable number of Jewish families at Hamadan at the beginning of the nineteenth century,” the encyclopedia notes. “M. L. Dubeux says: ‘Hamadan in the year 1818 contained about nine thousand houses and from forty to fifty thousand inhabitants, including six hundred Jewish families.’ But this number diminished considerably within twenty years, for Flandin, who was at Hamadan in 1839 and 1840, says: ‘The Jews fabricate an immense quantity of imitation Greek and Sassanid coins. They number about two hundred families.'”
The 19th century world traveler titled The Second Binyamin visited Hamadan in 1850 and found about 500 Jewish families in the city with three shuls and three rabbonim.
“At the commencement of each month, and at the Purim festival, pilgrimages are made to these tombs, and the Book of Esther is read there,” he wrote in Five Years in the Orient (1846-1851). “When, during the reading, certain passages occur in which these two personages in particular are mentioned, all those present knock loudly on the catafalques [boxes placed over the underground kevorim], as if to say ‘here they rest, the preserves of our fathers; here they rest, and we read today their glorious history.’ When any calamity threatens the town, or when the Jewish community fears any approaching danger, lambs are sacrificed before the door of this house, and their flesh divided among the poor.”
Mistakenly thinking that the Hamadan Jews were slaughtering the animals as sacrifices, Binyomin urged them to desist, explaining that korbonos may only be offered in Yerushalayim.
Jacob Eduard Polak, a Jewish Austrian physician who lived in Persia from 1855-61, wrote of the anti-Semitism Jews living there endured daily.
“They live under great difficulties, because they are considered as outcasts; they are constantly exposed to the caprices of the governor, who uses every pretext to plunder them,” he wrote, “…Should a Jew appear in the street dressed decently, or on horseback, the spectators are indignant at him for daring to appear like a true believer. Should he, on the contrary, be dressed miserably, he is followed by a crowd of young rascals, who throw mud and stones at him.”
THE TOMB’S APPEARANCE
A Christian writer with the byline of Oriens described a visit to Hamadan in the July to December 1872 edition of A Magazine of Religion and Literature (page 378). His description of the tomb was not much different than what one would see today except for renovations done since then and a stork’s nest he saw perched on the dome’s summit.
“The appearance from without is of a square brick mausoleum, built for strength rather than beauty, and slowly falling to decay,” he wrote. “The open midan, or ground about the tomb, is equally inviting. It is used by the Mussulmans as a wood and timber market, and on the day we visited it, was piled with newly cut trees, branches and fuel… Undoubtedly, the building is of modern construction. The Jews say the old mausoleum was nearly destroyed by [15th century Mongol invader] Timourlang, and the present one erected since, and the inscriptions within conform with this statement.”
Debating whether the tomb is really that of Mordechai and Esther, Oriens mentions the local Jews’ claims that they were descendants of Jews who came there after the churbon of Bayis Rishon.
“Above all, we have the evidence that this colony lived on the grounds since the days of Esther,” he wrote. “Hamadan, unlike Jerusalem, has never been wholly destroyed, and the Jews have never been driven from it; and this colony, now the oldest one in the world, has never ceased since they were carried here by the Assyrian kings. Hence they can truly bear witness… Here are facts to be accounted for, and they point to historical events just as truly as the fourth of July and the tomb of Washington are historical monuments.
“Hence it was with a feeling of solemnity that I entered beneath the dome which covers the real grave of Bible characters,” Oriens went on. “The old Israelite who has charge of the place swings back the low but heavy door, and we stand in the outer apartment. In it are buried several Rabbis of distinction. Stone slabs gathered for future repairs and much rubbish fill up the room. Entering another door, so low and narrow one is obliged to stoop almost on hand and knees and creep in, we stand in the tomb chamber. … Under the dome stand two chests or arks, shaped as sarcophagi [coffins], made of very hard black wood, and curiously carved in relief, in Hebrew letters, and apparently very ancient.”
After the outbreak of World War 2, most of Hamadan’s Jews left for the capital of Teheran and a minority moved to Eretz Yisroel. By the 1950s Hamadan still had five shuls, the oldest a small prayer room in the tomb which held 20 to 30 people, and the largest, the Big Shul, which held 350 people. In 1971, the Iranian Jewish Society revamped the tomb and purchased and destroyed the houses crowded around it, but preserved its four foot high entrance which forced visitors to bow as they entered the site. By the 1978-79 Islamic revolution there were less than 400 Jews in the town and within decades their numbers were reduced to a handful.
NATIONAL HERITAGE LIST
In 2008, the Muslim regime surprisingly added the Hamadan tomb to its National Heritage List and placed it under official government protection. But in January 2011, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Director for International Relations, Dr .Shimon Samuels, wrote to UNESCO, which supervises heritage lists, that the tomb was in danger.
“The Iranian student Basij militia, of Bu-Ali Sina/Avicenna University in Hamadan province, have removed the mausoleum sign to the entrance of the Esther and Mordechai tomb in Shush, during a demonstration replete with anti-Semitic racist calumny,” he wrote.
Samuels added that the Iranian government-sponsored Fars News Agency had issued an article denigrating Esther and Mordechai. The article claimed they were responsible for the murder of 75,000 Iranian [sic] martyrs murdered in the course of one day or 10% of the Iranian population, that the shrine was an arm of Israeli imperialism that impugns Iranian sovereignty, that its name must be obliterated to teach the younger generation to beware of the crimes of the Jews and to return the shrine to the Iranian people, and that the site must become ‘a Holocaust memorial’ to the Iranian victims of Esther and Mordechai and be placed under the supervision of the religious endowments authority.
The tomb is no longer listed among Iran’s heritage sites but Jews still visit it faithfully and read Megillas Esther there on Purim.
AN ALTERNATIVE TRADITION
According to an alternative tradition, the kever of Queen Esther is in the village of Baram near Tzefas. In 1215, Rav Menachem Hachevroni wrote that he had visited the Galilee site of Esther “who, during her lifetime, instructed her son Koresh to bring her there” for burial. Visitors to the site attested that celebrations were held there on Shushan Purim.
Wherever Mordechai and Esther’s tomb may be, Oriens said that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.
“More wonderful than any ancient monument are these Jews themselves, lineal descendants, in blood and faith, of the tribes of Israel, and the only vestige of the truly olden time which entirely defies decay and dissolution,” he wrote. “… The faith of which Xerxes [Achashveirosh] vaunted has been extinct for centuries, but the feast of Purim and the prayers and worship in Esther’s tomb have never failed of devout observers.”
(Sources include: Encyclopedia Iranica)