The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Brokhim Davoudian from Tehran
LONDON, (CAIS) -- The Cyrus Cylinder loaned by the British Museum to Iran and currently on show at the National Museum in Tehran has attracted attention nationally and internationally and has excited all Iranians including the small community of the Iranian Jews.
The Cyrus Cylinder signifies humanity and kindness and it is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first declaration of human rights issued by the ancient Iranian emperor, Cyrus the Great in 6th century BCE.
Amongst Iranians the most excited for the return of the Cyrus Cylinder being home after forty years, is the small Jewish community. The Iranian Jewish population better known as ‘Persian Jews’, constitute the largest among the Islamic countries.
A Tehran Rabbi excitingly stating: “it is wonderful and I’m much exited to see that the Cylinder is home – in fact I am doubley exited, as an Iranian as well as a Jew.”
He continued: “the Cylinder is a Persian artefact, but its contents concerns the history of Jewish people as much as Iranians, which echoes the past and is the voice of our ancestors – it tells us about the history of my ancestors, the Hebrews who were liberated by the ‘anointed of God’ from Babylonian captivity and their return to the holy land. It is the history of my forefathers who stayed behind and who had chosen Iran as their home.”
Shahram, a young Persian Jew who travelled from the city of Shiraz to visit the Cylinder said: “when I laid my eyes on the Cylinder I start shaking and tears ran down my cheeks, which I had no control over. I felt a bit embarrassed but when I noticed that I am not the only one drowning in the tears of excitement I let my emotions to run.”
Maurice another teenager who was not lucky as Shahram to visit the Cylinder, said: “I am going to see it no matter how long it takes. From my childhood my family told me about Cyrus the Great and who he was. This artefact has importance for me for a number of reasons: first and foremost because I am an Iranian and second, this is a historical document that tells me how my ancestors were freed from captivity.”
Daniyal, a patriot Persian Jew from Esfahan and a veteran hero of Iran-Iraq war in moving words told me: “I defended my country during the sacred defence against the Arab aggressors and served in the frontline and I have a shattered leg to prove it. My feelings of knowing Cyrus’s Cylinder is home, is the exact feeling of joy and excitement that I had when I was ready to offer my life defending my country. If I have to sleep behind the doors of the National Museum, I will do it to see the Cylinder.”
According to Iran’s National Museum over 2,000 peoples are visiting the Cylinder everyday. The number could be have been three times but since the visitors are divided into groups of 20 to 25 individuals and at a time to be led to a special room where the priceless Persian artefact is kept, the numbers are currently limited to 2,000.
Some Iranians called for the museum to be open 24 hours before the return of the Cyrus Cylinder to England.
With regard to attacking Cyrus the Great in Western Media, such as a ‘Cyrus-bashing’ article published by Der Speigel in 2008 rabbi said: “We are appalled by those in West who are attacking the character of Cyrus the Great and calling his Cylinder as a hoax, especially that neo-Nazi who wrote the article in the Spiegel. We the Jewish community in Iran are deeply insulted and consider his attack as anti-Semitism, which is no better than those anti-Semitics who are denying the Holocaust from taking place.”
He added “Cyrus deserves better respect, and I’m pleading to my Jewish brothers and sisters outside Iran to stop these anti-Semitic-Nazis, attacking the man who loved and liberated us from captivity.”
A prominent Persian Rabbi back in 2008 also called the author of the De Spiegel article a neo-Nazi and an anti-Semitic.
The Persian Jews
The Persian Jews trace their ancestry to the Babylonian Exiles of the 6th century BCE and, and like the Armenians and the Assyrians living in modern Iran, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity.
The beginnings of Jewish history in Iran dates back to late biblical times. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther contains references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was ordered "according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). As the result, sixth century BCE is considered as one of the greatest events in the Jewish history.
Scholars believe that during the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the Iranian population.
Jews continued living in various part of the empire including Babylon during and after the fall of Achaemenids. Under the succeeding Iranian dynasties of Parthians and Sasanian, Jews lived freely and practised their religion until the 7th century and invasion of Iran by Arabs, the majority of which along with other Iranians faced execution or were forced to accept Islam.
Those who could afford to pay the Jizyya (poll tax) to the Arab invaders for not accepting Islam, chose to remain or emigrated to concentrated Jewish areas such as in Assuristan and Khvarvaran (nowadays Iraq), Khuzestan, Fars, Hamadan and Esfahan provinces. As the result the central Iranian city of Esfahan become one of the main hubs for the Persian Jews. Esfahan then divided into two major settlements of Yahudiyeh (the Jewish Quarter) and Shahrestan or Gey (the Zoroastrian Quarter).
The second major blow to the Jewish community after the Arab invasion of Iran was under the Mongol Ghazan Khan. In 13th century, he ordered a large number of synagogues to be destroyed and forced many to accept Islam. The policy continued under the Timurids which resulted in more Jews converting to Islam and their resettlement in the north-eastern Iranian city of Samaqand (in modern Uzbekistan) to promote the textile industry.
The Jewish community however survived in large numbers until the reign of Shah Soltan Hossein (r. 1694–1722) when they forced the majority to convert to Islam once again. Their numbers were estimated in the Safavid capital, Esfahan around 3,000,000 (including the Zoroastrians). As the result Jewish scholars believe a large portion of modern Esfahani ancestry is of Jewish origin.
Some of the Jewish communities in Iran have been isolated from others, to the extent that their classification as "Persian Jews" is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another.
Persian Jews until the 19th to mid-20th century were still extant communities in the mainland-Iran and the Greater Iran (once were part of Iran) including the present-day Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Northern-Iraq, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.
Before the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, there was an estimated 140,000-150,000 remaining Jews living in Iran, the historical centre of Persian Jewry, the number were expected to be well over 500,000 by early 2000. Over 85% have since left Iran either for Israel or the United States.
Since the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the Jewish population of Iran dramatically decreased from 80,000 to less than 40,000 today, with around 25,000 residing in Tehran, and the remaining mainly living in the cities of Esfahan and Shiraz, the historical cities of Persian Jewry.
Modern Israelis of Iranian origin are referred to as Parsim meaning "Persians".
It is widely believed the President Mahmood Ahmadinejad is of a Jewish origin who turned against his own people. His surname before conversion of his parents to Islam was Saburjian, meaning 'cloth weaver', a traditional Jewish family- name in Iran. Ahmadinejad rejected the claim.
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