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The tomb of Esther and Mordechai

The tomb of Esther and Mordechai, a drawing by Eugene Flandin, 1851.

By Chen Malul, National Library of Israel

In 1968, a vigorous correspondence developed between Jewish representatives in the Iranian parliament and government officials. The focus of this exchange was an attempt to purchase the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai at Hamedan.

The first known account which links the mausoleum at Hamedan to Esther and Mordechai comes from Benjamin of Tudela, a wandering Jewish traveler of the 12th century:

“From that mount to Hamedan is a journey of 10 days; this was the metropolis of Media and contains about 50,000 Jews. In front of one of the synagogues is the sepulchre of Mord’khai and Esther.”

In the late 1960s, Iran was getting ready to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Edict of Cyrus of 538 BCE. In his historic declaration, the founder of the first Persian Empire allowed all peoples living in the territories under his control to return to the worship of their respective gods and deities, following the religious prohibitions which had existed under the newly-defeated Babylonian Empire.

In the biblical book of Ezra (1:1-4) there is a special version of the decree, addressing the People of Israel in the diaspora, and permitting them to return to Judea and rebuild the ruined Temple.

But what does Hamedan have to do with Cyrus the Great? At first glance, very little. However, it is clear from letters discovered at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, in the archive of World ORT Union, as well as from historical sources relating to the life of Iran’s last Shah, that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi saw himself as the modern heir of Cyrus the Great, and sought to project this image of himself to the Jews of his country.

The 2,500th anniversary of the Edict of Cyrus was exactly the kind of event he was waiting for.

In a letter sent by Abdolali Pourmand, director-general of the Dept. of Archaeology and Public Education, to Lotfollah Hay, the representative of Iran’s Jews in parlia- ment, Pourmand clarified that the office of National Education would assist the Iranian Jewish community in purchasing the tomb and the land surrounding it from the Bazargani Bank, its then-owner.

The purchase would be funded by the selling of tickets to the site.

The sense of urgency expressed by the regime’s representative is clear. Pourmand pressed the Jewish community to reply to the initiative — with an affirmative response being the obvious preference — as the department’s queries had so far gone unanswered.

In addition to the tomb-purchasing initiative, the Jewish community also planned to build a vocational school named after Cyrus the Great, as well as a hospital.

There were even plans for a Hebrew-Persian dictionary and an exhibition dedicated to Cyrus’ achievements which would focus on the topic of Torah-based human rights. It is unclear how much of this came into being.

The archives, however, do include evidence that the purchase of the grounds of the tomb was completed, with final approval arriving on January 18, 1970. It appears that the land was transferred into the hands of the community — though it is difficult to say for certain as the documentation ceases at this stage.

The honeymoon period between the Jews of Iran and the state authorities would come to a quick, cruel end with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Since then, the tomb of Esther and Mordechai has been the focus of bitter dispute.

In 2011, regime-supporting students rioted outside the compound and called for its removal from the list of protected Iranian heritage sites as a response to their claims that Israel was seeking to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Their efforts were something of a success, with the sign noting the tomb’s status as a site of pilgrimage being removed.

From time to time, protesters from across Iran issue threats to destroy the tomb and replace it with a Palestinian consulate. A recent incident of this kind occurred in February.

So far however, the site remains intact, with only Jews allowed entrance to the tomb enclosure.

Despite the long-standing tradition linking the tomb to the figures of Esther and Mordechai, scholar Thamar Eilam Gindin says that Persian or Iranian sources do not contain evidence attesting to the story of Megillat Esther, the story of Purim. A theory today suggests that the tomb is actually that of Shushandukht, the Jewish wife of Yazdegerd I, a ruler of the Sasanian Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries.

The city of Hamedan was once the capital of Media, which was captured by Cyrus the Great, who made it the summer capital of the Persian Empire.

Today Hamedan is associated with the city of Ecbatana, mentioned in the Book of Ezra.

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