Though the holiday of Purim is celebrated by Jews worldwide, the story, based as it is in Persia, has special resonance for the Jews of Iran. Recent decades have proved difficult for Persian Jews, many of whom fled the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. From a community of about 100,000, now an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 remain.
This month, Jews from across Iran will pray at a shrine in Hamadan, in northwestern Iran, dedicated to the heroes of the Purim story. When they arrive, they will likely be met by Muslims and Christians, who pray year-round at the unusual shrine. The building follows the architecture of emamzadeh (“Islamic shrine”), but has walls adorned with Hebrew inscriptions describing Esther and Mordecai’s origins. In fact, it might come as a surprise to many American Jews to learn that the story of Purim has resonance for all Iranians.
Not only was Esther a Jewish queen, but, as the wife of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), she also continues to be revered as a Persian queen and, thus, an icon of national Iranian history. Though her original name, Hadassah, in Hebrew means “hidden,” she is known as Esther. Scholar and writer Haideh Sahim explains that “Esther” is derived from the Persian word astaar , meaning “star.” It is believed that Esther and Mordecai were buried in the shrine at Hamadan, originally called Hegmataneh, in fifth-century BCE. According to one Persian legend, the resting place and its surrounding land served as a refuge for Iranians during the Arab conquest of Persia in 621 C.E. As the story goes, when the Arabs began to conquer the city of Hegmataneh, the people of Iran came to the gravesite so that the spirit of Esther and Mordecai would protect them. A monument— the exact date of origin has been disputed, ranging from the 13th to the 17th century — has been built over the tombs, and both Jewish and non-Jewish Iranians now believe that the site is holy and cannot be destroyed.
For generations, the Jews of Hamadan safeguarded the tomb and the customs of the holiday of Purim. Touba Somekh, a woman who was instrumental in bringing about the restoration of the site in the 1920s, explained to me in an interview in 1998, four years before her death, how the Jews were able to continue maintenance of the tombs. Somekh used to be an active member of a small women’s group in Hamadan, progressive for its time, named Hadassah, after Esther. The women would recite Psalms, talk about the news of the day and study together.
Around the year 1925, Somekh learned that the city government planned to build a wall around the tomb and to take it over, unless the local hebra , or Jewish organization, could accomplish such a task. Though she was only 15 — and already the mother of two — Somekh immediately thought of Hadassah’s monetary savings of 300 toman (a significant sum for the day) and boldly declared to her brother-in-law that the women’s committee had the means to safeguard the shrine. The next day, her brother-in-law informed the members of the hebra of this.
“I began to sweat under the chador ,” Somekh remembered. “I was a young girl who had declared something and was now being taken seriously. What was going to happen?” The women’s committee was indeed able to provide the initial funding for the restoration and expansion needed at the time.
These days, the shrine — and the holiday in general — is of particular importance to women. Women of all religious backgrounds visit the site to pray for children, bringing colorful curtains and cloths to place on the tombs and to donate to an adjacent prayer room. It is believed that a cloth coming into contact with the shrine will be blessed. A person in monetary or spiritual need would then take some raw cloth and make from it articles of clothing.
Of the Jews left in Iran, only four or five families live in Hamadan, leaving some with fears about the future of the shrine. According to Houman Sarshar, editor of “Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” “To my knowledge, the issue was never one of custody. The care-taker now is not Jewish. The synagogue attached to the sight is the only functioning one in Hamadan.”
Some believe it is the spirit of Esther and Mordecai that will live on and protect the Jews of Iran, extending a legacy of 2,500 years. Others, including Sahim, wonder, “Who will take care of our Esther?”
Helen Eliassian is on staff at the Forward.