How Iran’s Jewish Community Purchased the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai

Documents discovered in the CAHJP archives reveal a surprising initiative undertaken by the Jews of Iran and the country's government to mark 2,500 years since the Edict of Cyrus

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

It is not entirely clear whose idea it was, but in 1968, a vigorous correspondence developed between Jewish representatives in the Iranian parliament and officials from the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s ruler at the time. The focus of this exchange was an attempt to purchase the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai at Hamedan. The pretext? Celebrations marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Edict of Cyrus, which were to be held in 1971.

The Edict of Cyrus dates to the year 538 BCE. In his historic declaration, Cyrus the Great, 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 Hebrew Bible, (Ezra 1:1-4) we find 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.

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

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

The tomb of Esther and Mordechai at Hamedan

According to one of the traditions associated with the tomb, after the death of King Ahasuerus, the followers of Haman sought revenge against Esther and Mordechai. The two managed to escape to Hamedan, where they settled down and eventually passed away at a ripe old age among the local Jewish community. But what does all this have to do with Cyrus the Great? At first glance, very little at all. However, it is clear from certain letters discovered at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), in the archive of the World ORT Union organization, 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.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran

In a letter sent by the director-general of the Department of Archaeology and Public Education, Mr. Abdolali Pourmand, to Mr. Lotfollah Hay, the representative of Iran’s Jews in parliament, 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 owner at the time. The purchase would be funded by the selling of tickets to the site.

Correspondence between the Jewish parliament member and the representative of the regime, December 1968; the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

In the correspondence, 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, in various languages. It is unclear how much of all this actually came into being. The archives, however, do include evidence that the purchase of the grounds of the tomb was indeed completed, with final approval arriving on January 18th, 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.

A letter certifying that the grounds of the tomb were purchased; this is also the latest document found in the correspondence, from January 18th, 1970; the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

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. This event also saw the last Shah of Iran, “The New Cyrus”, flee the country for the United States.

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 tells us that Persian or Iranian sources do not contain any evidence attesting to the story of the Megillah, the story of Purim. One of the leading theories 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.

The interior of the tomb, photo by Nick Taylor


Many thanks to Thamar Eilam Gindin for her assistance in the preparation of this article, to Elitsour Lion for his translations and to Dr. Miriam Caloianu from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People for sharing this story with us.



Further reading:

“The Book of Esther Unmasked”, Thamar Eilam Gindin, Kefar Sava : Zeresh Books, 2016


If you liked this article, try these:

Once and for All: Why We Eat Hamentaschen on Purim

The “New Haman” of Frankfurt

The Esther Scroll of Amsterdam That Damned the Enemies of the Jews

Gandhi: The Yiddish Connection

This is the little-known story of Mohandas Gandhi's unusual relationship with the Yiddish language…

Gandhi (center) with his secretary, Sonia Schlesin, and his colleague Mr. Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1905; source:

What did Gandhi think about Yiddish? That’s a question probably few have contemplated. Yet the answer casts light on the complex relations between Jews and other groups in pre-World War I South Africa.

Gandhi did think about Yiddish quite often during that period because South African Jews were campaigning vigorously to categorize Yiddish as a European language at the time. Why? They wanted to differentiate Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Indian and Chinese immigrants.

This campaign arose because in the early 1900s, the white population of South Africa was looking for a bureaucratic way that was not obviously racist to restrict Indian and Chinese immigration. Since Cape Town was at that time the main port of entry for immigrants, in 1902 the Cape Parliament devised and passed Act 47, an immigration law stating that immigrants arriving there had to be able to fill out an application in a European language.

Gandhi with two Jewish confidants in South Africa – Sonja Schlesin and Hermann Kallenbach, 1913

Some in the Jewish community were concerned that Yiddish, although structurally a European language, appeared suspect because it is written in the Hebrew alphabet and is read from right to left, and hence might be classified as non-European. That classification could then be used by those who disliked Jews to restrict Jewish immigration. A campaign was promptly launched to have Yiddish officially designated as a European language, an effort that ended in success: a proviso to Section 26 in the Immigration Act of 1906 stated that “for the purpose of this subsection, Yiddish shall be accepted as a European language.”  As a consequence, Jewish immigrants, most of whom were Yiddish speakers from Lithuania, were exempt from possible exclusion.

Attorney Morris Alexander was one of the major campaigners. He and his wife Ruth Schechter Alexander were both staunch Gandhi supporters; Gandhi even stayed at their Cape Town home on his very last night in South Africa before embarking for India in 1914. Yet Morris Alexander fought with all his lawyer’s skills to get Yiddish specifically included in the bill that stated that immigrants had to write an application in a European language. As a white European, he could support Gandhi in advocating for the rights of Indians but resist any law that classified Jews with Indians and Chinese.

Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1908

During this period Gandhi was a young British-trained lawyer working to help his many struggling clients, mainly Indian immigrants to South Africa, while often facing discrimination himself. He was gradually developing the theory and practice of massive non-violent protest, satyagraha, which he would take back to India and which would eventually bring him worldwide fame, but all that still lay ahead.

Gandhi was not happy about the campaign to declare Yiddish European. He first called attention to the question in June 1903 in his weekly newspaper Indian Opinion in a short piece interestingly entitled ‘Is Yiddish an Eastern Language?’ His comments in June 1906 on the Jewish success in designating Yiddish a European language were bittersweet: “We are very glad that the Jewish community should have been freed from a galling restriction. But…by its non-recognition of the great Indian languages…the Cape has ruled out subjects…who had, by the Queen’s Proclamation, been promised equal liberties with their white fellow subjects.” Gandhi was pointing out that both India and South Africa were part of the worldwide British Empire and hoping—in vain, as it turned out—that promised liberties would extend to Indian subjects who had immigrated to another part of the Empire. Nine issues of Indian Opinion in 1906-07 mention the maneuvering about Yiddish in some way, indicating his ongoing concern with the issue.

Gandhi with leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa

In June 1909, still musing about these matters, Gandhi invoked his ace in the hole: the Sassoons. They were a very large and wealthy Jewish family, originally from Baghdad, who had risen to prominence in India, China, and even England. About Sir Edward Sassoon, who at that time sat in the House of Commons, he wrote in Indian Opinion “…his grandparents lived in Bagdad and Bombay, wore Asiatic costumes, and were never regarded in any other light than as Asiatics”. Yiddish might indeed be linguistically a European language, but Gandhi knew, not from reading it in a book but from his life, that not all Jews were white Europeans. Indeed, he knew about the Sassoons long before he met the Litvaks of South Africa.

Gandhi thought of the Jews as bridging East and West. From his writings one can gather that he felt some combination of disappointment,  exasperation, and resentment that the Jewish communal leaders of that era, rather than join with the Indians and Chinese to oppose what was obviously discriminatory legislation, instead worked vigorously to exempt Jewish immigrants from it.

By contrast, individual Jews were among Gandhi’s closest friends and most devoted supporters. These Jewish allies included the lawyer Henry Polak, the architect Hermann Kallenbach, and Gandhi’s gifted young administrative assistant Sonja Schlesin. These important relationships helped to counteract the distancing he experienced from the Jewish establishment.


This article was adapted from the article “With Gandhi in South Africa: Sonja Schlesin”, by Harriet Feinberg, which appeared in the Passover 2017 issue of Jewish Affairs.


Passing the Torch: The Maccabees of Berlin

More than 80 years after Jewish sports associations were outlawed by the Nazis, hundreds of German athletes still proudly wear the Star of David on their jerseys

The Bar Kochba Berlin athletics team, 1925. Source: Bar Kochba-Hakoah News pamphlet

Not a day goes by that Israeli sports fans don’t read or hear the word ‘Maccabi.’ It is a name attached to dozens of Israeli teams in most sports played in the Jewish State. Much less familiar is the fact that there are still active teams in other parts of the world that proudly bear this name. Here we will tell the story of one of these – a little-known football (soccer) team from Berlin.

Indeed, in the year 2020, the Makkabi Berlin football team plays in the Berlin-Liga, a sixth-tier division which consists solely of clubs based in the German capital. True, this semi-professional organization doesn’t exactly pose a threat to the giants of German soccer, but it has a rich history which stretches back more than 120 years.

The team’s story begins with an event, or rather an idea, that sparked the creation of a long list of Jewish sports and athletic associations and clubs. In late August of 1898, Max Nordau stood at the podium of the Zionist Congress and called for the promotion of ‘Muscular Judaism’ (Muskeljudentum), an idea which envisioned the creation of a ‘new Jew’, typified by physical strength, which was, in his opinion, necessary in order to achieve the national revival of the Jewish people. Sometime later, at the end of October of that year, 48 young Zionists gathered in Berlin and founded an athletics club in the city, a true realization of Nordau’s ideas. They named the club ‘Bar Kochba’, after the legendary Jewish hero who led a revolt against Roman rule. During those years, Jewish clubs of the sort began to spring up like mushrooms after the rain. Most of them chose powerful Hebrew names like HaKoah (“The Force” or “The Strength”) and HaGibor (“The Hero”), or names of heroic figures from scripture such as Gideon and, of course, Maccabi (“Makkabi” in German).

Bar Kochba Berlin was originally established as a general athletics club, as was common in those days in Germany. It was the first of its kind – that is, the first Jewish athletics club in Germany. It was likely a reaction to, or perhaps a reflection of, the general development of athletic culture in Germany during those years. This was also the context for Nordau’s ideas; the Zionist leader didn’t necessarily picture 22 people chasing a ball when he spoke at the Congress in 1898. Only later did the club expand by opening individual departments dedicated to boxing, swimming, tennis, gymnastics – and football.

From the Hamburg Archive at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP)

Most of the Bar Kochba Association’s successes were in gymnastics, while the football team generally took a backseat to the various other departments. The impressive achievements in gymnastics and boxing reinforced a Jewish sense of pride by showing that Jews were not inferior to their German neighbors. Jewish sports fans especially enjoyed watching the athletes proudly wear the light blue Star of David on their uniforms.

The Bar Kochba association soon became much more than a sports club. Its Zionistic activity grew, and the association published a periodical as well as a Zionist songbook. Young members of the association even formed the core of a Jewish defense force that helped protect the Jewish quarter in Berlin where Jews were harassed during and after WWI.

Sometime after the establishment of Bar Kochba, a HaKoah club was founded in Berlin, which shared its name with clubs in Vienna and other European cities. HaKoah Berlin focused mainly on football. Interestingly, a number of German refugees who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine following the Nazi rise to power played under the Hakoah Berlin name as well.

A poster for a football match between Hakoah Berlin and Hapoel Tel Aviv on July 1st, 1933

In 1929, Bar Kochba and Hakoah merged to form a single Jewish Berlin club which was known from that point on primarily as Bar Kochba-HaKoah. The football team competed mainly in Berlin’s local leagues, up until 1933. In that year, the new Nazi regime moved quickly to cripple Jewish participation in sports. Jewish players were banned from all-German teams, and, having no other choice, joined the Jewish teams, Bar Kochba among them. Jewish football teams were forbidden from competing in national competitions resulting in the formation of separate Makkabi football leagues, which consisted of Jewish teams from all over Germany. Bar Kochba-HaKoah was notably successful under the new arrangement, winning a championship in its first year of competition. This feat was repeated three more times in later years.

In 1937, with the isolation of Jewish teams in Germany at its peak, the Bar Kochba-HaKoah football team went on tour to Israel. The visit was barely covered by the local Hebrew press and the Jewish press in Germany paid only scant attention. Nevertheless, the team’s players were to play approximately four matches in six days, and, in between games, attend numerous receptions and ceremonies held in their honor. The results were hardly impressive: Bar Kochba-Hakoah managed only two wins, two more games ended in draws while three matches resulted in defeat. Being cut off from proper competition in Germany had taken its toll.

About a year and a half later, following the organized violence of Kristallnacht, all Jewish sports clubs in Germany, including Bar Kochba-Hakoah, were officially shut down.

Bar Kochba-HaKoah Berlin players during the team’s visit to Mandatory Palestine, 1937

And yet, this was not the end of the road for Germany’s first Jewish sports association. German immigrants and survivors reestablished the Bar Kochba-HaKoah community here in Israel, celebrating its anniversaries and issuing a newspaper sponsored by the association. Meanwhile, Jews who returned to Germany sought to reestablish their beloved clubs, resulting in the formation of Makkabi Berlin in 1970, generally regarded as the successor organization to both Bar Kochba and Hakoah.


The new club was in fact formed as a merger of a number of sports departments bearing historic Jewish names: Bar Kochba Berlin in athletics, HaKoah Berlin in football and Makkabi Berlin in boxing. One of the organization’s former coaches was none other than Emmanuel Scheffer, manager of Israel’s legendary national football team that played in the World Cup. And so, even now, we find teams of men, women and children out on the grassy fields of Berlin, wearing blue uniforms and Stars of David on their chests. These days, the Makkabi Berlin men’s team is sitting comfortably in the top half of the city’s local Berlin-Liga. Makkabi Berlin also fields teams in basketball, volleyball, artistic gymnastics, swimming and even chess. The association can proudly boast around 500 active members, more than 120 years after a group of young Jews founded the first Jewish athletics association in Germany.


This article was written with the help of Yuval Rubovitch, Professor Moshe Zimmermann and Ronen Dorfan.


Further reading:

Bar Kochba Berlin, One Hundred Years – A Personal Story“, by Adin Talber, an article appearing in the book Between Two Homelands: The “Yekkes”, edited by Moshe Zimmermann and Yotam Hotam, Jerusalem: Merkaz Shazar; 2005 (Hebrew)

Muscular Religion. Sport, Nationalism, Judaism., edited by Moshe Zimmermann, Jerusalem: Carmel; 2017 (Hebrew)


If you liked this article, try these:

Football Under the Auspices of His Majesty

Who Is the Israeli Who Won 10 Olympic Medals?

Meet the Jewish Circus Performer Who Could Bend Iron with His Bare Hands


The Prophet of Abstraction and the Master of Light in Darkness: George Steiner and Gershom Scholem

On the unique relationship between two giants of the Jewish literary world

George Steiner in 2013, image courtesy of the Nexus Institute

The philosopher and literary critic George Steiner, who passed away this week, was, like many Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, enamored of Gershom Scholem and his scholarship. Moshe Idel, in a chapter on Steiner in his 2010 book Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought referred to him as “A Prophet of Abstraction” and addressed the influence of Scholem’s scholarship on his somewhat pessimistic worldview. Idel connects this worldview with Steiner’s fierce criticism of the Zionist project and of the State of Israel.

Gershom Scholem

Steiner himself, in a Jan. 22, 1990 review of the volume of correspondence between Scholem and Walter Benjamin in the New Yorker Magazine had much to say about both Scholem’s scholarship (“Scholem revolutionized the study of Judaism by his philological-editorial investigations of extreme esoterica”) – and his Zionism – (“For Scholem, the messianic…was inseparable from a material, historically grounded homecoming to Israel”).

Addressing his relationship with Scholem, Steiner had this to say:

“Paradoxically, Scholem’s immersion in religious mysticism originated in a deeply ironical, skeptical world view. I had the testing privilege of knowing Scholem in his later years, of seeing him in Jerusalem, Zurich, and New York. I cannot even begin to venture an informed guess as to whether this inspired expositor of the Cabalistic meditation on the self-divisions of the Divine Oneness…believed or did not believe in God [Actually Scholem wrote more than once that he had always believed in God and therefore could not be considered as “secular”]. The quizzicalities in Scholem’s smile and the hints of deep-lying Voltairean merriment were legion”.

In Scholem’s library, there are several of Steiner’s books, two of which contain dedications from the author.

“For Gershom Scholem, with deep respect, George Steiner” This dedication appears in a copy of Steiner’s book, Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture

In one of them, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Steiner addresses Scholem as the “Master of Light in Darkness”.

“For Gershom Scholem, Master of Light in Darkness, George Steiner (Zurich, 25-5-75)” (German)

In Idel’s words. “Drawing on Kafka, Freud and Scholem, Steiner tries…to offer, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, a new Torah”. Kafka also looms large in Steiner’s review of the Scholem-Benjamin correspondence (as well as in Idel’s analysis of Scholem in Old Worlds, New Mirrors). Can pessimism, abstractions darkness and light create a “new Torah”? We will leave that for the reader to decide.


If you liked this article, try these:

On Gershom Scholem, Conspiracy Theories and Rabbinical Court Controversies

Kehilot Moshe: The Discovery of a Rare Illustrated Bible

“Stranger Things” in Jerusalem: Goethe and Goebbels in the Ticho Family Garden