King Ahashverush and the maidens, Shahin, Ardashir-nameh, Persia, 2nd half of the 17th century (Berlin, Staatbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz)
The Jewish community came in Persia in two phases. The first was around 700 BC at the time of the Assyrian hegemony, when King Sargon II relocated people to the country of the Medes, in the north and west of today’s Iran; and the second one and half century later, after the Babylonian occupation of Jerusalem. A large part of the diaspora stayed there even after they were set free by King Cyrus in 539, and they settled throughout the Persian empire, where they remained for more than two millennia.
One of the earliest known texts documenting this community, dating from the 8th century, is a Judeo-Persian merchant’s letter which Aurel Stein found in 1901 at Dandan-Uiliq, a trading centre on the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan. It is written in the Persian (or rather Judeo-Persian) language, using the Hebrew script. This practice had been in use in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia for over a millennium, as this was the diaspora’s way to preserve their Jewish identity and historical heritage.
The most important medieval Judeo-Persian manuscripts include the 1319 handwritten copy of Torat Mosheh, the earliest known Judeo-Persian text of the Pentateuch. This Judeo-Persian translation of the Torah was also one of the earliest printed texts in this language, appearing as a polyglot Pentateuch published in Constantinople in 1546.
But far from the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Jewish communities in Europe, these first Judeo-Persian medieval manuscripts contained only text, and we have to wait until the Safavid era to find illustrations in a Judeo-Persian manuscript. Aniconism, in fact, is a significant characteristic of Eastern Jewish manuscripts.
Yes, think of all those medieval Armenian manuscripts in Isfahan Vank Cathedral, illuminated with beautiful letters and full page miniatures – and then forget them. We only know twelve or thirteen illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts, none of which dates earlier than the 17th century. Twelve or so known surviving manuscripts – one hundred and seventy-nine miniatures.
Of course, the Armenian community in Isfahan was a very young one, just coming from Armenia after Shah Abbas ransacked the country, it was a community rich of its own traditions. In contrast, the Jewish community was an old Persian community and its prolonged contact with the Persian culture produced profound acculturation, especially in literature and applied arts. And the period of the production of these Judeo-Persian manuscripts coincides with a very difficult time of anti-Jewish persecutions, a time when the community was not very well-off economically: a number of anti-Jewish incidents took place during the reign of Shah Abbas II. Nonetheless, a few Muslims, among them ranking officials, resisted the order to force the Jews to convert. Along with Jews, Sufis as well as other religious minorities, such as Armenians and Zoroastrians were also targets of religious intolerance. However, most of the major Jewish communities appear to have converted in 1656, and their members became anusim (“forced converts”) for about seven years, outwardly complying with Shiite Islam while practicing Judaism in secret. A practice ironically similar to that of taqiya (dissimulation), followed by the Shiites for many centuries. The events are retraced in the Ketāb-e anusi, “The book of Converts” by Bābāʿi ben Loṭf, a Jewish witness in Kashan.
Angels uproot trees in Ahashverush’s garden. Shahin, Ardashir-nameh, Persia, 2nd half of the 17th century (Berlin, Staatbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz). This is an instance where Talmudic and midrashic references are used to enliven the story. The illustration is a fanciful expansion of Esther 7:7. In the biblical text, Esther has just exposed Haman’s plot. Ahashverush rises in anger and “went into the palace garden”. The Talmud suggests that, as we are not told that his anger cooled, he also “returned in a fury” – but why? Because angels in the semblance of men were uprooting the trees in the royal garden and apparently they were doing so at the command of Haman.
Even if these manuscripts are remarkable, they never reach the perfection of most Persian miniature paintings. They could not equal miniatures produced in the royal workshops like these ones below, and so they look rather like modest popular and provincial works from ateliers of smaller courts, repeating classical schemes – mountains and clouds, riders and strait-winged angels. That is, the Persian Jews began to commission manuscripts that recounted the stories of their heroes in a way reflecting the style and manner of Safavid courtly manuscripts.
The Judeo-Persian community had never been especially productive in the area of thought or law, they just followed the classical teachings of the early medieval rabbis. These manuscripts also illustrate Hebrew transliterations of Persian romances such as Yusuf and Zulayḵā (Joseph and Putiphar’s wife). Some are even single leaves of poetry. Most of them are secular rather than sacred works. Sometimes, when they recounted their own themes, they transliterated epic narratives from the Persian literary community, and included various popular romances. The best examples are the illuminated manuscripts of the epics of Shahin, a 14th-c. Jewish poet from Shiraz, Musa-nameh (history of Moses), imitating the iconographic tradition of Firdausi’s Shah-nameh and connecting Moses with the pantheon of Persian heroes. The text and of course the illustrations describe his ordeal of battling with a lion, a wolf and then a dragon, and prove him worthy of encountering the burning bush.
We can assume the manuscripts were written and illuminated for prominent members of the larger Jewish communities, such as those of Isfahan or Kashan. It is not possible to prove that these manuscripts were produced by Jews, as they are all unsigned (but it seems that no prohibition would have restrained them from acquiring these skills). Nevertheless, some painters may have been Muslims as it is suggested by the illuminated version of Shahin’s Musa-nameh, copied in 1686 in Tabriz, where Moses’s face is systematically covered by a veil on which it is read in Persian script “His Excellency Moses” (janāb-e ḥażrat-e Musā).
Moses with a white veil on his face and a halo of golden flames watches Pinchas impaling Cosbi and Zimri as they are locked in a sexual embrace (Numbers 25:6-8), a very unusual scene. The Musa-nameh emphasize tales of battles between the people of Israel and their enemies, and Moses appears in a manner clearly designed to parallel Muhammad in an implicit comparison.
But perhaps it was a Jewish painter, who wished to show his work to Muslims, and so he complied with iconographic models that respected Muslim sensibilities. In fact, some divergences between several miniatures and the texts they illustrate suggest that the painters, whether Jews or Muslims, were unable to read the Judeo-Persian text, and had to be told about the content of their pictures. If the painters were Muslims, these manuscripts are the examples of a Jewish-Muslim cooperation. Clearly, the texts were written by Jews, but Muslim artists may have painted the illustrations, following their patron’s instructions.
Some of the manuscripts are rather polemical, intending to compare and exalt Jewish heroes to Muslim holy characters. Islam, enshrining versions of the Jewish narrative in the Quran, had incorporated these holy personages in its own tradition so that the representation of Moses with the attributes of Muhammad was not exempt from danger – had Muslims been able to read the Judeo-Persian text. The recurrent glorification of Jewish heroes projects images of empowerment for themselves in a time of persecution. It’s a nostalgic representation of a better time, an appeal to the present Shah to live up to its exalted heritage of tolerance, a support for the Jews and a wish that once again the armed Jews, “sons of Jacob”, get revenge on “the accursed people of Haman”.