The tomb of Queen Esther in Persia

“How much is the taxi to Khomeini Square?” “Gheymati nadore, it does not cost anything”, the old taxi driver spreads his arms. “Taʿarof nakonid, don’t play etiquette with me”, I tell him, but he just laughs, and repeatedly tells that he’d take me for free. But I know well that on such occasions it is important to agree on an exact price, otherwise the final amount will be just as far-fetched as the courtesy formula is, even so, I leave it up to him. After all, if you go on a pilgrimage, keep to the traditions. And be generous when visiting queens.

Hamadan is a perfect pilgrimage site. Even today it takes eight hours to drive through the desert from Isfahan, the largest Jewish community of Persia. You can imagine the great devotion of those covering this grueling trip on foot or with caravan. Nevertheless, the historical records show that since antiquity, thousands of Jews from Persia and other countries visited this place every year, the tomb of Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai.

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Esther, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, and her uncle Mordechai saved the lives of thousands of Persian Jews from the intrigues of the king’s chief commander, Haman, as described in the biblical book of Esther, and is enacted every Purim in all the Jewish communities of the world. This event certainly took place in the center of the Persian empire, Susa. Ecbatana, the former capital of the Medes, and in our times Hamadan, was the summer residence of the Persian kings, to which Esther and her uncle are said to have retired from the court after the death of Ahasuerus. Here they were buried in a common tomb, which is still the most important Jewish pilgrimage site in Iran.

We do not know how the original tomb looked. The oldest surviving depiction, Eugène Flandin’s illustration of 1840 in his travelogue Voyage en Perse (1851), already represents it in the present form. However, this building, which, with its double inner space, burial chamber and community room, and with the dome crowning the tomb, follows the type of the Shiite pilgrimage sites erected for the emamzâdehs, the descendants of the holy Imams, was built only around 1602, in the time of Shah Abbas the Great. As the picture shows, in the early 19th century it still stood outside of the city, but by the end of the century the bazaar completely flowed around it. According to contemporary travelogues, one could approach it only with a local guide, through a maze of doorways and inner courtyards. In 1970 however, when the Shah involved the ethnic minorities of Iran also in the celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, the Jewish community decided to restore and expand the site of Esther’s tomb by demolishing the houses along the nearest major street, erecting an ornate gate on the street front. However, this is never open. The real entrance still opens behind the building, from a small street of the bazaar. Here, from sunrise to sunset, Rabbi Rajad lets the visitors in.

The way to the tomb leads through a small rose garden. The door, uniquely, is a twenty centimeter large granite block weighing four quintals, which rotates, without any suspension, in a granite hole filled with oil. Its height is only 110 centimeters, forcing the visitor to bow his head, as is often read in the psalm above the entrance of the Sephardic synagogues: “But I through Your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down in an awe at Your holy temple.” (Ps 5:8). The space of entrance itself is a small synagogue, where, as Rabbi Rajad says, Jewish couples come from all over Iran to hold weddings. From here, some steps lead down to the graves of Esther and Mordechai. Several Hebrew inscriptions are on the walls around, which read fairly well, but the huge letters to the right of the stairs that lead to the grave were not spared by time. According to the pious interpretation of Rabbi Rajad, it is in Aramaic, which must be read from left to right (!), and it means: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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The wooden tombs of Esther and Mordechai imitate two sarcophagi, although their graves are obviously under the floor. The sarcophagi are new, carved by a Persian artist, Enayatollah Tusserkhani, during the restoration of 1970. The original sarcophagus was destroyed in a fire in the late 19th century because of the candles the pilgrims attached to it. Only its picture has survived in Eugène Flandin’s lithograph. A small prayer room is also attached to the space of the tomb. Monumental inscriptions run around on the walls, but they were so often repainted by hands obviously not accustomed to Hebrew script, that today they are largely incomprehensible.

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In the enlarged courtyard, in place of the demolished houses, a synagogue was built below the street level, planned in the distinctive modern style of the 1970s by the Iranian Jewish architect Elias Yassi Gabbay. He designed the modern sculpture, too, which stands in front of the street facade of the tomb. “What does it represent?” I ask. “This is the throne of Ahasuerus”, replies Rabbi Rajad, and immediately illustrates its use.

“Do pilgrims still come here?” I ask Rabbi Rajad. “Of course, very many! At Purim, the courtyard is full, but throughout the year they come from every Jewish city of Iran, Isfahan, Tehran, Yazd, Mashhad. And even from abroad. Just this morning there was a Jew from Paris”, he says with awe. “From Israel, of course, they cannot come”, I say. “Why? Sure, many people come from there as well. Only with Turkish passport.” “And the locals?” “In Hamadan we are very few. A total of five families, only fifteen people.”

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At farewell, Rabbi Rajad asks for a donation for Esther, and a pen for himself. I hand him a pen bought in the hometown of the inventor of the ballpoint pen, in the Arcade Supermarket of Budapest, a rather unique thing, but no: Rabbi Rajad collects fountain pens. He makes me promise next time to bring him a real German Lamy fountain pen from Berlin.

I step out in the street. After the devotion of the tomb and the silence of the court, the vibration of the bazaar immediately surrounds me. The whole city is flowing, buzzing, offering and buying merchandise, showing itself and living its social life on the narrow streets lined with shops, stalls, workshops. Just like two thousand five hundred years ago, in the days of Queen Esther, in Ecbatana and Susa.

Chemirami Trio, Iran • Sephardic song

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Epilogue. Queen Esther rewards her visitors with royal generosity. The next morning, in the first Tehran bookshop, I catch sight of a book, with Eugène Flandinʻs lithograph on the cover. Its title is فرزندان استر. مجموعه مقالاتی درباره ی تاریخ و زندگی یهودیان در ایران – Esther’s children. A collection of essays on the history and life of the Iranian Jews, with stunning pictures. Soon I will write about it.