Communities / Purim

In Queen Esther’s Time, Persia’s Baghdad Was the Center of the Jewish World

Family of Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910

Family of Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910

Happy Purim! To mark the occasion, I’m posting this piece about the Jews in one of the cities of Queen Esther’s Persian Empire: Baghdad. It’s an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2003 on an exhibit about the Jews of Iraq at London’s Jewish Museum. The exhibit was called “By the Rivers of Babylon.” The Jewish Museum was a great resource and inspiration when I lived in London. The museum is physically small, but the collection is amazing, and the exhibits are always exceptional. If you find yourself in London, I recommend visiting.

Slaves in Babylon

The history of Jews in Iraq began 2,500 years ago, during the time of the First Temple, when the Assyrians captured Jerusalem and marched its inhabitants east to what was then Babylon before destroying the Temple. The Jews were forced out of the promised land of milk and honey and into a foreign land of tamarind and vinegar, to taste the sweet and sour of what would become one of the most successful diaspora communities in Jewish history.

The first exiled Jewish slaves in Babylon worked clearing canals around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They lamented their fate in songs like Psalm 137, from which the exhibit takes its title:

By the rivers of Babylon
There we sat,
Sat and wept,
And we thought of Zion.
(Psalm 137:1)

Under Persian Rule, The First Golden Era of Iraqi Jewry

The Jews managed to build a community in Babylon, however, so that when the Persians conquered the Assyrians and released the Jews from slavery some twenty-five years later, most Jews stayed in Babylon. The community had its own leader, a descendant of King David called the Exilarch, who governed the community and interceded with the country’s ruling government. The position of Exilarch remained in existence, providing an official seat for the lineage of King David, until the fifteenth century.

Ezekial's Tomb at Kifel and  Iraqi Jews

Ezekial’s Tomb at Kifel and Iraqi Jews

The defining accomplishment of the early golden era was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud during the years 200 to 500. The interpretations of the Torah made by scholars during this time inform decisions about Jewish life, such as how to conduct business ethically and what the Bible means when it says to keep the Sabbath holy, even today.

Babylonian Jews established the first synagogues, vital institutions for maintaining Jewish communal life in the diaspora.

A number of important Jewish figures are buried in Iraq. The prophet Ezekial is buried near the town of Hilla in central Iraq. The tomb of Jonah, the prophet whom the Torah relates was swallowed by a fish before accepting God’s instructions to preach to Nineveh, is in Iraq, as is Nineveh itself [Note: Since this article was first posted in 2003, Ezekial’s tomb was heavily damaged and Jonah’s tomb was destroyed during the aftermath of the second Iraq war.]

In the Heart of the Islamic Empire

After Islam was established in the seventh century and the Islamic Caliphate moved from Damascus to Baghdad in 762, the Jewish community around Baghdad found itself at the center of a rapidly expanding Islamic empire. The stability of the empire’s communication and financial systems and the relative safety of travel enabled the leaders of Iraq’s Talmudic schools to extend their influence to Jewish communities across the empire. From Baghdad, they ruled on questions of Jewish law, mentored students, and collected funds from communities as far away as North Africa and Spain.

Iraqi Jewry’s first golden era ended in the thirteenth century, when the invading Mongols destroyed the country.

***

History doesn’t end there, of course, and Iraqi Jewry enjoyed a second golden age in the Nineteenth Century, a golden age built on textiles and mercantilism. That will have to be a topic of a future post.

[Images: Top: Family of Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910 via Wikimedia Commons {PD-US} | Ezekial’s Tomb at Kifel, Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; Library of Congress LC-M33- 14508 via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_Jews#/media/File:Ezekial%27s-Tomb-at-Kifel.jpg.%5D

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