by Frank Meir Loewenberg

A Forgotten Chapter Of Jewish History


The Jewish people encountered the Persian people at different points in history. The Purim story, as recorded in the Book of Esther, is perhaps the best remembered of these encounters, but there are others, less well known. The story of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 C.E. is almost unknown. The Encyclopedia Judaica devotes less than three lines to this event, while many Jewish history books ignore it altogether.

Ever since the establishment of the Byzantine Roman Empire, Jews and other non-Christians were the objects of discrimination and worse. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the lot of the Jews who had remained in Palestine became unbearable. They were the victims of heavy taxes, confiscation of property and even forced conversions. Messianic hopes and dreams were the only thing that kept them going.

Just at this point in history, King Khosrau II (591-628) became the Sassanid king of Persia. He followed his predecessor's liberal policy towards the local Jews. Within the Persian royal circles, the Jews had recognized rights and privileges, but due to the fanaticism of some of the Persian people they were not always able to exercise these. At one point Khosrau considered the idea of relocating the Jews, but the opportunity to do this never presented itself.

Early in his reign, King Khosrau attempted to re-establish the ancient Achaemenid Empire by aggressively conquering neighboring countries. In 602 he launched an offensive against Constantinople with the aim of annexing as much Byzantine territory as possible. His armies invaded and plundered Syria and Asia Minor and by 608 advanced as far as Chalcedon (nowadays a neighborhood in Instanbul). Soon afterwords his armies besieged and captured Damascus.

Jews everywhere were eager to aid and abet the Persian army. When they heard the news that Jewish soldiers had joined the Persian forces, they fully expected that a miracle would soon occur. The Jews of Antioch rioted and killed the Christian Patriarch. In Yemen the Jews also rioted and killed the Christian clergy.

The next target of the Persian army was Jerusalem, capital of the Byzantine province of Palaestina Prima. Capturing this province would provide Persia direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, thereby threatening Byzantine hegemony of that ocean. Prior to embarking on the invasion of Palestine, King Khosrau made a treaty with the Reish Galuta, the head of Babylonian Jewry. Even though many historians doubt whether there actually was such a treaty, it was widely believed both at the time and in later centuries that this treaty called upon the Jews to provide 20,000 soldiers for the Persian army. In return for joining the Persian army, these Jewish soldiers were given permission to participate in the capture of Jerusalem - which they did in 614. King Khosrau appointed Nehemiah ben Hushiel, the son of the Exilarch, as the symbolic leader of Persian troops. Since Nehemiah was known to be a mystic, Khosrau was certain that he would not interfere in military affairs.

Benjamin of Tiberias, a Jew of immense wealth, enlisted and armed additional Jewish soldiers for the Persian army. Tiberian Jews, together with others from Nazareth and the mountain cities of Galilee, joined the Persian divisions commanded by Shahrbaraz on the march to Jerusalem. The united forces took Jerusalem by storm after a 21 day siege (July, 614 CE). The fall of Jerusalem's walls meant not only the capture of Jerusalem, but also of all of Palaestina Prima. Subsequent to the conquest of Jerusalem, the local Jews assisted the Persian troops in putting down a revolt of the Christian population against their new rulers.

One of the conditions for the enlistment of twenty thousand Jewish soldiers was a formal promise that a Jewish governor would be appointed to rule over Persian Jerusalem. Once the city was captured, Nehemiah ben Hushiel was appointed governor of Jerusalem. There are reports that he was a strong young man, handsome and adorned in royal robes, but actually we know very little about his reign because no contemporary accounts have survived. There are reports that he had Messianic pretensions. Soon after his appointment the new governor reestablished the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount - something that had not occurred in over five hundred years. He began to make arrangements for the rebuilding of the Temple. At the same time, he tried to clarify the genealogies of the priests in order to appoint a new High Priest. Rabbi Elazer Kalir, one of the earliest and most prolific of Jewish liturgical poets who lived in Palestine at the time of the Persian invasion, described these events in one of his piyutim (that is not found in the liturgy) as follows:

When Assyria [Persia] came to the city . and pitched his tents there / the holy people [Jews] were a bit relieved / because he permitted the reestablishment of the Temple / and they built there the holy altar / and offered upon it holy sacrifices / but they did not manage to build the Temple / because the Messiah had not yet come.

Several other sources also confirm that sacrifices were offered on the Temple Mount during the years of the Persian occupation.

According to Antiochus Strategos, a 7th century monk who witnessed the Persian conquest of Jerusalem, an "unprecedented looting and sacrilege" occurred shortly after the Persian army entered Jerusalem. "Church after church was burned down alongside the innumerable Christian artifacts, which were stolen or damaged by the ensuing arson". However, a careful survey of the available archaeological finds from Jerusalem reveals no clear evidence of destruction or damage in churches and monasteries that can be associated with the Persian conquest. Instead, all excavated sites in Jerusalem show a clear pattern of continuity, with no evidence for destruction by the Persian conquest of 614. No other source supports the claim that the Jews were responsible for the massacre of the Christian population.

Antiochus Strategos also claimed that many Christians were captured and held for ransom. Jews offered to help them escape if they "become Jews and deny Christ". The Christian captives refused this offer. The Jews then purchased the Christians from the Persians and massacred them. He claimed that the total Christian death toll was 66,509.

The immediate results of the conquest of Jerusalem by a Persian-Jewish force filled the Jews with joy and pride. Many Christians became Jews through fear. The Jews were free from the Christian yoke for about fourteen years. They hoped that King Khosrau would permit them to establish a Jewish commonwealth. Some suggest that such an autonomous Jewish province was indeed established. If so, it barely got off the ground before the tide turned.

Three years after Nehemiah was appointed, the Persians removed the Jewish governor of Jerusalem for reasons that were never clearly stated. Perhaps they feared his messianic pretensions - or they made a strategic decision that the support of the larger Christian population was more valuable than that of the smaller number of Jews. After executing the Jewish governor and ending the Jewish rule of the city, the Persians forbade Jews from settling within a three-mile radius of Jerusalem.

The Persian control of the city, however, did not last long. Byzantine emperor Heraclius (575-641) waged a bitter war against the Persians in order to regain his lost provinces of Syria, Egypt and Palestine. He successfully destroyed the Persian army in 628 and in the following year marched into Jerusalem at the head of his army. Though he had promised an amnesty to Jerusalem's Jews, the Christian clergy of Jerusalem convinced him that his promise was invalid; subsequently the Byzantines accused the Jews of Jerusalem of having cooperated with the Persian conquerors and massacred them.

When the Persian conquest of Palestine took place in 614 CE, no one could have foreseen the long range consequences of this event. However, with hindsight it becomes evident that this was a major turning point in the history of the Near East. The brutalities of the invading armies, involving large scale damage to churches and a mass killing of the local Christian population, was undoubtedly one of the causes for the rapid Muslim conquests, twenty years later.



Additional reading on this chapter of Jewish history can be found in Sefer Zerubabel, Yehudah Even Shmuel (Kaufman), Midrashei G'ulah, Tel Aviv: Mossad Bialik, 1943, pp.55-88.

Archeological evidence of these events are reviewed in Gideon Avni, "The Persian conquest of Jerusalem (614 CE) - an archaeological assessment,"

Kaliri's unknown poem, as recovered from the Cairo Geniza, is available in Ezra Fleischer, "L'pitaron sh'elat z'mano u'makom p'uloto shel R' Elazar Biribi Kilir" ["Towards a Solution to the Question of the Time and Place of Activity of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Kalir"], Tarbiz 54, 5745/1985, p. 401.

Frank Meir Loewenberg is a professor emeritus of social work at Bar-Ilan-University in Israel. He was born in Germany, came to the United States at age 12, where he did his graduate studies. He lives, together with his wife, in Efrat. He is the author of many books and articles in professional journals. Contact him at

This article appeared in the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine and is archived at conquest_jerusalem/persian_conquest_jerusalem.htm.

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