Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Persian Promise

We recently celebrated Hanukkah, commemorating the revolt led by Judah the Maccabee and his glorious brothers against the Greeks. Throughout our history there were other revolts, minor and major, in Israel and abroad. Here in Israel Jews continued to yearn for national and religious redemption, and when they thought the time was right, took steps to achieve it.

More than 750 years after the Hasmonean revolt, the Jews again rebelled against foreign conquerors: the Byzantines, ruled by Emperor Heraclius.

The story of the Heraclius Revolt starts in the early 600s, when the Persian (Sassanid) army invaded their old enemy, the Byzantine Empire. By 614 the Persian army was approaching Israel. The Jews, who suffered greatly under the Byzantines, realized this was a 'now or never' moment and rose in rebellion.

The Persians did not have any specific interest in helping the Jews, but they needed local support in order to conquer the Byzantines. Also, in order to reach the capital Caesarea they had to go through the Galilee, which was a Jewish stronghold. And so a pact was made, Jewish support in return for national autonomy. The Jews believed history was repeating itself, as in the days of Cyrus (Koresh).

Once the Persian army reached Israel, they were joined by the local Jews. The Jewish battalion was led by Nechemia ben Hushiel, reputedly the son of the Exilarch. Additionally there were many Jews in the Persian army itself.

Together they conquered Jerusalem and the Persians gave the Jews control over the city. The Jews prepared to resume Temple worship, like their Maccabee ancestors they purified the city, and according to one Jewish source, restarted offering sacrifices.

The Persians continued on in their conquests, and the Jews set to help out by conquering the cities along the coast: succeeding with Acco, then failing miserably in Tyre.

The Jews ruled Jerusalem for about three years, until 617, but victory was short-lived. Once the Persians conquered the land, they realized they did not really need the Jews anymore. The Jews made up just 10-15% of the total population and could not rule the country. The Persians got to the conclusion that they would be better off striking a deal with the Christian majority, and so, betraying their former ally, they agreed to make Jerusalem a Christian city and kick out the Jews. The Jews did everything they could to reverse the decree, but to no avail.

Ten years later the Byzantines reconquered Israel, but their days here were numbered, since very shortly afterward the Arabs arrived on the scene.

See here for more articles about our history in Israel.

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Anonymous said...

Where did you learn about this from?

Turns out this big book of Jewish history isn't as nice as I thought it was :)

Ora said...

This summary is based on Prof. Michael Avi-Yona's book on the Byzantine era.

Ora said...

Btw, Prof. Avi-Yona believed that this failed revolt was the reason Jews did not attempt another one until the 20th century.

Since there have been previous failed revolts and disastrous consequences, I think it's also (or mainly) because the Arab conquest made life slightly more livable for Jews here, on the one hand, and ruined the economy, on the other.

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