Sorud


To the one-eyed small beggar, who on the Tehran subway sang Rumi poems from terminus to terminus, and from the banknote of a thousand tomans – about forty eurocents – returned five hundred, because it is worth this much. And did not allow me to photograph him.



Sorud, beggar’s fiddle from Kerman, in Tehran’s Museum of Music, with Mahmud Tabrizizâde playing on it

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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 inverntor 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 booksop, 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.


Faces of Kashan


The afternoon sun burns the adobe walls white. A little girls comes on the deserted street, by leaning to one side she carries the flat breads for the Ramadan dinner, from afar she drills her finger into the air. “There lives God”, she says, with eyebrows pulled together, pointing to the small apartment-mosque. “God?” I ask. “Yes, God”, she nods seriously, not even stopping. I note to myself that place.



A Shiite religious song, recording from a ceremony. I took the pictures on the day of mourning for Ali, the first imam.

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Come with us to Azerbaijan!


In the spring we visited Georgia three times. As a continuation of the discovery of the Caucasus, now we invite to our readers to an Azerbaijani tour between 18 and 25 August.

Unlike in Georgia, in Azerbaijan the attractions are unevenly distributed. The most beautiful places lay in the northern part of the country, on the two sides of the Caucasus. The country’s central part is a large, mostly arid lowland. The other most beautiful region, Karabakh cannot be approached from Azerbaijan. The southernmost tip of the country, Lenkaran and its environs is also nice, but it is not worth a long trip from Baku and back. Thus we will do two journeys, starting from Baku and returning there. In the first one we travel through the historical places along the southern foot of the Caucasus, and then we go up along the northern slopes to the mountain Jews in Quba, and to Xinaliq, the highest-lying ancient settlement of the Caucasus – places where one can hardly get individually. Here you can read our collected posts about the region, and about the Caucasus in general.


Àyi ty yormà? (Do you still remember me?) Mountain Jewish song, from the collection of the Jewish Music Center (Jerusalem, Hebrew University), in Juhuri language


1. Baku – Lahic – Qabala – Nic – Oğuz

Our flight lands in Baku on 18 August in the evening. The next morning we start our tour to the South Caucasus. Crossing the plain, and arriving at the foot of the mountains, in Şamakhi the countryside suddenly turns green. Here begins the chain of historical settlements of the easternmost extension of the Caucasus. We visit Lahij, the Tat artisans’ village, the ruins of the medieval capital of the Qabala Khanate, and Niç, the last settlement of the ancient inhabitants of Azerbaijan, the Christian Udins or Albans. Our accommodation will be in Oğuz – until the expulsion of the Armenians, Vartashen –, which is, after Quba, the second most important center of the Azerbaijani Mountain Jews.




2. Oğuz – Şeki – Kiş – Qobustan – Baku

From Oğuz we continue our way to Şeki, which was one of the most important khanates until the Russian conquest, and where they well preserved the khan’s painted palace and the old town with the caravanserais. We go up to the mountain village of Kiş, whose church is considered as the most important medieval Albanian Christian shrine. From there we return to the coast on a long road, which, fortunately, is a highway, so we will relatively quickly cover it. In the afternoon we arrive to the mountain of Qobustan, where we can visit a section of the prehistoric rock paintings, and to the mud volcanoes, where the vulcanic activity, which created the Caucasus, can still be seen in operation. In the evening, dinner in Baku and a walk on the beach.




3. Baku – Quba

Heading to the north, we stop for the first time there, where the ridge of the Caucasus reaches the coastline. This is Beşbarmaq, the Five Fingers, the holy mountain and pilgrimage site of the Muslims of Azerbaijan (we will soon write about it with many pictures on the blog). We even penetrate a little bit into the Caucasus, to see the local “traditional” oil fields and the castle of Çiraq Qala. Then, after returning to the main road, we continue our journey to Quba. We will do so to arrive to the Mountain Jewish quarter before the arrival of Sabbath.




4. Quba and Tengealti

In the morning, optional participation in the morning prayer in the synagogue. Then we tour the Jewish quarter. In the afternoon, an excursion to the canyon of Tenge Alti, one of the main attractions of the region.




5. Quba – Xinaliq – Quba

On a breathtakingly beautiful road, through valleys and passes, we go up to the town of Xinaliq, lying at 2300 meters, which until recently was considered as one of the most isolated places in the world, with its five thousand years old continuous culture, and its own language and customs. After a short guided tour we discover individually the village and the surrounding area. In the late afternoon we return to Quba.




6. Quba – Suraxani Fire Temple – Baku

Starting back from Quba, we arrive in late morning to the Abşaron peninsula, where in Surakhani we visit the three thousand years old Zoroastrian fire temple. By early afternoon we arrive back to Baku, where we visit the old town, and spend our farewell dinner. The next day in the late morning we go to the airport.



Travel: to Baku and back by plane, within the country with a rented minivan. Participation fee (half of a double room): 680 euro, which includes accommodation (+ breakfast), bus and guide, single room supplement 245 euro. The relatively high fee is due to the fact that, following the oil boom, prices in Azerbaijan went up to European standards, while they almost have no tourism, so from the hotels there exists only the upper, four-star category, with corresponding prices. Add to this the costs of the visa (approx. 70 euro), which I will arrange for all of us, and the flight ticket, which should be about 350 euros from most countries of Europe through Istanbul. Application deadline: 12 July, Sunday at the usual address wang@studiolum.com.


Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan


The Qudiyal river, which is just a thin strip in the middle of a large empty riverbed in Xinaliq, at the top of the Caucasus, becomes much wider fifty kilometers further down, when it arrives at Quba. It is here that the first serious bridge leads over it. Two golden lions enthroned on the two barriers of the bridge indicate that you will reach a special settlement on the other side. This is Qırmızı Qəsəbə, formerly known as Krasnaya Sloboda, that is, Red Town, the largest settlement of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan.


I met Mountain Jews for for the first time seven years ago, in a café of the Tabriz bazaar, where I was listening to the conversation of the waiters. The language was particularly familiar, some Iranian language, but not Persian, and not even Kurdish. “In what language do you speak?” I asked. “Be Juhuri, in Jewish”, they answered. “Come on”, I said, “I know two Jewish languages, but neither of them sounds like this.” “Well, this is then the third one. We, Mountain Jews speak in this language.” And they said that thousands of them live in the mountains of the “other”, northern, Azerbaijan, and farther north, in Dagestan, many more still.

School in the Jewish quarter of Quba, 1920s

The ancestors of the Mountain Jews were deported by the Assyrians after the conquest of the Samarian Kingdom (ca. 740 B.C.), and “settled them in the cities of the Medes” (2Kings 17:3-6), which would soon be occupied by the Persians. When in 539 B.C. the Persian king Cyrus the Great gave permission for the Jews to return home from “Babylonian captivity”, this only applied to those Jews who were deported in 604 B.C. by the Babylonians from Jerusalem. Those who had been deported a hundred and forty years earlier had already been integrated in the empire, and also changed their original language for the local Persian dialect. They became the Ten Lost Tribes, whom researchers in later centuries imagined would be found in the most exorbitant places of the globe, from the Tibetan plateau to South America. In reality, they were settled by the Persian rulers in places where they needed good traders, including the Caucasus, the northern border of the empire, together with the Persian soldiers whose descendants live today in Lahij. The Mountain Jews speak a version of the same archaic Persian language, Tat, enriched with a number of Hebraisms, which they call Juhuri, Jewish.

To this day the Mountain Jews have several villages scattered over the mountainous region of he North Caucasus, and number about fifty thousand people. Their strongest community, however, was in the so-called “Jewish Valley” to the south of Derbent, where between 1630 and 1800 they ran a semi-independent Jewish state. This community was destroyed during the Russian-Persian wars by the local khanates allied to the two great powers, and the refugees resorted for help to Fath Ali Khan, the Persian governor of Quba. The Khan settled then next to Quba, on the other side of the river, and provided them certain privileges, such that the five thousand strong shtetl remains purely Jewish to this day.

Jews of Quba in workday dress, 1883. From “Traditional Women’s clothes in the Caucasus”

At dusk we arrive at the village, we walk along the main street which still bears the name of Fath Ali Khan. It is flanked mainly by traditional houses with overhanging wooden balconies, but, as a sign of prosperity, they are more and more often replaced by marble palaces with traditional Jewish stucco motifs. Old people sit in front of the houses, they stop talking at our sight, all eyes are on us. Instead of salam, usual in Azerbaijan, we greet them with shalom, they smile, and reciprocate. We sit down in a tea house, we linger long over our pot of tea, we hope that one of the men playing cards and dominoes at the neighboring tables would start to talk to us. But the locals are apparently more retincent than the Azeris.

The next day we return at daylight. First we walk around the center, which still has six large synagogues, three of them working. In Soviet times they were rather neglected, but we do not know if the current restoration and enlargement has not caused even more damage. The alleys running down to the river are defined by the many six-pointed stars on the tin roofs, the fences and graffiti, and by the Friday Mosque towering on the other, Muslim side of the river, which can be seen from all the shtetl. The town now seems deserted, only a few people hurry along on their errands. They return our greeting with a friendly nod, but they do not stop to ask us where we come from.


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On one side of the Great Synagogue, there is the Great Patriotic War Memorial, and on the other, the barber’s shop and tea house. It even has clientele on Friday morning, old people playing dominoes at two tables. We ask them who could let us into the synagogue. They phone the president of the community, who cannot come now, but tell us we are very welcome to come to the prayers every morning and evening at half past seven.



The most unusual fact about this shtetl is that it works. Anyone who has seen the deserted houses of the Galician shtetls and the Jewish streets of the Eastern European villages, the closed down synagogues or their empty places, and brought them to life again in the imagination with the characters of Sholem Aleichem, can see here how that world would look, had its inhabitants not disappeared. The traditional Jewish world of the Red Shtetl has only gradually modernized. The town center has been renovated, but they have also built a new mikve, a kosher butcher’s shop, and a community house called “The House of Happiness”, and the facades of the ostentatious palaces built in the places of the old wooden houses are still decorated with the motifs of traditional Jewish iconography.

Friday morning cleaning


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At the end of the town, a dirt road bends up toward the cemetery. Like in most shtetls, the dead have the best view. From the hillside you can see the whole shtetl, the Muslim town on the other side, as well as the distant ridge of the Caucasus, and the Russian border mountain, the Şahdağ. The majority of the tombs from as early as the 1960s have photographs: typical Caucasian faces and costumes, most of them could pass for an Azeri or a Georgian, were they not emblazoned with Hebrew inscriptions and the strange Persian-sounding names written in Cyrillic.


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Descending from the cemetery, we hear wedding music from one of the houses. The hosts, standing in front of the house, politely invite us to take part, to “come in just for ten minutes”. Apart from Juhuri and Russian, the third language is Hebrew, spoken by the relatives visiting back from Israel. Not many have emigrated: although many of them live there, the migration is bidirectional. “Have you not yet been to the synagogue? By seven thirty in the evening, come there by all means.” In the evening we will be already on the top of the world, but it is no problem. It will be much better to realize this exploration in the August tour, in illustrious Jewish company.