Tomb of Esther and Mordechai
Among the historical attractions of Hamedan, there is a tomb which is also an important pilgrimage site for Jewish people in Iran. They believe that the site houses the bodies of Queen Esther and her cousin, Mordecai. It is in Shariati street in Hamedan and people who practice this religion visit it each year, especially during the holiday of Purim. Let’s explore the tomb and the history behind it to gain a deeper perspective on this tourist site.
According to the historians, Esther was a Jewish woman who married Persian King Ahasuerus (known as Xerxes I) and became the queen. Her original name was Hadassah, but because of her beauty, she was known as Esther. Esther refers to the name of the Mesopotamian goddess, Ishtar, and also the Persian name Stara, meaning “star”. Her charm caught the eye of the oriental emperor and he married her when his wife, Vashti, refused to obey him. Esther is the biblical queen of the Persia and her story is the basis of the holiday of Purim.
In Jewish tradition, the holiday of Purim commemorates the saving of the Jewish community from Haman. Haman was an Achaemenid Persian Empire official who gets offended by Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai. That’s when he convinces the king to permit him to kill all the Jewish people who lived in his kingdom. But, Esther advocates for her people and saves them by persuading Xerxes I to let them live and kill their enemies. Purim is, in fact, the celebration of the day that the annihilation plan was reversed to the Jews killing their enemies.
Each year in March or April (the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar) Jewish people celebrate Purim. As mentioned before, the reason for holding the Purim ceremony is to memorialize the defeat of Haman’s plot. As recorded in the book of Esther it was to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day,”. In ancient Persian Purim means “lots”.
In this day, Jewish people read the book of Esther, which retells the story of the Purim miracle. They read the book out loud twice: once in the evening and again, in the following morning. Giving money to at least 2 poor people and sending two different types of foods to one person are other customs of this day. They also drink wine or other intoxicating beverages to celebrate Purim. Hamantaschen (or Oznay Haman) is the traditional food eaten on this holiday. It is, in fact, a three-cornered pastry with a sweet filling. Jewish people fast the day before the celebration to remember Esther’s fasting and pray to God.
There are many controversial discussions around the origins and contents of this shrine. It is still not clear that the tomb of Mordechai and Esther is the actual site where they were buried. The mystery of this tomb will remain unsolvable, as this theory is not supported by the Jews outside of Persia. It is believed that Esther and Mordecai spent the last years of their life in Hamedan and were buried in front of a synagogue. Hamedan was the summer capital of the Achaemenid Empire at that time and 50,000 Jewish were living in this ancient city.
The original date of the construction of the tomb is still unknown. But, its destruction by Mongol invaders occurred in the 14th century. Famous historian, Herzfeld, claims that the current tomb dates back to 1602 CE. He believes that Shushan Dokht, the Jewish queen of King Yazdegerd I ordered the construction of this new structure. Anyhow, the tomb is of historical significance to Iranian Jews and they have honored it for at least eight centuries.
The traditional Persian architectural style of the shrine resembles Emamzadeh. It is, in fact, the shrine of Muslim religious leaders. The current structure has two inner and outer chambers. There is a 15 meters high dome covering these two chambers. Before, this dome was decorated with blue tiles, a very common decoration of that era. But, most of these tiles have fallen today and don’t exist anymore.
In 1971, the tomb was renovated. Before that, it was surrounded by houses in a crowded part of Hamedan and was not accessible from the main street. During the process of renovation, the neighboring houses were purchased. A new courtyard along with a partially-underground synagogue chapel were also added to the complex. You can see the graves of a few notable Jewish figures in the outer chamber of the tomb.
The huge front door of the complex, which is a piece of granite with a hidden lock is also worth mentioning. To force the visitors to curtsy as they enter the shrine, the door is shorter than normal. Today, this tomb is the most significant pilgrimage site among the Jewish community of Iran.