Tag Archives: Armenia

Jews of the Week: Shushandukht and Bahram V

Gold Coins Depicting Iranian Shah Bahram V, often referred to as Bahramgur – “Bahram the Hunter”

Shushandukht (c. 380-430 CE) was born in Persia, the daughter of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), a title reserved for the chief rabbi and official leader of the Jews in the diaspora during this time period. Little is known of her early life. She went on to marry the Sasanian king Yazdegerd I, and gave him two sons, Shapur IV and Bahram V (c. 406-438 CE). Yazdegerd and Shapur were assassinated, triggering a brief civil war that ended with Bahram successfully taking the throne. Bahram V went on to reign for nearly two decades as Iran’s Shah. In that time, he held off the advancing Eastern Roman Empire and conquered Armenia. Later, a massive invasion by the feared Huns nearly destroyed his empire. However, he caught the Huns unaware in a surprise night attack, decimating their force, and bringing peace to the entire region. Bahram presided over a period of great Persian wealth. Coins with Bahram’s portrait have been found across Asia. Not surprisingly, Bahram V became one of the most legendary kings in Asian history, and is an important figure not just in Iran, but in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, and even in Islamic literature (despite the fact that the Muslims tried pretty hard to erase pre-Islamic Iranian history). Bahram V is the hero of many ancient Persian legends. One of these was translated into English under the title The Three Princes of Serendip – giving rise to the word “serendipity”. In the famous Persian epic Shahnameh, he is the king that slays two lions with his bare hands. Meanwhile, his mother Shushandukht used her position to assist the Jews of Iran (where the vast majority of the world’s Jews lived at the time). She established large and prosperous Jewish neighbourhoods in Esfahan, Susa, Hamadan, and Shushtar. During this period, the Jewish Exilarch sat on the Shah’s court. Many scholars believe that the ‘Tomb of Esther and Mordechai’ in modern-day Iran is actually the tomb of Shushandukht.

Words of the Week

It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.
– Hippocrates

Tomb of Esther and Mordechai (or Shushandukht) in present-day Hamadan, Iran (Credit: Philippe Chavin)

Jew of the Week: Helena of Adiabene

The Jewish Queen of Armenia 

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

Helena of Adiabene (d. 56 CE) was the Queen of the Persian-Armenian kingdom of Adiabene, a vassal of the Parthian Empire. Essentially nothing is known of her early life. Around 30 CE, after the death of her husband, King Monobaz, she took an interest in Judaism, a little-known religion in her kingdom. After learning with a Jewish merchant named Chananiah, Helena decided to convert. Meanwhile, her son, King Izates, encountered Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee in his royal court and similarly began exploring the wonders of the Torah. Soon, both Helena and Izates, as well as her other son Monobaz II, officially converted to Judaism. In 46-47 CE, Helena traveled to Israel. Witnessing the ongoing famine, she was able to import grain from Egypt and figs from Cyprus to quell the hunger and save countless lives. Helena also commissioned several gifts for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, including a special candlestick that would indicate the appropriate time to recite Shema Israel, a golden plate engraved with Torah passages, and golden handles for all Temple vessels. The palatial sukkah she had built in her homeland was reported to be over 40 feet high! Towards the end of her life, Queen Helena moved to Jerusalem and had a mausoleum built for herself where she was eventually interred. In the 19th century, her grave was discovered by French archaeologists. Meanwhile, her Jerusalem palace was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2007. Among the incredible finds in the palace was a proper mikveh. Ancient historians like Josephus wrote of Helena, and her story is even described in detail in the Talmud. The latter records that Helena was a devout Jewess, spending at least 7 years of her life as a nazirite, a special status of holiness in Judaism that may be loosely compared to a monk or nun. After Helena’s death, her children continued to support the Jewish people, even sending troops to assist Jewish rebels in fighting the Romans during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple. Ultimately, the Romans invaded Adiabene, too, in 115 CE. Within a few short centuries, the kingdom was all but forgotten.

Words of the Week

Disasters go out through the mouth and disease comes in through it. You must be constantly circumspect about what goes in and out of your mouth.
Kaibara Ekiken (author of Samurai manual ‘Yojokun‘)