|Volume VII. No. 11
Shebat 5610 February 1850
Notes on the Jews of Persia Under Mohammed Shah.
Obtained From One of Themselves.
By the Rev. Abraham De Sola.
“Singula quaeque locum teneant sortita decentem.”—Hor. Ars. Poet.
We proceed now to give our notice of Hamadan. This will be somewhat brief; since, for the more satisfactory understanding of the state <<550>>of the Israelites resident in this city, we shall give, elsewhere, as many particulars concerning its present state, as we could obtain. Hamadan (חמדן) in Irac, in the west of Persia, occupies the site of the ancient Ecbatana, the capital of Media Magna, and is situated at the foot of a mountain, between Taurus and Ispahan. Ecbatana, according to Diodorus, was situated at a distance of 12 stadia from Mount Orontes, was as ancient as Babylon, (Semiramis having caused water-courses to be made to it,) and was very little inferior to that city or to Nineveh in magnificence. Its compass was about 24 Italian miles. The book of Judith affirms the walls to be 70 cubits high, 50 cubits broad, and the towers upon the gates 100 cubits higher. “But this is to be understood only of the innermost wall, there being seven in all about it; each of them higher than the other, and each distinguished by the colour of the several pinnacles;”*—from which variety of colours it is thought to have received the name Agbatha or Agbathana, identical with the Achmetha (אחמתא) of Scripture.†
Hamadan is a very ancient city, and in consequence of its being the residence of the Persian kings, was called the Royal City. When attacked by Jenghiz Khan, in 1220, it possessed yet strong walls and a good castle, now in ruins. R. Benjamin de Tudela gives us the following brief notice of Hamadan in the latter part of the twelfth century: “From that mount (Chaphtou) to Hamadan is a journey of ten days; this was the metropolis of Media, and contains <<551>>about fifty thousand Jews.* In front of one of the Synagogues is the sepulchre of Mordecai and Esther.”† With this extract from R. Benjamin, we shall close our notice of Hamadan as it was, and speak of it as it is.
Hamadan—Divisions—Rivers—Jewish and Christian Quarters—Streets—Public Buildings—Prison—Mosques—“Iman Zadah”—Market—Churches—Synagogues—“Beth Hackeneseth Shel Mordecai.”
Hamadan is divided by its inhabitants into five parts; the northern, southern, eastern, western, and central. The northern and southern portions are chiefly laid out in vineyards and pleasure grounds, and are inhabited by Koords [Kurds], the descendants of Ammon and Moab. The Mahometan inhabitants of Hamadan repair hither during their intolerably hot summers. The eastern quarter is exclusively inhabited by the followers of the Koran, who are favoured in this division with three large and beautiful streams, to wit: the Chidekel, believed by the Jewish inhabitants to be identical with that mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis; the Zolah, with its two hundred and fifty mills; and the Krutshai or Dry River. It is so called because its bed during the warm season becomes completely dry; but it is also called the Delu Tshai, the Foolish or Eccentric River, in consequence of its waters doing great mischief during the rainy season. The beautiful view and refreshing coolness afforded by these rivers, render the eastern part of the city the most desirable as well as the most healthy summer residence.
The western part of Hamadan is appropriated to the residence of the unbelievers. The Jewish and Christian quarters are only separated by a brook of running water; the inhabitants, therefore, are easily enabled to combine, as they do, for mutual assistance from robbery and violence. The streets have but an indifferent appearance; their pavements being, for the most part, of small stones awkwardly put together. The inhabitants are obliged to keep them in repair, under penalty of the bastinado. They are also obliged to see that the pavements before their houses are duly swept and watered <<552>>three times a day, under the same penalty. There are Jewish overseers, who make the rounds of the streets to ascertain that this rule has been properly observed in their quarter.
Sewers there are none; but their places are supplied by running brooks, which are common to the streets of Hamadan, and which are very useful for the purposes of cleansing and bathing. These brooks are also carried through orchards and gardens to water them, and then they are taxed. Planted on each side of them are trees, whose shade is most refreshing. It is to the trees that the unfortunate Jews or Christians are tied to receive punishment when they have offended, and, as will be seen hereafter, when they are guiltless of offence. Any one found throwing rubbish in any of the brooks is fined about twenty dollars, and in default of payment receives the bastinado. The streets are not lighted, as few go abroad after dark; there are, however, some naphtha lamps in the city, on the gates of the market, and attached to some other of the public buildings. Water is not found in any of their houses, but there is a fountain common to the inhabitants of each street, called Tshi-la-chanah.
At the extreme west of the city are several Christian villages. Of the public buildings, we shall notice first the one to which we shall hereafter have occasion to refer, and this is the public jail or prison-house. This building consists of four enormous walls, forming a square capable of containing some 20,000 persons. The entrances are through two large gates; there are no windows, and the centre of the roof remains open, discovering, underneath, a court-yard occupying the centre of the prison. Attached to these walls are little cells used by the predecessor of Mahommed Shah, as barracks for his soldiers. The barracks, however, are now removed without the city, to avoid the constant affrays between the military and civilians, between whom a great antipathy exists. The prison cells are very small and confined, and the ceilings so low that the occupants might, by stretching forth their arms, reach them with ease. In the court-yard, just mentioned, there is an immense block of wood, to which are attached heavy iron chains. When a criminal is condemned to death, but his sentence is not to be executed till the following day, he is chained to this block in such a manner that he can move neither feet nor arms. In this posture he must remain from night till morning, in the open court-yard, be the weather what it may. But offenders are seldom confined for any great length of time, the summariness of Persian punishment rendering this unnecessary.
The mosques are very numerous; the largest is called Iman-Zadah, or Sons of the Prophets. It received its name on this account. In a war waged by the Persian Mahometans against the <<553>>Koords, twelve of their prophets or Imams were slain. To their memory they built this extensive mosque with twelve mausoleums. The smaller mosques receive the name Majid. The market, in the centre of the city, is completely walled round; so that a stranger would experience difficulty in finding it unless duly directed. The noise of thousands of voices gives notice of its proximity. Arrived at the walls, the entrance is through seven principal gates, to wit: two east, two (with a door) west, one north, and two south. There are no shops in the city, therefore all must go to the market. In consequence of this regulation, the market contains every description of store; thus, the southern part is appropriated to the sellers of cattle, corn, barley, rice, beans, and the like articles; while the other parts are indiscriminately occupied by the stores of dry goods merchants, saddlers, slipper-makers, tailors, jewelers, blacksmiths, and other artisans. The marketing hours display a scene of indescribable confusion, more especially in the corn and cattle markets; but after midday the latter is entirely deserted.
The Christians’ churches are exceedingly plain, as they are not allowed to build steeples, erect crosses, or to use bells. Accordingly, when the congregations are to be summoned to prayer, a man passes through the streets beating a board with a stick, or he knocks at their gate. At Easter they repair for worship to a very ancient building on a mount, about two hours’ journey from Hamadan.
The next building we have to notice will be the Synagogue. There are eleven Synagogues in Hamadan, four of which are very extensive. The foundation of the largest, which is called “Beth Hackeneseth Hazaken,” or, Old Synagogue, is said to have been laid by Mordecai. it is therefore also called “Beth Hackeneseth shel Mordechai,” or Mordecai’s Synagogue. The Chief Rabbi of Hamadan, R. Eliyahu bar Eliezer Eliyahu, more particularly frequents this Synagogue. His residence is immediately opposite the Synagogue entrance. Behind are three mikvaoth or baths, with running water, the property of the congregation, and free to all the members. There are two entrances to the Synagogue. Its interior presents a striking difference from that of a similar building in Europe or America. There are no galleries nor seats of any description, but the whole congregation are seated on the floor, their shoes having been taken off previous to their entrance, and deposited in a place outside appropriated for them. As regards the absence of seats, there is no difference between Synagogue, church, or mosque.
The only article of furniture in the Synagogue is the Tebah or reading desk, which consists of a sloping platform placed between two pillars reaching from the roof to the ground. At the base of the <<554>>Tebah is a kind of bench for the reader to stand on, sufficiently broad to enable him to make three or four steps backward; on each side of him there is a bench for the wardens;* two of whom stand near him during the time the law is read. The one on his right holds in his hand a silver plate, on which is engraven the Decalogue in Hebrew characters, which is kissed by every one called to read.
The furniture of the rolls of the law is also different from that of European Synagogues. They are suspended in portable boxes, made to open with hinges; and when closed, form very neat, some very elegant cabinets. There are handles outside the case by which the reader rolls the manuscript to whichever side he desires. The cabinets are enveloped with very beautiful cloaks, and have the usual silver bells. The last time the Mahometans spoiled the Jewish quarter, and found these bells in the house of one of the wardens, they returned them, saying, “Yours is the house of God, although you worship Him in it after a strange and wrong manner. Take back the things devoted to his service.” The Hechal or Ark, unlike those of the western Synagogues, consists of a mere niche or hollow in the wall. It has no doors, but a curtain before it. The rolls of the law are deposited in one row upon a very handsome cloth. In the Synagogue of Mordecai, there are, say 150 of these rolls; in the minor Synagogues, the number averages from 80 to 20.
Neither church nor Synagogues may be whitened, or lime-washed exteriorly. On one occasion, the Israelites, desiring to rebuild one of their Synagogues, gave some two hundred dollars (considered a large sum) to induce the Khan to permit them to build it with a white exterior. The Khan took the bribe, but refused the permission. During the reign of Mahommed Shah they were not permitted to build a Synagogue elsewhere but on the site of one of the old ones; and even to do this they would have experienced much difficulty. In the court of the Synagogue of Mordecai stands the Bachur Midrashi, or school for youths, where the higher branches of Hebrew literature are studied. But of this as well of the Jeshiba, or college, we shall speak hereafter. We have first to make some remarks as to the domestic economy of the Persian Israelites.