Pax Persica

When recently visiting Esfahan, I found in the old city a site which is known as Isaiah’s tomb. It is located in the small complex of the Emamzadeh Esma’il on the Kh. Hatef in the Yazdi quarter, the former Jewish quarter. The complex consists of buildings and a courtyard similar to the famous Darb-i Imam in the Dardasht quarter of Old Esfahan. The mausoleum and holy shrine of Ismail, the grandson of the second Imam Hasan, is a later addition of the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas. The complex was expanded continuously till the 18th century.

A very prominent Turkmen brick dome and a truncated Seljuq minaret belong to the undated Isaiah mosque. It is considered the oldest big mosque in Esfahan, and it is said that the mortal remains of the Prophet Isaiah have been found in its ruins [1]. Another legend tells that Jews, after having been freed from Babylonian Captivity by Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, found a new refuge at the Zayandeh River in Central Persia where they settled and founded the city of Esfahan [2].


Biblical studies tell that the book of Isaiah has at least three authors. While Deutero-Isaiah mentions Cyrus II [3] who reigned 559-529 BCE, Trito-Isaiah, the third author (Isa 56-66), is typically assigned to the Persian period. Although not really confirmed by scientific research, one might assume an author who has lived around 500 BCE. Especially the central part of the chapter (Isa 60-62) seems to be the nucleus around which the rest of the collection conglomerated. The influence of the Achaemenid Empire on Jewish post-exile life in the marginal province of Yehud, their society and culture has found its way to Jewish scriptures, i.e., the books of the postexilic prophets.

The Apadana Reliefs

An amazing piece of speculation [4] about the impact of Achaemenid power as described, for example, in the static, almost unhistorical Apadana reliefs in Persepolis [5], or on the inscriptions and reliefs from Darius’ tomb in Naqsh-e Rostam on the vassal states in the Empire’s periphery [6] relates to Isaiah 60 [7]: A joyous cooperation in a ‘world under control’. It can be assumed that Jerusalem is addressed. But especially the solar imagery of Yaweh in Isa 60:1-3 and 19-20 strongly reminds of the portrait of Ahuramazda in the Apadana reliefs and elsewhere as a winged sun-disk.

Even more convincing might be the procession of tribute paying foreigners in Isa 60, in fact unforcefully offering gold and frankincense, even camels and sheep, which closely matches with details in reliefs from Persepolis. The naming the various nations in Isa 60 (Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth, Tarshish, Lebanon) strikingly parallels the list, for example, on Darius’ tomb in Naqsh-e Rostam and respective representations of different ethnicities in the Apadana reliefs. Tribute is paid to Yaweh here while the foreigners in Persepolis come to be presented to the king. But, as Strawn points out, the Persian King has to be considered in fact divine. Another analogy might be the garden imagery in Isa 13, 21 and the Persian paradeisoi.

Pax Persica

Thus, Trito-Isaiah seems to utilize very characteristic Persian text- and art-forms. In its abstract and even unhistorical theology, it might indeed reflect the fact that the well-established pax Persica of the Achaemenids has become a pax Jerusalem, as Strawn stresses.

Is it possible that Trito-Isaiah has visited or heard about Persepolis? While Strawn actually locates him in Jerusalem, there is this legend of a tomb in Esfahan. About 25 kilometers southeast to Esfahan further remarkable evidence for millennia-old Jewish life in Iran can be found in the small village of Linjan/Pir Bakran. The ancient Jewish cemetery is said to be at least 2000 years old. Pilgrims in particular visit the tomb of Sarah bat Asher, daughter of the son of the Patriarch Jacob. As burning candles proved, the small synagogue was still active when I visited the site in late 2007.


[1] According to Sylvia A. Matheson’s excellent archeological guide to Persia (1976), the first mosque dates back to the times of Imam Ali (d. 21st Ramadan, 40 AH).

[2] It has to be mentioned here that the Jewish population in Iran has unfortunately decreased after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to now less than 40’000.

[3] Isa 45:1 (Deutero-Isaiah) considers Cyrus II even as a messiah who had been sent by Yaweh.

[4] Strawn BA. “A World under Control”: Isaiah 60 and the Apadana reliefs from Persepolis. In Berquist JL (ed.) Approaching Yehud. New Approaches to the Study of the Persian Period. Brill, Leiden 2008

[5] Darius I, who ruled between 522 and 486 BCE, moved the Achaemenid capital from Pasargadae to Persepolis. The oldest buildings are dated around 515 BCE. His son Xerxes largely expanded the huge city and finished much of the work.  “It can be suggested that the ultimate goal of both the architecture and the decoration of Persepolis was to present to the world the concept of a Pax Persica – a harmonious, peaceful empire ruled by a king who contained within his person and his office the welfare of the empire.” … “ Characteristic of these reliefs is that they are entirely unhistorical: they tell no developing story, as did many reliefs of the Assyrians and the Egyptians. Instead they give a static picture of something that is already done, that already exists, that is accomplished (tribute brought, monsters slain, fire honored, dignitaries received). More important, the king is everywhere and is the focus, in one way or another, of almost all the reliefs. Yet this king is not an individual; there are no portraits of Darius, Xerxes, or Artaxerxes. Instead they project a dynastic image of the glory and concept of kingship, rather than a realistic depiction of a particular king. Thus the whole of even a complex composition such as the great reliefs on the stairways of the Apadana present a planned, spiritual, abstract, and almost cosmic composition of static totality.” (Young T Cuyler, Jr. Persepolis. Anchor Bible Dictionary 5: 236, cited in [4].)

[6] There Darius lists the names of the countries (Yehud is not mentioned) he had seized, by the favor of Ahuramazda. He points to the throne-carriers sculptured in Persepolis who, effortless and in the ‘Atlas pose’ represent an almost joyful support of the Emperor.

[7] Isaiah 60

1 Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has shone upon you.

2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and a gross darkness the kingdoms, and the Lord shall shine upon you, and His glory shall appear over you.

3 And nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine.

4 Lift up your eyes all around and see, they all have gathered, they have come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be raised on [their] side.

5 Then you shall see and be radiant, and your heart shall be startled and become enlarged, for the abundance of the west shall be turned over to you, the wealth of the nations that will come to you.

6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah, all of them shall come from Sheba; gold and frankincense they shall carry, and the praises of the Lord they shall report.

7 All the sheep of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall serve you; they shall be offered up with acceptance upon My altar, and I will glorify My glorious house.

8 Who are these that fly like a cloud and like doves to their cotes?

9 For the isles will hope for Me, and the ships of Tarshish [as] in the beginning, to bring your sons from afar, their silver and their gold with them, in the name of the Lord your God and for the Holy One of Israel, for He has glorified you.

10 And foreigners shall build your walls, and their kings shall serve you, for in My wrath I struck you, and in My grace have I had mercy on you.

11 And they shall open your gates always; day and night they shall not be closed, to bring to you the wealth of the nations and their kings in procession.

12 For the nation and the kingdom that shall not serve you shall perish, and the nations shall be destroyed.

13 The glory of the Lebanon shall come to you, box trees, firs, and cypresses together, to glorify the place of My sanctuary, and the place of My feet I will honor.

14 And the children of your oppressors shall go to you bent over, and those who despised you shall prostrate themselves at the soles of your feet, and they shall call you ‘the city of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.’

15 Instead of your being forsaken and hated without a passerby, I will make you an everlasting pride, the joy of every generation.

16 And you shall suck the milk of nations and the breast of kings you shall suck, and you shall know that I am the Lord, your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

17 Instead of the copper I will bring gold, and instead of the iron I will bring silver, and instead of the wood, copper, and instead of the stones, iron, and I will make your officers peace and your rulers righteousness.

18 Violence shall no longer be heard in your land, neither robbery nor destruction within your borders, and you shall call salvation your walls and your gates praise.

19 You shall no longer have the sun for light by day, and for brightness, the moon shall not give you light, but the Lord shall be to you for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.

20 Your sun shall no longer set, neither shall your moon be gathered in, for the Lord shall be to you for an everlasting light, and the days of your mourning shall be completed.

21 And your people, all of them righteous, shall inherit the land forever, a scion of My planting, the work of My hands in which I will glory.

22 The smallest shall become a thousand and the least a mighty nation; I am the Lord, in its time I will hasten it.

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2 Responses to Pax Persica

  1. Fahad says:

    Some pictures taken on my tours through Esfahan’s Old City and to Linjan in November 2007 can be seen here:

  2. Pingback: Netanyahu’s Jerusalem « Freelance

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