The glistening blade of the knife waved in the air for a brief second before it cut the throat of the lamb. Blood gushed everywhere and stained the perfectly white wool of the lamb and some of the priest’s robe. The animal fell to the floor with a whimper. Nehemiah overlooked the priest’s work as they cut up the lamb and prepared it for the burnt offering. Soon the smoke of the sacrifice raised above the altar. Nehemiah had to pinch himself. It was too good to be true. This was it! An actual burnt offering on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the first time in hundreds of years! They hadn’t actually built a temple yet, but the altar was in place, and a small synagogue was erected. It would do for now. For the first time in centuries, there would actually be a Jewish independent autonomy in Palaestina.
And it was all thanks to the blessed invasion of Iran.
Little did Nehemiah know that his dreams of an autonomous Jewish country in Palaestina would be crushed just a few months later, not to be revived until 1948. He also couldn’t imagine that at the very same moment this sacrifice was being prepared, an obscure Arab man named Muhammed had started preaching a new monotheistic religion in Mecca, which would eventually have extremely long-lasting effects on the history of the very temple mount on which he was standing.
Because this wasn’t the Nehemiah of the Bible, no matter what the resemblance. No, this was Nehemiah ben Hushiel, the year was 614 A.D. and this invasion of Iran was of the Sassanian Empire. Nehemiah ruled Jerusalem for now, but only a few months later he and many other Jews would be murdered by a furious mob of revolting angry Christians who refused to see the resurrection of that cursed Pharisaic religion of the Christ-killers.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
The Shah of Iran, Khosrow II, started yet another war against the Roman Empire in 602 A.D. It was a Roman empire, but wasn’t exactly the ancient pagan Roman Empire. This was the Eastern, Greek-speaking, Christian Roman Empire, ruled from Constantinople. Today, it is known by historians as the Byzantine Empire.
The Sassanians and the Byzantines clashed often, and Israel (or rather, Palaestina) was right in the middle. The Shah Khosrow had forged peace with the Byzantine emperor in 591 A.D., but after 11 years of peace, the emperor was murdered by a rival, and Khosrow went to war to avenge his old friend.
The Iranian empire was neither Christian, Muslim, nor pagan. They were Zoroastrian, and they practiced freedom of religion. Babylonian Jews had been thriving and writing the Talmud for hundreds of years under the Sassanian rulers, and Iran also allowed Christians, Buddhists and Manicheans to freely live and practice their religion.
Throughout the Byzantine Empire, Jews were much more restricted and subject to persecution. Jewish revolts against the Byzantines in Antioch, Tyre, and Acre were violently repressed in 610. For this reason, many Jews in Palaestina yearned for an Iranian invasion and welcomed the aggression from Iran with open arms. In fact, they even formed a Jewish military with some local Samaritans and Arabs to march together with the Iranian army from the Galilee to conquer Jerusalem in 614 A.D.
I know some people claim that today’s Israel Defense Forces is the first organized Jewish army since the Bar Kokhba revolt but they must have forgotten about the 7th century. Because this existed, albeit for a very short time.
For a while, it looked like the temple would be rebuilt, and that the Jews might receive actual autonomy under the Persian rulers. The possibility was closer than it had ever been since 70 A.D., and would never be that close again until 1948.
Jerusalem had been off limits to all Jews, at least since the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 A.D. Now they were finally allowed in Jerusalem! Did the Jewish people seize this opportunity to attack their former Christian overlords, burn their churches and loot their homes? Possibly. Was it as bad as it was described in the Christian sources from that time? Probably not. Was it the Persians or the Jews who, at this point, burned down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and sent the relics to Iran? Hard to tell. But it’s not hard to tell why the Christians were slightly annoyed with the Jews at this point.
As events developed, the Iranian Emperor Khosrow II was not found to be a trustful ally for the Jews and had a history of anti-Jewish policies. Twenty-four years earlier he had put to death the Jewish exilarch – the leader of the Jewish community of Persia and Mesopotamia – and had suspended all forms of Jewish self-governance in his empire. When he needed Jewish support in his war against the Roman Empire, he obtained it by appointing Nehemiah ben Hushiel as the new exilarch, and promised to make him the ruler of Jerusalem. The sacrifices were renewed; the Jews developed hopes about a Third Temple and an autonomy under the new Persian Empire. But would Khosrow keep his promises once he achieved his goals?
Turns out, no.
Nehemiah never saw the Third Temple he had hoped and prayed for. Just a few months after that first sacrifice, the Christian revolt forced all Jews out of Jerusalem again. And Nehemiah was killed.
The Jews fled to the Iranian troops in Caesarea, who went back and attacked Jerusalem again. Once more, Christian narratives tell of a horrible massacre of thousands of Christians, claims which can’t be confirmed or dismissed. This time, however, once Jerusalem was retaken, the Khosrow picked a local Christian priest to be the new ruler over Jerusalem, and he began rebuilding the churches and restoring order. Jews were banned from Jerusalem again, and the synagogue on the Temple Mount was demolished.
From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. until 1948, this occasion was the closest the Jews ever got to an actual independence in the land of Israel, and it was all thanks to the Iranian threat. The Third Temple was almost built! But pressure from Christians inside Iran eventually forced Khosrow to officially side with the Christians against the Jews about Jerusalem.
This didn’t prevent Khosrow, however, from sending this mocking letter to the new Byzantine emperor in 618, after he had also conquered Egypt:
“Khosrow, greatest of Gods, and master of the earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave. Why do you still refuse to submit to our rule, and call yourself a king? Have I not destroyed the Greeks? You say that you trust in your God. Why has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Alexandria? And shall I not also destroy Constantinople? But I will pardon your faults if you submit to me, and come hither with your wife and children; and I will give you lands, vineyards, and olive groves, and look upon you with a kindly aspect. Do not deceive yourself with vain hope in that Christ, who was not able to save himself from the Jews, who killed him by nailing him to a cross. Even if you take refuge in the depths of the sea, I will stretch out my hand and take you, whether you will or no.”
But, alas, he was wrong.
It might have been around this time that Khosrow received a letter from an obscure self-proclaimed Arab prophet named Muhammed.
“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. From Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, to Kisra, the great (leader/head) of the Persians. Peace be upon him, who seeks truth and expresses belief in Allah and in His Prophet and testifies that there is no god but Allah and that He has no partner, and who believes that Muhammad is His servant and Prophet. Under the Command of Allah, I invite you to Him. He has sent me for the guidance of all people so that I may warn them all of His wrath and may present the unbelievers with an ultimatum. Embrace Islam so that you may remain safe (in this life and the next). And if you refuse to accept Islam, you will be responsible for the sins of the Magi.”
Khosrow laughed and tore up the letter: “A pitiful slave among my subjects dares write his name before mine,” he said. When Muhammed heard about it, he prophesied that Allah would destroy Khosrow’s kingdom. This prophecy even made it into the Quran: “The Romans have been defeated. In a land close by; but they will soon be victorious - within a few years. Allah’s is the command before and after; and on that day, the believers shall rejoice.” (Surah 30:2-4).
And indeed, in 622, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius started a huge counteroffensive straight into the heartland of Iran. Both armies suffered heavy losses, and it was clear both were exhausted and needed to stop. After many advances and victories, and a particularly decisive victory at the battle of Nineveh in 627, Heraclius sent a letter to Khosrow:
“I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything.”
Khosrow never had a chance to answer because his army rebelled against him, and his son took over as new Shah, killing his father. He immediately offered the Byzantines peace and returned all the land his father had taken from them, including Palaestina.
The Jews surrendered to Heraclius and asked for his protection. According to some sources, Heraclius agreed, then changed his mind after the Christian population and monks in Jerusalem convinced him that they needed to take revenge on the Jews. According to other sources, he never made such a promise. Whatever the background, the Christians massacred the Jews, decimating the Jewish population of Palaestina.
At the same time, as these mutual massacres took place, with all sides dying and losing, another place grew stronger. Far away in Arabia, that obscure prophet Muhammed had gained more and more power. By this time, he had even established a little empire. In 610, his visions had started, and by the time of the conquest of Jerusalem in 614, he started to preach his new teachings in Mecca.
In the year 620, when the Christians had regained control of Jerusalem under the Persians, Muhammed visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem supernaturally on a flying horse – according to a Muslim legend – without anyone noticing. In 622, when the Byzantine counter-attack against the Persians started, Muhammed fled from Mecca to Medina, marking year 0 on the Muslim calendar.
By 630, only a few years after the final truce between the Sassanians and the Byzantines, Muhammed’s troops conquered Mecca and, within a few years, all of Arabia belonged to Islam. The Arab tribes had never posed a threat to the Middle East before, but now they were united under Islam. Muhammed died in 632, but the Muslim Empire continued their conquering campaign. The invasion of Iran started in 633, and they conquered Jerusalem in 635. The Byzantines and Sassanians were both extremely crippled by the many years of war and became easy prey for the Arab invasion. Jerusalem became Al Quds, Palaestina became Falestiin, and the Middle East would never be the same again.
Full disclosure – some of the stories presented are based on legends and folklore with uncertain historical accuracy.
Tuvia is a Jewish history nerd who lives in Jerusalem and believes in Jesus. He writes articles and stories about Jewish and Christian history. His website is www.tuviapollack.com