Reading Megillah in Tehran: How Iranian Jews
Celebrate Purim
As Jews around the world commemorate the rescue of Persian Jewry, how do those who live where the
story took place mark the day?
By Shai Secunda March 13, 2014 12:00 AM
Apart from the easy identification of the relevant biblical verses, the broader meaning of the Purim panel is not given to
easy interpretation. One of the greatest mysteries concerns the group of men in the center of the frame. What is their role
and what might they represent? Hebrew University art historian Sholom Sabar suggests that the toga-clad men represent
Roman authorities who gleefully approve of the debasement of the Iranian authority, Haman, in the scene on the left.
When this is coupled with the report of Jewish pre-emptive assassination of would-be Persian assailants depicted on the
right, a more coherent interpretation emerges: The Jews living in Roman Dura apparently saw in the Purim story a
still-relevant degradation and defeat of the dangerous Persian threat directly across the border.
Closing the ark during morning prayers at Youssef Abad Synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30, 2013. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
Images)
 
The Jewish community of Talmudic Babylonia was not the only one that knew intimately of
contemporary Iranian power and considered the Purim story in that light. A well-preserved
synagogue discovered in 1932 in the Western Syrian garrison town of Dura Europos reflects a
parallel approach that is nevertheless quite different from that of Rava. The third-century C.E.
synagogue contains no fewer than 14 colorful frescos depicting biblical scenes. One of the most
prominently displayed panels is the Purim Triumph, which contains two scenes from the Book of
Esther. On the left side, Mordecai is shown garbed in royal Persian raiment and led on a horse by
Haman, who is dressed as a lowly, Iranian stable boy. This image is apparently a midrashic
embellishment of Esther 6:11. In the middle of the panel, there is a group of four men dressed in
Greco-Roman garb apparently making a hand gesture signifying approval. And on the right, a young
messenger presents a missive to King Ahasuerus with Esther and some attendants close by. Given
the triumphant context, the letter is probably a report of the number of attackers killed by the Jews,
which was sent to the royal court (Esther 9:11).
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Happy Purim to All  !
Tomb of Esther & Mordecai
located in Hamedan, Iran
This is actually not the end of the story of Purim and Persians at Dura. Fascinatingly, the Purim fresco contains a brief
Persian inscription marking an unexplained visit by two Sasanian officials to “this place of worship of the God of gods of the
Jews” in 255 C.E. According to a recent reconstruction by University of California professor Touraj Daryaee, the brief text
recounts how the officials “saw this painting … and liked” it. It is tantalizing to imagine how the Persian dignitaries were
drawn to this vivid depiction of an Achamenid ruler, and how synagogue officials would have had to scramble to provide a
positive spin on the scene. In any case, the whole affair was swiftly put to a rest; within a year, the Sasanian army overtook
Dura. The settlement lay virtually untouched until it was rediscovered by archeologists less than a century ago.

I recounted some of this history to the Iranian rabbi I spoke to, hoping to cut through some of the banality of Purim, as I
saw it, in today’s Islamic Republic. I repeated my questions: “Are you sure that Iranian officials took no real interest in a
holiday with violent depictions of Persian-Jewish tensions? Were you never concerned about publicly announcing Megillah-
reading times?” Apparently, I was fishing for a story that was not to be found. Without skipping a beat, the rabbi responded
to my question by making a point of his own: “I don’t understand. The Purim story is not about a Persian threat against the
Jews. It is about what happens when a non-Iranian character like Haman the Aggagite infiltrates a ruling Iranian
government and tries to turn everything upside down.” Indeed. Every generation and its seekers. Every generation and its
interpreters.
Jewish Celebration of PURIM and deliverance in the Persian Empire
Purim (Hebrew) is a festival that commemorates the
deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian
Empire from Haman's plot to annihilate them, as recorded in
the Biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). According to the
story, Haman cast lots to determine the day upon which to
exterminate the Jews. Purim is celebrated annually according
to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month
of Adar (Adar II in leap years), the day following the victory of the
Jews over their enemies; as with all Jewish holidays, Purim
begins at sundown on the previous secular day.
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