Although the threat of a nuclear Iran is currently Israel’s most pressing security issue, there was a time when the Jews of Jerusalem welcomed the invading Persian army as their savior.
The story begins at a turning point in the history of Jerusalem – the first half of the seventh century ce. Jerusalem was still part of the Byzantine Empire, and only Christians were allowed to live in the city. Forty years later, it became part of an Arab empire; Jerusalem’s military governor was a Muslim, but he presided over a mixed population including both Jews and Christians. But between these two points in time, the city was part of the Persian Empire, and for three years it was ruled by a Jewish governor. A spectacular gold hoard recently discovered just beyond the Temple Mount dates from this period, and may well reveal the untold story of Jewish Jerusalem during its fourteen years of Persian occupation.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, the lot of the Jews remaining in Palaestina Prima – the name given to the province by Emperor Hadrian four hundred years earlier to wipe rebellious Judea off the map – was unbearable.
Barred from Jerusalem, they could visit only once a year – on the ninth of Achaemenid Empire, which had stretched from India to Ethiopia. For centuries the Persian Sassanids had battled the Romans for control of the vast area between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean, and now the conflict came to a head. In 602 Khosrau attacked Constantinople.
Next his armies invaded and plundered Syria and Asia Minor; by 608 they’d reached Chalcedon (nowadays a neighborhood of Istanbul). Soon afterward his armies besieged and captured Damascus.