ISFAHAN , city in Iran on the route from Teheran to the Persian Gulf. The origin of the Jewish settlement in Isfahan, one of the oldest in Persia, has been ascribed by Pehlevi, Armenian, and Muslim sources to various early historical periods. Though not mentioned in the Talmud, the city's Jewish community is first recorded in the time of the Sassanid ruler Frūz (472 c.e.) who, according to Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī, put to death half the Jewish population in Isfahan on a charge of killing two Magian priests. When the Arabs conquered Persia (641), they found a strong Jewish community in Isfahan. The Arab chronicler Abu Nuʿaym reported that at that time the Jews were celebrating, dancing, and playing music in expectation of a "Jewish king." Under the caliphate, the Jewish quarter in Isfahan, known as Jayy, had grown to such a degree in number and size that Arab and Persian geographers called it al-Yahūdiyya, "the city of the Jews." Isfahan was the birthplace of the first Jewish sectarian movement, led by *Abu 'Isā of Isfahan, in the time of the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (685–705). Abu ʿIsā, claiming to be a messiah and a religious reformer, gained a considerable following among the Jews of Isfahan and other places and it is reported that his followers, known as "Isavis" or "Isfahanis," still existed in Isfahan in the tenth century.
*Maimonides mentioned the Jews in Isfahan in his Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to Yemen); the city was regarded as a center of Hebrew grammar and exegesis. About 1166 *Benjamin of Tudela estimates their number at 15,000 and also mentions the chief rabbi Sar Shalom, who had been appointed by the exilarch of Baghdad, with authority over all the communities of Persia. When the Safavid dynasty made Isfahan its capital (1598), the Jews prospered economically and were engaged as craftsmen, artisans, and merchants in drugs, spices, antiquities, jewelry, and textiles. They suffered greatly when the persecution and forced conversion, initiated under Shah *Abbas i and renewed under Shah *Abbas ii, swept throughout the Jewish communities of Persia in the 17th century. Their sufferings were described in the Judeo-Persian chronicles of *Babai ibn Lutf and *Babai ibn Farḥad, and by Carmelite, Jesuit, and other eyewitnesses.
Religious life in Isfahan had a rigid traditional rabbinical basis, with the Sabbath and dietary laws strictly enforced. There existed several synagogues, schools, and other communal institutions, and the community was well organized. A *Karaite group also existed there. On the instructions of *Nādir Shah (d. 1747), the Isfahani Jew Bābā ibn Nuriel translated the Psalms and the Pentateuch into Persian in 1740. Bible manuscripts in Judeo-Persian were found in Isfahan at the beginning of the 17th century by the Italian scholar and traveler G. Vechietti, who cooperated with Jewish scholars there in the transliteration of Judeo-Persian manuscripts.
With the advent of the Qājār dynasty (1794–1925) and the transfer of the capital to *Teheran, Isfahan and its Jewish population lost much of its cultural and political prominence. European travelers of the 19th century, such as *David d'Beth Hillel (1828), *Benjamin ii (1850), and E. *Neumark (1884), estimated the number of Jews in Isfahan at between 300 and 400 families. Jewish cultural life in Isfahan was threatened by the activities of the *Bahai movement and the Christian missionary societies, who, exploiting the plight of the Jews, began to work in the Jewish ghettos and established a missionary school in Isfahan in 1889. These inroads were counteracted in 1901 by the establishment of a Jewish school in Isfahan by the *Alliance Israélite Universelle. Isfahan is the seat of some revered "holy places," especially the alleged burial place of Serah bat Asher b. Jacob (granddaughter of the patriarch mentioned in Num. 26:46), situated in the vicinity of Pir Bakran, 20 miles (30 km.) south of Isfahan and a popular place of pilgrimage for all Isfahan Jews, who bury their dead there, with an inscription dated 1133 c.e.
[Walter Joseph Fischel /
Amnon Netzer (2nd ed.)]
Of the 10,000–12,000 Jews who lived in Isfahan in 1948, about 2,500 remained in 1968. Many had settled in Israel, while others moved to Teheran. According to the census of 1956, Isfahan was the third-largest Jewish community in Iran, after Teheran and Shiraz. The number of synagogues had dropped from 18 to 13 by 1961. Most Jews were poor peddlers; in 1952 it was estimated that only 1% lived in reasonable circumstances, while 80% were poverty-stricken, and the rest lived on the verge of poverty. Most of the poorest left for Israel. In 1968 the town had an Alliance Israélite Universelle school with high school classes, and schools run by *ort and *Oẓar ha-Torah. In 1961, 150 pupils attended Jewish high school; 897 attended elementary school; other children attended government schools, while there were about 50 Jews at Isfahan University. However, even in 1967 many Jewish children did not attend any educational institution. In 1968 Isfahan had a branch of the Iranian Jewish Women's Organization and of the Zionist youth organization He-Ḥalutz, founded before 1948. At the beginning of the Islamic regime in Iran (1979) there were an estimated 3,000 Jews in Isfahan, reduced to 1,500 by the end of the 20th century.
W. Bacher, "Un épisode de l'histoire des Juifs de Perse," in: rej, 47 (1903), 262–82; idem, "Les Juifs de Perse aux xviie et xviiie siècles daprès les chroniques poétiques de Babai b. Loutf et de Babai b. Farhad," in: rej, 51 (1906), 121–36, 265–79; 52 (1906), 77–97, 234–71; 53 (1907), 85–110; F. Baer, "Eine juedische Messiasprophetie auf das Jahr 1186 und der 3. Kreuzzug," in: mgwj, 50 (1926), 155ff; W.J. Fischel, "Isfahan: The Story of a Jewish Community in Persia," in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 111–28; V.B. Moreen, Iranian Jewry's Hour of Peril and Heroism (1987), index; A. Netzer, " Redifot u-Shemadot be-Toledot Yehudei Iran be-Me'ah ha-17," in: Pe'amim, 6 (1980), 32–56; P. Schwarz, Iran im Mittelalter nach den arabischen Geographer (1969), 582ff, esp. p. 586; M. Seligsohn, "Quatre poésies judéo-persanes sur les persécutions des juifs d'Ispahan," in: Revue des études juives, 44 (1902), 87–103, 244–259; E. Spicehandler, "The Persecution of the Jews of Isfahan under Shah 'Abbas ii (1642–1666)," in: Hebrew Union College Annual, 46 (1975), 331–356; G. Widengren, "The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire," in: Iranica Antiqua, 1 (1961), 117–162.
[Hayyim J. Cohen /
Amnon Netzer (2nd ed.)]
Former capital of Iran and major industrial center.
Isfahan is located in west central Iran along both banks of the Zayandeh River. Its origins date back to the Achaemenid era (c. 550–330 b.c.e.), but it did not emerge as an important city until 1150, when Toghril Beg, founder of the Seljuk dynasty, chose it as his capital. The city's golden age coincided with its status as the capital of the Safavi dynasty (1598–1722). Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) and several of his successors embellished the city with bridges, mosques, madrasehs, and palaces, many of which are extant and are considered among the finest examples of Islamic architecture. In 1722, an army of invading Afghans besieged Isfahan for several months before finally capturing and looting it and deposing the shah. These events ushered in more than two decades of steady economic and political decline interspersed with several brutal massacres of prominent citizens of the city.
Isfahan at the beginning of the nineteenth century was no longer a major city; it had ceased to be Iran's capital, and its population was only 25 percent of what it had been during the height of Safavi power. Its role as a regional commercial center recovered during the reign of Nasir ed-Din Shah Qajar (1848–1896). In the 1920s entrepreneurs began developing modern factories, especially textile mills, which by the early 1960s employed nearly 20,000 workers and produced one-half of Iran's total output of textiles. The renewed prosperity stimulated greater and more diversified industrialization, and the city became the center of the country's steel industry during the 1970s. Isfahan has experienced considerable immigration, growing at an average annual rate of 4 percent during the last seventy years of the twentieth century. In the 1996 census, its population had reached 1,266,000, making it the third-largest city in Iran. The city also remains the country's premier tourist center, drawing thousands to see such famous Safavi-era architectural landmarks as the Meydan-e Imam, Masjid-e Imam, Masjid-e Shaykh Lotfollah, and the covered bazaar.
Fisher, W. B. "Physical Geography." In The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 1: The Land of Iran, edited by W. B. Fisher. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
updated by eric hooglund