This week is a time for costume parties, satirical entertainment, eating delicacies, noisemaking, and even religiously sanctioned drunkenness. This spirit of partying is expressed in the Talmudic dictum that when the Megillah (The Scroll of Esther) is chanted at synagogue “It’s the obligation of each person to be so drunk as not to be able to tell the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman.’
Purim is a happy time for affirming Jewish survival historically. Yet Purim has its dark side, reminding us of times of persecution. The Scroll of Esther, narrates the story of this holiday. In this biblical story, Esther, the beautiful wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus, and her cousin Mordechai outwit the evil prime minister Haman, who had issued an edict to exterminate all the kingdom’s Jews.
This plot represented a serious threat to Jewish existence in history, as the king had approved Haman’s edict. Haman and his cohorts had used a lottery (pur) to select the specific pogrom date.
But the plan was suddenly and miraculously turned on its head when the king was reminded of righteous Mordechai’s past help in averting his own assassination. As a result, Haman and all his supporters were killed, and the Jews were elevated to great power and honor.
Aside from the possible existence of a Persian king resembling Ahasuerus, the Purim narrative lacks historical authenticity. But whether the story happened exactly as described, or that it was an episode involving communal danger and triumph, Iranian Jews made a pilgrimage, throughout the year, but especially on Purim, to a shrine in the ancient city of Ecbatana (Hamadan) where, according to tradition, Esther and Mordechai were buried.
The original shrine’s date of construction is unknown, but the tomb was mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Hamadan in 1067. The historian Ernst Herzfeld believes that the current structure may actually belong to Shushan Dokht (“Daughter of Susa”), the 4th century Jewish queen of King Yazdagerd I.
The entrance to the building is by a stone door and leads to an ante-chamber which contains the graves of several rabbis.
A second door leads to the tomb-chamber, where in the midst stand the two sarcophagi of Esther and Mordechai. They are composed of richly carved dark wood and have a Hebrew inscription along the upper ledge.
The origins and contents of this shrine in Hamadan, in the Kurdish region of Iran, are cloaked in legend and mystery. Next to the mausoleum lies a large hollow in the ground, which Iranian Jews believe to be an entrance to a tunnel that stretches all the way to Jerusalem.
One of the most enjoyable features was added in the 1970s by Jewish-Iranian architect Elias “Yassi” Gabbay, when he restored the shrine. The shah’s regime launched an extravagant celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy, and every minority group in the country was required to participate. He added a subterranean synagogue while retaining much of the original shrine structure and surrounding cemetery, where Hamadan’s Jewish families buried their dead. The synagogue’s roof was built in the shape of a Magen David and it is quite possibly the only Star of David on Earth visible from Space.