THE PERSIAN CAPTURE OF JERUSALEM

In the fateful year 614 the armies of the Sassanian king Khosroes II set up siege towers outside Jerusalem, breached its walls, and invaded the city. With due allowance for the partisan and rhetorical exaggeration in our sources, it is safe to say that this invasion was the most devastating event to befall this ancient and holy city since the Roman forces had brought to an end the rebellion of Bar Kokhba in 135 and expelled the Jewish population. The Persians had made their way to Jerusalem after assaulting Syrian Antioch and moving southwards by way of Caesarea-on-the-sea. Apart from marauding monks, Samaritan uprisings, a minor disturbance under the Caesar Gallus, and the indeterminate mischief wrought by the apostate Julian, Palestine had not seen such violence or devastation for well over four centuries. Although the Christian population grew in number over this period, the region had been generally hospitable to indigenous Jews, who flourished particularly in the Galilee and nourished an increasingly large cadre of rabbinical scholars. Traditional local pagan cults continued to flourish along with traditional Hellenism, which had in late antiquity led to the widespread designation of pagans simply as Hellenes. The invasion of the Sassanian Persians delivered a shattering jolt to this world after so many centuries and, in retrospect, foreshadowed another great invasion just over two decades later. The relation between the Persian capture of Jerusalem in 614 and the Muslim seizure of the city in 638 has nourished endless scholarly and homiletic debate. We have finally reached a point at which once-fashionable dogmas have spectacularly dissolved one after another.

It will no longer do to claim that the Persian devastation left the region so physically, economically, and spiritually ruined that it was inevitably receptive to the armies of the Prophet, nor will it do to claim that the Muslims wiped out the vestiges of the old symbiosis of Jews, Christians, and pagans. What happened between 614 and 638 was undoubtedly traumatic, but the wounds that Jerusalem and Palestine suffered were by no means mortal. It has gradually become apparent that the cultural, economic, and religious landscape did not look very much different after 638 from what it had done before 614. The religious and ideological impulses behind the momentous upheavals of that period spawned such varied and often contradictory narratives of what had just happened that only the most arduous exercise of historical source criticism and archaeology can make sense of it all. And everyone knows that historical source criticism and archaeology have not always been the most congenial or accommodating allies.

The Persian arrival in Jerusalem had its ultimate origin in the murder of the Byzantine emperor Maurice in 602 through the intrigue of the usurper Phocas. The king of Persia, Khosroes II, had owed his throne to the favorable intercession of Maurice at a difficult time, and so when Maurice was removed by a usurper, Khosroes rightly saw an opportunity to avenge his benefactor’s death by taking advantage of the new weakness of the Byzantine Empire. He began a formidable campaign of aggression that constituted the greatest incursion of Persian forces into Syria, Asia Minor, and Palestine since the conquests of Shapur I in the third century. The dormant hostility of the Sassanians, which Maurice had successfully used to his own advantage, now became terrifyingly active. This initiative not only opened the way for the removal of Phocas by the exceptionally astute Heraclius in 610. It also brought the two empires into direct conflict under the personal leadership of their emperors. In 613, Khosroes inflicted a crushing defeat upon Heraclius in Asia Minor. He subsequently moved on into Syrian Antioch, which had barely recovered from the devastation of a Persian sack of the city in 540. The taking of Antioch was an ominous prelude to the taking of Jerusalem in the following year.

Up to the moment of Maurice’s death, the Sassanian Empire, which had long been Byzantium’s rival in the Near and Middle East, had been quiescent during the aggressive expansionism of Justinian, and the two empires had pursued their interests obliquely by supporting client tribes such as the Jafnids (or Ghassānids) in Syria and the Naṣrids (or Lakhmids) in the south. In the Arabian peninsula the Persians had, as we have seen, brilliantly exploited the ambitions of the Arab converts to Judaism in Ḥimyar. With the rise of a strong king in Ethiopia who promoted an irredentist claim to recover former Ethiopian dominions in Arabia, the Christian negus in Axum was able to further his ambitions by coming to the aid of Christians across the Red Sea when they were suffering a cruel persecution at the hands of the Jewish Ḥimyarites. We have seen in the previous lecture that this gave the Persians an opportunity to reassert their support of the Jews in opposition to the Christians, whose final operations in the Arabian peninsula had received explicit encouragement from the Byzantine emperor. The Chalcedonian beliefs of the New Rome did not at all stand in the way of using the monophysite Ethiopians as a buffer against the Persians, who were more worried about the Byzantine state than its doctrinal position. The Nestorian Christians in the Sassanian realm were rarely a pawn in sixth-century power politics. But Sassanian support of the Jews served as a banner of anti-Byzantine policy. It was only to be expected that when the Ethiopian Abraha, whom Axum had duly installed as its Christian ruler in Ḥimyar, lost his grip and fell from power, he was soon replaced by a Persian client, who remained there throughout the last decades of the sixth century.

By the time that the army of Khosroes stood outside the walls of Jerusalem, it could hardly have been a secret that Jews had every reason to expect the support of the invaders. Persian sympathy for Jews in the Arabian peninsula was firmly on record, and it is likely that Jewish Ḥimyarites in Palestine, such as those whose tombs have been found at Bet She’arim, would have been well aware of what their co-religionists owed to the Persians. Not far from Jerusalem itself, the recently discovered epitaph for a certain Leah points to an even closer link to the holy city. It has a bilingual text, starting with a quotation from Daniel, in mixed Aramaic and Hebrew and, below it, a text in South Arabian Sabaic.

It is clear from two surviving texts that were composed within a few decades of 614 that the Jews were not disappointed in any hopes they may have placed in the Persian invaders, and that the Jews in Jerusalem, for their part, did what they could to support the Persian presence. Despite the ancient history of the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews had had a long presence in Mesopotamia, and we should not be altogether surprised that the Jews in Jerusalem in 614 cooperated willingly with the Persian invaders.

If we can find some kind of historical explanation for the role of Jews during the capture of Jerusalem in 614, even after discounting the tendentiousness of the story of the reservoir as narrated by Strategios, we are still left with a wealth of topographical details about mass burials and devastated churches, and these details have long colored modern accounts of the capture of the city. The numbers of the Christian dead are given in the tens of thousands, which is intrinsically improbable. The Nea Church of the Theotokos, the Church of Holy Zion, the Church of the Probatica, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as churches on the Mount of Olives, figure prominently in modern accounts. Many of these sites appear, with an appeal to archaeological remains, in Ben Isaac’s comprehensive introduction to Jerusalem’s history at the beginning of the first volume of the recently published Corpus of inscriptions of Judaea and Palestine. But we now owe to Gideon Avni a thorough and definitive report on the archaeological evidence both for mass burials and the destruction of churches. With the data and support supplied by many of his colleagues, he makes a powerful case against the historical value of much of Strategios’ evidence, without, as in Strategios’ comments on the Jews, rejecting it altogether.

Avni observes that a certain Thomas, according to Strategios, organized the burial of the Christian dead in Jerusalem in thirty-five different locations. Although some of these locations can be correlated with known sites, overall careful archaeological examination of the stratigraphy either shows no evidence for destruction layers at the time of the Persian invasion or lacks ceramic materials that might be used to date any burnt layers. As for actual burials, only seven sites of Byzantine date have been discovered, and these are all outside the Old City. The one secure correlation with the information in Strategios occurs in the case of a rock-cut cave in Mamilla, some 120 meters west of the Jaffa Gate. Strategios states that masses of Christians assembled in the Mamilla pool were massacred, and that the pious Thomas removed their corpses to a nearby cave. The cave that has been excavated at Mamilla proved to be full of human bones, and a small chapel in front of it was decorated with Christian symbols, including three crosses. Anthropological analysis of the bones has suggested that most of the hundreds of skeletons in the cave were the remains of young persons, with women outnumbering men. Avni writes, “All this suggests that the deceased met a sudden death.”

In the Mamilla cave, as well as in the six other mass burials of the same period, the method of burial, as Avni has stressed, is very different from other Byzantine burials in Jerusalem. These normally were in spaces devoted to a family or in crypts within the grounds of a monastery. So the seven mass burials are indeed exceptional, indicating a hasty removal of corpses and reasonably pointing to the time of the Persian invasion. But, with that said, it is clear that the number of deaths and sepulchres is far less than Strategios has described, and this encourages skepticism about his reports of the devastation of buildings, especially churches. Despite previous archaeological claims of evidence for this devastation, Avni stresses that the interpretations were inaccurate because there was no reasonable ceramic classification to provide a credible chronology. The recent and extensive analysis carried out by Jodi Magness now reveals a remarkable continuity of pottery types, as well as coins, that has suggested to many historians in recent years an uninterrupted occupation across and beyond the Persian conquest, as well the Islamic.

Robert Schick has emphasized in his invaluable work on the Christian communities of Palestine that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is often said to have been set on fire and seriously damaged, providing an opportunity for the holy Modestus to make major repairs with the help of donations from the pious. But we now know that there was no significant damage to the Church in the early seventh century, nor were there any substantial repairs or renovations. Thanks to Leah Di Segni’s acute analysis of monograms inscribed on the Byzantine capitals of the Church, we learn that the emperor Maurice installed the capitals during repairs at the end of the sixth century. These were left untouched by the Persian invaders. Similarly, Avni has demolished the archaeological conclusions, on which Ben Isaac had relied, for the destruction at the Church of Holy Zion as well as Eleona and Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

It will always be possible that whatever damage the Persians did in Jerusalem was so rapidly repaired that no traces remained, but the odds are against this when such a partisan source as Strategios can be convicted of exaggeration and error in both his numbers of the dead and the location of mass burials. But recent excavations on the northwest side of the City of David hill provide an instructive modification of this conclusion. A horde of 264 mint-condition gold coins has been discovered in what seems to have been an administrative building. These coins are unique, representing a hitherto unknown variant of Heraclius’ coinage as it appears between 610 and 613. The 264 unexampled coins, all including a particularly egregious error in which the first letter of Heraclius’ name appears as an A rather than an H, look to excavators, with good reason, as if they were struck locally in a temporary mint in Jerusalem that was set up to provide cash for the Byzantine occupation force. If so, the horde represents a desperate effort to salvage the money when the building itself was destroyed, as it seems to have been. Because the date would evidently be soon after 613, we may well have in this new discovery a trace of the Persian invasion in 614, but if so, this was clearly not a violation of a sacred building. The scholars who have published this new horde ask whether the coins could have come from a Byzantine treasury used for paying troops, and that, of course, may be precisely why the Persians might have wanted to break up the building. Holy places and sectarian struggles do not seem, however, to have had any part in the Persian action at the site, and to that extent the new excavations, while documenting destruction in 614, in no way alter the picture that archaeologists have constructed in the last few years for Jerusalem’s tombs and churches.

In fact, the picture that has now emerged of the holy city after the Persians moved on into Egypt bears a startling resemblance to the one that Clive Foss sketched nearly a decade ago for all the places through which the armies of Khosroes II passed after the usurpation of Phocas. It had become commonplace to assume, as Kondakov and Vasiliev had done long ago, that the Persian invasion wiped out the civilization of the region, as well as its agriculture, its cities, and its trade. This apocalyptic vision has not only informed subsequent scholarship but has led archaeologists to interpret their data in accordance with it. It dominated the fundamental study of Scythopolis by Gideon Foerster and Yoram Tsafrir in 1997. The devastation of the Persian invasion seemed to many to have facilitated the early Islamic conquests.

While acknowledging that the various fragmentary chronicles upon which historians are obliged to rely often suggest that Persian rule “was a disaster for the local populations, featuring bloodshed and extraordinary exactions,” Foss meticulously documented the systematic retention of local administrative structures by the Persians and the modest scope of their more violent acts, usually in response to resistance. In Armenia, for example, after an initial deportation of the citizens of Theodosiopolis, the Persians secured the city to such an extent that a new church could be dedicated and the cathedral restored. Similarly at Edessa in Mesopotamia, Khosroes’ initial savagery was followed by a benevolent administration that recognized ancestral landholding and supported the local Monophysites. The Persian invaders understandably won the allegiance of Christians who believed that their new masters would keep the Byzantine Chalcedonians out. After the first jolt, life in Edessa was not much altered.

At Caesarea-on-the-sea, to judge from the survival of the churches of Christ and of St. Cornelius and the Tetrapylon, a similar picture of continuity after initial disruption emerges. While some continue to believe that the Persian raids had a substantial impact on the city and its population, recent work, particularly by Jodi Magness, seems clearly to move in the opposite direction. Overall, as Foss observed, the archaeological record “offers little corroboration for notions of widespread destruction at the hands of the Sassanian invaders. On the contrary, as in the case of southern Syria, evidence from the outlying regions of the Holy Land reveals normal activity continuing through the occupation, with numerous inscriptions dated to the period 614–630.” This revisionist account of the Persian invasion in the seventh century has encouraged a new consensus about the Near East on the eve of the Islamic conquests. Instead of lying desolate and ready for new rulers, it can be seen as already experienced in survival under a foreign power, and therefore all the more likely to be accommodating when a new one arrived. Since the Persians generally supported the Monophysites, they were able to maintain their struggle against Byzantium in a doctrinal way that was not unlike their support of Jews in Jerusalem in their opposition to the orthodox Christians they found in the city. Certainly the Christians suffered grievously, but there is little indication that either the Jews or the pagans did.

The aftermath of the Persian capture of Jerusalem was, above all, the occupation of Egypt. Alexandria had received mostly Chalcedonian refugees, who were uncomfortable in Palestine with a foreign administration that supported Monophysites, but the arrival of the Persians exiled these Chalcedonians yet again. Such a dedicated Christian as John the Almsgiver, orthodox patriarch of Alexandria from 610 to 617, chose to leave his flock and flee to Cyprus, where he died in 619. Even the future patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, who had recently come to Alexandria and had written—or would soon write—such eloquent verses about the capture of the city, decamped as well for Rome. The Persians cleverly exploited the confessional confusion of near-eastern Christendom in their war against Byzantium. This meant that the brunt of the invasion fell upon the Chalcedonians and the emperor Heraclius, against whom the Sassanians were waging their war. In pacifying and administering the regions they had conquered, they created a world that was not much different from what it had been before, with its rich traditions of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and Hellenism.

Accordingly when the armies of Muḥammad arrived, they did not find a shattered civilization and a ruined economy. They found Christian communities that the previous invaders had supported, as well as Chalcedonians like Sophronius, who had returned peacefully to Jerusalem in 619 to bury his friend John Moschus. At some point after his exile in Alexandria, Sophronius included among his Anacreontic poems on church feasts not only his bitter lamentation over the Persian invasion, but also two further poems that were a detailed and nostalgic celebration of the city’s principal monuments and holy places. Exactly when he wrote these is unclear, but we know that he was back in Jerusalem by 619. He had either experienced the events of 614 in person or was well informed about them, and five years later he certainly saw the condition of the city at that time with his own eyes. Since he is unlikely to have been composing fancy Greek verses when Moschus was dying in Rome, the odds are that the Anacreontics about the glories of Jerusalem were written after he had actually returned to the city. The poems themselves imply, by their impassioned longing to see the various monuments, that he was away when he was writing them, or perhaps, by a common literary artifice, imagined he was away. But, in any case, absolutely nothing in the two poems about the holy places of Jerusalem suggests that Sophronius was aware of the slightest damage or destruction to any of them.

Meanwhile, the Arabs in Arabia showed little interest in the quarrels of Monophysites and Chalcedonians, and there was no reason why they should. They could remember that the monophysite negus of Ethiopia had gladly made common cause with the orthodox emperor in Constantinople, and that refugees from the civil strife in the Prophet’s city of Mecca had fled for safety, at an early stage, to Axum. At the moment of Muḥammad’s emigration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina in 622, the superpowers of the Near East were still Sassanian Persia and the state that we call Byzantium, but was known everywhere in the region simply as Rome. One of these was soon to be annihilated. Neither of them could possibly have expected that. But the hagiographical tradition suggests that the holy Anastasius, who had been a Zoroastrian in the Persian army at Ctesiphon when the fragments of the True Cross arrived there from Jerusalem after 614, was moved to convert to Christianity, and he, so we are told, at least at the time of his subsequent martyrdom, allegedly foretold the death of Khosroes and the end of his empire.

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