March 5


Not for the first time, history and the limited possibilities of knowledge have combined to conquer me - or at least to resist, to rebel against, my attempts to write what I would like to write:

"March 5th 1291, Sa'ad al-Da'ula, the Jewish Grand Vizier of Persia, was assassinated."

Is that not a headline to whet the appetite of a Jewish historian? A "Jewish Grand Vizier"! (My page for February 14th has a Jewish Pope, but he at least converted to Christianity and went through monkhood first.) And of Persia of all unlikely places! 

But nothing, nothing in the Britannica, nothing in the Judaica. A Jewish Grand Vizier of Persia! There must be something on this somewhere... and there are hundreds of references to the event across the Internet, but no facts, no details... grrr!

That was all I managed for this page, back in 2003, when I first encountered Sa'ad. Almost fifteen years later and the Internet has matured, encyclopaedia of various levels of dubiousness and internal agenda have made themselves available, and now I am... very slightly better informed, though not always helpfully. Very little still on Jewish Grand Viziers, of Persia or anywhere (Biblical Joseph the obvious exception). But at least two other men who bore the same name. The first identically, Sa'ad al-Daulah, a Hamdanide chieftain whose political capital was Aleppo, and who spent much of his life in war with the Fatamid Egyptian Aziz, before dying in 991 CE. Not my man. The second a general serving another Fatamid Vizier, al-Afdal, and who, at the time of Baldwin, around 1100, launched an invasion of the Holy Land against the Crusaders. This one was known in full as Sa'ad al-Daulah al-Qawasi. But also, not my man.

But then I found a note somewhere that my man was the Vizier who served the Mongol Khan Arghūn, the one who enabled Marco Polo to return to Venice after twenty-three years' absence; and Arghūn now has an entire page in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"Arghūn, (born c. 1258—died March 10, 1291, Bāghcha, Arrān, Iran), fourth Mongol Il-Khan (subordinate khan) of Iran (reigned 1284–91). He was the father of the great Maḥmūd Ghāzān... Upon the death of his father, Il-Khan Abagha (reigned 1265–82), Prince Arghūn was a candidate for the throne but was forced to yield to a stronger rival, his uncle Tegüder. Arghūn thereafter accused Tegüder's followers of having poisoned his father, protested Tegüder's conversion to Islām, and, by the beginning of 1284, was at the head of a rebellion. After some reverses, he succeeded in overthrowing Tegüder and having him executed (Aug. 10, 1284); Arghūn was formally enthroned the following day and, as an ardent Buddhist, countermanded the Islāmic policies of his predecessor... In 1289 Arghūn appointed an anti-Islāmic Jew, Saʿd ad-Dawlah, first as his minister of finance and then (in June) as vizier of his entire empire. The predominantly Muslim population may have resented the rule of a Buddhist and a Jew, but their administration proved lawful and just and restored order and prosperity... 

In hopes of renewing the war against the Egyptian Mamlūks, Arghūn sought alliances with the Christian West - first, in 1285, writing Pope Honorius IV and then, in 1287, sending emissaries to such leaders as Pope Nicholas IV, Edward I of England, and Philip IV of France. Except for an exchange of letters, however, nothing came of this diplomacy, and the war was not resumed. Arghūn also showed interest in sciences and such pseudosciences as alchemy... While he was dying, fevered and bedridden, in the winter of 1290–91, those factions opposed to Saʿd ad-Dawlah and Arghūn's other favourites rose up and put them to death. After Arghūn's own death, he was succeeded by his brother Gaykhatu (1291–95), his cousin Baydū (1295), and his son Ghāzān (1295–1304)."

That Britannica article also gave me an alternate spelling for my man - Saʿd ad-Dawlah - and an entry... which turned out to be the paragraph about him in the Arghūn entry, quoted above. And yes, of course I have surfed the alternate spelling on the Internet - but still nothing. Or only what we already know: a Buddhist Emperor with an anti-Islamic Jewish vizier! When can there have been a second example of that in all of human history? And this: that the assassination of Sa'ad al-Da'ula was the catalyst for anti-Semitic laws and persecution that would remain in force for centuries; of that, alas, there are all too many second examples throughout human history.

There had been a significant Jewish community in Persia - or Eylam or Media, or Iran; it is a land whose name has changed many times down the centuries - since Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took the Jews into exile in Babylon in 586 BCE, only to be conquered a half-century later by the Persian Medes, whose great leader Koresh (Cyrus) personally provided the means for Zerubabel to take as many of his people home as he wished to, to rebuild Jerusalem, to re-establish Yehudah; his great-great-grandson Artaxerxes I would do the same for Ezra and Nehemiah nearly a century later, enabling the building of the Second Temple and the writing of the Hebrew Bible. 

But tens of thousands chose not to return, forming the great Mizrachi community of Babylonia that spread its own diaspora as far as Yatrib (Medina) in Saudi Arabia in the south, and Kochin in India, even wandering in small numbers into China, in the east. And into Persia too. The 12th century historian Benjamin of Tudela reckoned there were 15,000 Jews in Isfahan and more than 50,000 in Hamadan, the former insisting that they were the descendants of Nebuchadnezzar's captives. Benjamin also reports that in Hamadan the Jews venerated what were believed to be the gravesites of Mordechai and Esther - which is wonderful myth but lousy archaeology: Mordechai and Esther were fictional characters from a festival-play. And anyway, historians now insist that the grave in question was... yes, that of Sa'ad al-Daulah and one of his wives - my Sa'ad, the Jewish-Persian Vizier who served under the Mongol Arghūn Khan, and who was murdered by mob violence in 1291, after Arghun's death ... but if that is so, then who was in the grave before Sa'ad, because Benjamin lived from 1130-1173, 118 years before Sa'ad was buried in whoever's bones must therefore have been in that grave before it became his.

When Arghūn died, Buddhism in Persia died with him, and everyone associated with his reign; not just the assassination of the Vizier, but the downfall of Persian Jewry. From that date, until the laws were revoked in the revolution of 1920/21, Jews could no longer enter Muslim homes, even as servants, and were forced to live in ghettos; and in wet weather they were prohibited from leaving the ghetto because, in Shi'ite Islam, contact with damp clothing worn by the impure is regarded as imparting ritual uncleanliness to anyone it touches. So that people would know who were and were not Jews, a red cloth worn on the chest served the same function as a yellow star in certain parts of Europe.

The illustration at the top of the page shows Arghūn with Tegüder, though it is uncertain which is which (probably the one in green on the left is Arghūn, as we know that Buddhists generally disfavour beards), and whether one of the surrounding courtiers is Sa'ad.

Amber pages:

Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, 1946

"Good riddance" to Stalin,1953

And also, from the NASA website: Voyager 1 passes Jupiter, today in 1979. But so what: Pioneer 10 already made the historic first fly-past of Jupiter six years earlier, on December 3 1973 to be precise.

You can find David Prashker at:

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The Argaman Press

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