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The Jewish Community of Herat, Afghanistan

Dedicated to the Memory of Werner Herberg

A Research Trip to Afghanistan

 Ulrike-Christiane Lintz


     Little is known about Jews in Afghanistan although they are mentioned in Ancient Arabic and Persian writings beyond historical references and local legend. In various western, Arabic, and Chinese chronicles, we only rarely find evidence for the existence of a Judaeo-Persian speaking population in Afghanistan, located at this significant trade post, leading to the Mediterranean World, the Near East, China, and India.

Nevertheless, in Tabakāt-i Nāsirī the main source for the Ghūrids, the thirteenth-century historian al-Juzjani (al-Ğūzğānī) refers to a Jewish merchant, a Yahūd (Jew) from Ghūr. According to the source, this Jewish merchant had acquired great experience in the ‘ways of the world and he entertained a friendship with Amīr Banjī, one of the founders of the Ghūrid dynasty.[1] The friendship started with the incident that took place when Amīr Banjī was travelling to Baghdad to resolve a dispute with his enemy. He met the Jewish merchant and asked him for some advice, which, in the event, turned out to be quite valuable. Amīr Banjī felt grateful to the Jewish merchant and let a number of the “Children of Israel” (‘Banī-Isrā’īl’) settle in his territory. The chronicle gives us some insights into a rationale for the existence of the Jewish settlement in the region although there is no conclusive evidence that these Jewish merchants were related to the speakers of the JudaeoPersian dialects. Medieval sources refer to several Jewish centers in Afghanistan; from which the most important were located in the cities of Merv, Balkh, Kabul, Nishapur, Ghazni and Herat.

In his work, 'Siyásat-náma', the medieval Persian author and celebrated vizier of the Great Seljuq Empire, Niẓām al-Mulk, (also known as Abū ʿAlı̄ Ḥasan ibn ʿAlı̄: 1018-1092 CE), already noted Jewish service in Muslim royal courts.[2] Written in 1091-1092 CE, the work Niẓām comprises fifty sections treating nearly all of the royal duties, prerogatives, and administrative units during the early Seljuq period. According to the record, Niẓām al-Mulk himself emphatically rejected the employment of “dhimmī” referring to "Peoples of the Book", which included Jews, Christians, Sabaeans, and sometimes Roroastrians and Hindus, in governmental service.[3] Thus, he complains bitterly

"…that Jews, Christians, Fire-worshippers (gabrs), and Carmathians are employed by the Government, and praises the greater stringency in this matter observed in Alp Arslán's[4] reign."[5]

At the same time, however, Niẓām al-Mulk maintained close associations with Jewish bankers and money experts, officeholders, and tax-farmers, who had been called upon to assist him. These non Muslim minorities were deprived of social and political equality, which made them "second-class" citizens in general - but as dhimmīs they also enjoyed complete freedom to participate in various economic opportunities. Various Muslim and Hebrew historical sources mention that Persian Jews engaged in many kinds of artisanship and handicraft, working as weavers, dyers, gold and silversmiths, merchants and shopkeepers, jewelers, and wine manufacturers as well as dealers in drugs, spices, and antiquities.[6]

Nizámí-i-'Arúdí,who was a poet, astronomer, and physician in Samarqand, mentioned a Jew named Ya'qúb ibn Isháq al-Kindí in his Chahár Maqála .[7]  Nizámí-i-'Arúdí was a champion of various scholastic achievements in the Ghūr empire, who was “attached to the service of the House of Ghūr or ‘Kings of the Mountains.”’[8] The Jew he mentioned in his book was known as "the philosopher of the Arabs" around 873 CE. [9]

"Ya'qúb ibn Isḥáq al-Kindí, though he was a Jew, was the philosopher of his age and the wisest man of his time, and stood high in the service of al-Ma'mún. One day he came in before al- Ma'mún, and sat down above one of the prelates of Islám. Said this man, "Thou art of a subject race; why then dost thou sit above the prelates of Islám?" "Because," said Ya'qúb, "I know what thou knowest, while thou knowest not what I know."[10]

The existence of a Jewish settlement in the remote Muslim region surrounding Djām,  the most important Ghūrid site in central Afghanistan, located 215 km to the east of Harāt some 6,234 feet (1,900 m) above sea level surrounded by mountains rising almost 11,483 feet (3,500 m), seems to be enigmatic.[11] The site was extensively studied by David Thomas and his organization, the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project (MJAP), for the last fifteen years.[12] The city of Djām  was a vibrant center of sophisticated urban life under the Ghūrid overlord, Ghiyāth al-Dīn Muḥammad bin Sām (d. 1203 CE).[13] The city is well known for the Minaret of Djām with its elaborate qur’ānic inscriptions,[14] as well as for the discovery of the Jewish cemetery nearby at the Kūh-i Kushkak (Figs.2-4). The Jews  might have settled there due to the development of extensive trade networks in this region. The region of Djām, which was the home of the sultan’s summer capital, Fīrūzkūh, was a flourishing politico-economical center, which extended from Nishāpur in Eastern Iran in the west, to the Gulf of Bengal in the south, and Sind in Northern-India in the northeast. The abrupt decline of the Ghūrid Empire seems to have been caused by the death of Mu‘izz al-Dīn Muammad b. Sāms’ in 1206 CE, followed by the conquest of Khwārizm Shāh in ca.1215. Seven years later the Mongol invasion by Ögödei, put a complete end to the whole empire in ca.1222. This region is also well known historically for its flourishing commerce based on iron- and metal processing, and horse breeding as well as slave trading in the markets of Herat and Sistan.


Fig. 2 The architect, historian and consultant Werner Herberg during his studies on the Kūh-i Kushkak in 1970-1973 - Courtesy of Werner Herberg
Fig. 2 The architect, historian and consultant Werner Herberg during his studies on the Kūh-i Kushkak in 1970-1973 - Courtesy of Werner Herberg
Fig. 3 Inscription from the Kūh-i Kushkak dedicated to "Shadi, son of Shadan"  dating March 8th 1117
Fig. 3 Inscription from the Kūh-i Kushkak dedicated to "Shadi, son of Shadan" dating March 8th 1117
Fig. 4 Inscription from the Kūh-i Kushkak dedicated  to "Sadi, son of Sadan"  datInscription dedicated to "Elisa ben Mose Joseph" dating Shabbat, Tischri 24th, 1510 (1198)
Fig. 4 Inscription from the Kūh-i Kushkak dedicated to "Sadi, son of Sadan" datInscription dedicated to "Elisa ben Mose Joseph" dating Shabbat, Tischri 24th, 1510 (1198)

     Jews living under the Ghūrid Empire seem to have occupied high functions and positions. During the reign of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (997-1030 CE), a Jew living in Ghazni called ‘Isḥáq the Jew’ administered a lead mine in Balkh (Khurasan), having been sent there by the court-poet Nizámí-i-'Arúdí of Samarqand. This court-poet actually received this lead mine in Warsád (the ‘territory of Warshādah’) as the reward for his poems submitted to the local governor, ‘Amíd Safiyyu’d-Dín. Warsád is also mentioned as the residence of king ‘Quṭbu'd-Din Muhammad’ in Ghūr:[15]  

"Thereat the countenance of my lord the King brightened mightily, and a great cheerfulness showed itself in his gracious temperament, and he applauded me, saying, ‘I give thee the lead mine of Warsá from this Festival until the Festival of Sacrifice. Send thine agent thither.’ So I sent Isaac the Jew. It was then the middle of summer, and while they were working the mine they smelted so much ore that in the seventy days twelve thousand maunds of lead accrued to me, while the King's opinion of me was increased a thousand-fold. (…)"[16]

At the beginning of the tenth century, permanent multi- ethnic settlements of merchants existed in the region like the trading centers in Kabul and Ghazna during the Ghaznavid era.[17] The English historian and Orientalist Bosworth mentioned that stable Indian merchant colonies also existed even before the establishment of the ancient Ghūrid capital Firuzkuh in (d. 541 A.H./1146-7 CE).[18] The expatriate communities of merchants and their families from Khwarazm and Transoxania throughout Asia were also known to be operating as trading banks with an established system of letters of credit, which were honored in extensive regions from China to the Volga. The Central Asia cities along the Silk Road were serving as main trade posts throughout the region, connecting the west and east with Afghanistan at the mid-point of these extensive trade routes.

The Jewish community of Herat, Agfghanistan

The Jewish Quarter of Herat

        Like many Jewish communities in Muslim countries, the Jews of Herat—the largest and most influential Jewish community in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century—inhabited their own separate streets and districts in the southwestern Momandha and northwestern Bar Durrani districts of Herat’s Old City. The Jewish quarter was sometimes referred to as mahallay-e Yahud, a common expression denoting the reduced social status of a religious minority—namely a ghetto.[19] Residents of a mahallay-e Yahud typically lived on the city’s outskirts in extremely harsh conditions. The Jewish quarter of nineteenth-century Tehran (Fig. 5), for example, was known as Sar-e cal (“on the top of the pit”), due to the garbage pit located in its midst.[20]
Fig. 5 Tehran’s Jewish quarter known as Sar-e cal (meaning “on top of the pit”, due to the garbage pit located in its midst) (photo by Antoin Sevruguin, Tehran, ca. 1880–1900)
Fig. 5 Tehran’s Jewish quarter known as Sar-e cal (meaning “on top of the pit”, due to the garbage pit located in its midst) (photo by Antoin Sevruguin, Tehran, ca. 1880–1900)

The residents of the mahalla-e Yahud in Herat were subjected to a variety of social and economic limitations, such as clothing restrictions, a ban on the mingling of Jews with Christians and Muslims, and the imposition of special taxes. As a result, the Jewish Quarter of Herat—like other Jewish areas in Afghanistan and Iran—tended to be a self-sufficient environment with its own administrative requirements, sacred traditions, and social customs. Despite the imposed segregation, most Jewish immigrants and deportees from Herat and Mashhad continued, at least for some time, to operate within a transnational trade and communications framework.[21] Indeed, the Jewish community of Herat coexisted amicably with the majority of the Muslim population, perhaps because of their mutual economic and intercultural interests. Nonetheless, as evidenced in Herat, the presence of Jews in the Muslim world attests to the everpresent tensions surrounding segregation, integration, intercultural relations, unobtrusiveness, and modernization that have characterized Jewish existence in the Diaspora.[22] The Jewish Quarter of Herat was located within the walled section of the Old City and extended through the smaller streets on both sides of the main thoroughfare of the Bazaar-e Iraq, which leads directly to the Chahar Suq.[23]The economic heart of Herat’s Jewish Quarter was located on the main thoroughfare through the Bazaar-e Iraq among the coppersmiths, ironsmiths, grocers, and hardware stores. It was near the western Iraq Gate, not far from the bazaars at the end of the northwestern thoroughfares that served the caravans traveling between the western provinces of Afghanistan and Iraq.[24]

Jewish communities were regulated by daily prayers and the unique customs  connected with the life cycle (circumcision ceremonies, bar mizvahs, and weddings) and the major festivals (the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, Tabernacles (Simhat Torah) and Hannukkah).[25] The  ritual bath (mikva)[26] served as a focus for community life, as exemplified by a Jewish bathhouse built of mud bricks, known as the Hammam-e Yahudiha (or the Haji Muhammad Akbar Bath), which was located close to the four synagogues.[27] As evidence of its subsequent adaption and cultural transition, this particular bath complex later served the Muslim males of the Momandha Quarter.[28] 

Torah Scroll from the Mullah Samuel Synagogue (ca. 1845-50) now Hariva School, Herat, Afghanistan - Courtesy Werner Herberg 1973
Torah Scroll from the Mullah Samuel Synagogue (ca. 1845-50) now Hariva School, Herat, Afghanistan - Courtesy Werner Herberg 1973

The Synagogues of Herat

     The city of Herat once contained four synagogues, located in the Old City’s northwestern and southwestern areas close to Darb-i-Iraq Street, one of the main thoroughfares directly leading to the Chahar Suq, physically and symbolically linking the synagogues to the Masjid-i Jami and the Eidghah, both mosques being located in the northeastern Qutbe Chaq Quarter. At the time of their closure in the 1950s following the mass emigration of Herat’s Jewish community to Israel, three of the synagogues bore the name of the rabbis who presided over them at that time. These were the Mullah Garji, or Mullah Ashur Synagogue Fig. 6); the Mullah Samuel, or Shamawel Synagogue; and the Mullah Yoav, or Mullah Ya Aw Synagogue (alternative name: Kanisa Yoha; Fig.7). All three were located in the southwestern residential area of the Old City, known as the Momandha Quarter, a name that may be derived from that of the Pashtun tribe of Momand. The Momandha Quarter contains twenty-three mosques, four shrines, twenty-two caravanserais, several covered bazaars, six typical houses, two cisterns, three bathhouses, and the three synagogues.[29] The fourth synagogue, known as the Gol or Gulaki Synagogue  in the local Judeo-Persian language, was named for the wealthy family who owned it.[30] The building is located in the Bar Durrani Quarter, the northwestern district of the Old City. As documented above, this quarter is characterized above all by the settlement of wealthier families—including the homes of influential political officials—and is dominated by the Royal Center with the Ikhtiyar al-Din Fortress and Citadel. This quarter, which retains portions of the old city wall in its northwestern and southeastern corners, contains twenty-six mosques, thirteen shrines, twenty caravanserais, three houses, four cisterns, five bathhouses, and one synagogue.
Fig. 6 The Mullah Garji, or Mullah Ashur Synagogue, in 1973 (now mostly in ruins); interior view showing the richly painted west wall with the aron ha-qodesh (ark) against the western wall - Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
Fig. 6 The Mullah Garji, or Mullah Ashur Synagogue, in 1973 (now mostly in ruins); interior view showing the richly painted west wall with the aron ha-qodesh (ark) against the western wall - Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
Fig. 7 The Mullah Yoav Synagogue used as a living room in 1973 - Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
Fig. 7 The Mullah Yoav Synagogue used as a living room in 1973 - Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
The hybrid architectural composition of the four Herat synagogues, characterized by variations    in Jewish tradition, provides exceptional archaeological evidence not only of their intrinsic ties    to Judaism but also their place in the Afghan landscape. The once outstanding the Mullah Garji  Synagogue, also known as the Mullah Ashur Synagogue, was named for Mullah Mattityah Garji, the   presiding rabbi of the Jewish community of Herat. The building now lies in ruins, totally collapsed,  due to disuse and neglect since the late 1970s when Herat’s remaining Jews departed.
Fig. 8 The Gol Synagogue or Gulaki Synagogue converted into the Hazrat Belal Mosque with the mihrab (prayer niche) as the most sacred part of the qibla (direction facing Mecca), 2015 (photo by Sarajudin Saraj, courtesy of www.museo-on. com)
Fig. 8 The Gol Synagogue or Gulaki Synagogue converted into the Hazrat Belal Mosque with the mihrab (prayer niche) as the most sacred part of the qibla (direction facing Mecca), 2015 (photo by Sarajudin Saraj, courtesy of www.museo-on. com)

Indeed, many other sacred buildings with beautiful interiors no longer exist due to a lack of maintenance. Fortunately, the Mullah Samuel or Shamawel Synagogue (ca. 1845–50), located directly opposite the market, was restored in 2009 during the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP),  supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.[31] Following the principles of utilitarian “architectural  repurposing” after its restoration in 2009, the building complex is used to house the Hariva School,  a maktab (primary school)[32] for Muslim boys.[33] The Gol or Gulaki Synagogue was constructed in the late nineteenth century (specific dates  unknown) as the private property of the wealthy upper-class Gol family. As such, the Gol Synagogue  reflects the family’s exceptional status, patronage, and power. Restored in 2009 by the AKHCP,  it has been converted into the Hazrat Belal Mosque, although it was probably used as a  mosque as soon as the Jewish community left Herat in the late 1970s. The synagogue’s exceptional  location in the Bar Durrani Quarter near the Royal Center with the Ikhtiyar al-Din Fortress and  Citadel—coupled with its architecture and interior design—attest to different channels of communication and reciprocal influences between Herat’s Jewish community (especially its wealthier scions)  and the Muslim majority. The Mullah Yoav Synagogue, built from 1788 through1808, was also  abandoned in the late 1970s, but was already in disrepair by the time fighting broke out in  the western quarter of the Old City after the 1978 uprising.[34] The restored Mullah Yoav Synagogue  is now used as an educational center for children from the surrounding neighborhood, reflecting both  the building’s adaptive use and the change the Jewish Quarter has undergone since its abandonment  in the late 1970s.

While the dates when the four synagogues were constructed are known for certain (between the late eighteenth and early twentieth century), there is no documentation to show whether they were entirely new buildings for their time or were built over the ruins of older structures. Certainly, the Mullah Samuel Synagogue shows evidence of an earlier existence. If indeed these synagogues rose from pre-existing foundations, it is difficult to determine the form of the original building and the nature of the intermediate stages of construction.

The Jewish cemetery outside Herat's Old City

Herat's Old City

     Herat—like other Islamic cities such as Aleppo, Cairo, Fez, Isfahan, Jeddah, and Sana’a—is the embodiment of a living city with traditional Islamic influences. Its architectural design was, for the most part, predetermined by Herat’s geometric urban concept and system, which was designed to meet the Islamic requirement to face toward Mecca (qibla). The city’s historic and vernacular architecture, and its exceptional surviving architectural heritage of both Muslim and non-Muslim origins, illustrate the complex processes of a global cultural transition. Herat, which is located in western Afghanistan and contains the most complete medieval vestiges surviving in the region, grew from a small fort founded in the 6th century BCE into a lively and dynamic city. The advent of Islam provided a new impetus for growth and importance in the walled city of Herat, which subsequently left an indelible mark on its physical form and structure. After its destruction at the hands of the Mongols, the city’s fortunes started to revive under the Kart dynasty (1245–1389 CE). As one of the most ancient cosmopolitan cities of central Asia—and an important stop along the Silk Road—it soon became the heart of the Timurid Empire (1405–1506 CE).[35] The Old City of Herat (or Harat), also referred to as the shar-i kuhna (“old town”), resembles a typical extended Afghan fortified town (qal’a).[36] Old Herat is defined by its unique culture and typical architecture reflecting a long tradition of building fortress houses or villages known as gala (Fig.1).[37]

The  layout of the city has been documented and discussed in detail by the Afghan architect Abdul W. Najimi, in part based on historical geographical illustrations by a Russian envoy to Herat and the map developed much later by Major General Oskar von Niedermayer (1885–1948).[38] The Old City forms a square with four main roads leading along the cardinal points dividing it into four identical quadrants. As such, Herat features a perfectly organized system based on orthogonal symmetry.[39] The old walled city (ca. 200 hectares)[40] and the surviving fabric of the residential and commercial quarters focused around three main points, the Commercial Center, known as Chahar Suq at the center of Herat; the Royal Center comprising the Fortress and Citadel (Qal'a-i Ikhtiyar al-Din); and the Religious Center containing the Masjid-i Jami (Friday Mosque). Herat’s geometrical urban organization, which will be analyzed through its Timurid architecture, probably originated in the eleventh century and is based on forms from the Ghaznavid dynasty (977– 1186 CE).[41] Specifically, it reflects a clearly structured urban geometry leading to the commercial royal, and religious centers. Herat’s design features axes and directions that, when possible, face Mecca, uniformly linking the physical to the sacred. The city’s town plan is based on the four-iwan building concept with one main hall (iwan) facing Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, flanked by three subordinate halls.[42] This architectural concept is based on the urban traditions of Herat’s Old City, and shares similarities with the design of a typical Arab town (medina).[43] The architect and planner Rafi Samizay performed a survey of Herat in 1977, listing the Friday Mosque, an Eidgah (a ceremonial square and associated mosque), eighty-two local mosques, three madrasas (religious schools), thirty-nine shrines, three synagogues, other religious edifices in three outlying suburbs such as the Timurid musalla (literally “place for prayer”),[44] as well as numerous other individual mosques that were constructed in close proximity to each other throughout the city.[45]

Herat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since Sept. 2004), in the fertile valley of Hari-Rud, was settled as early as the sixth century B.C.E.The city  is thought to have been established before 500 BC as the ancient Persian town of Artacoana or Aria. Alexander the Great  besieged Herat in 330 BC during his campaign against the Achamenid Persian Empire. Known at the time as Artacoana , the city was rebuilt and called Alexandria of Aria. It is believed that a citadel was first established on its current site during this period.  The city's older section is partially surrounded by the remains of massive mud walls, where several monuments still stand. Incorporated into the northern perimeter of the square walled city by the Ghaznavids,  the Qal'a-i Ikhtiyar al-Din (a 15th-century citadel) stood witness to the changing fortunes of successive empires before being laid waste by Genghis Khan in 1222.[46]

The Masjid-i Jami (the Great Mosque) was the city's first  congregational mosque, which contains examples of 12th-century Ghurid brick-work and 15th-16th century Timurid tilework. The Great Mosque was built on the site of two smaller Ghaznavid mosques; they were destroyed by earthquake and fire. The present Great Mosque was begun by the ruler of the Ghurid Empire, Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam (1162-1202) in 1200 (597 AH). The mosque continued after his death by his brother and successor Shihab al-Din.[47] Herat city's other important monuments are located outside the walls: to the north of the Old City, the  large artificial mound, known as  Kuhandazh (or Kohandez), [48] the 15th-century Abu'l Qasim Shrine (variant names:  Ziarar-i Shahzade Abu'l Qasim; Mazar-e Abu'l Qasim or Shahzada Kasim Mausoleum)[49] and the 15th-century Abdullah bin Muawiyah Shrine (variant names: Shrine of 'Abdullah bin Mu'awiyah;[50] Mazar-e Shahzade Abdullah or Shahzada Abdullah Mausoleum)  built  on the opposite side of the road. Farther to the north the Madrasah-i Gawhar Shad in the Musalla Complex, which was constructed between 1417-1438 (820-841 AH) according to its foundation plaque, now housed in the mausoleum. Only one minaret and the founder's mausoleum remain of the Madrasah-i Gawar ShadGawhar Shad.[51]


The Jewish Cemetery of Herat, Afghanstan

     As is the case with other known Jewish communities, the Jewish cemetery of  Herat is located on the edge of the settlement at a good distance from the capital, in this case some kilometers away from the former Jewish quarter  of Herat. This important Jewish cemetery  is located nearby the  Abdullah al-Vahid Shrine  (Variant Names: Mir Shahid Shrine, Mazar-e 'Abdullah al-Vahid)  in Khanchehabad Village, outside the Firuzabad Gate (darb) ca. two hundred meters southwest of the Herat city walls. This mausoleum is dated Timurid period, 1487 (restored 1905).[52]
Fig.9 The oldest part of the Herat Jewish cemetery with the younger graves (in the background on the right) and the approx. 250 to 300 year old graves behind the row of trees (center of the picture); the administrator's house (on the left)- Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
Fig.9 The oldest part of the Herat Jewish cemetery with the younger graves (in the background on the right) and the approx. 250 to 300 year old graves behind the row of trees (center of the picture); the administrator's house (on the left)- Courtesy of Werner Herberg, 1973
This important Jewish cemetery of Herat certainly is dedicated  to the members of  some of the most important Judeao-Persian communities once living in Afghanistan. This Cultural Heritage site  provides exceptional archaeological evidence not only of their intrinsic ties to Judaism but also to their place in the Afghan landscape. For several decades this once outstanding Jewish cemetery lay in ruins, totally collapsed, due to disuse, disregard and neglect since the late 1970s when Herat’s remaining Jews departed. The architect, historian and consultant Werner Herberg (1944-2013), who visited the Jewish cemetery during his expedition in 1973, gives a vivid description (unpublished document) of this important historical site:[53]

“In the afternoon of October 7th 1973 we were accompanied  to the old Jewish cemetery, which is about three kilometers outside the city. The cemetery, which roughly measures  the size of a sports field, is surrounded by a  mud brick wall, on the inside of which trees are planted (Fig.9). Access is next to the simple mud brick house, where a cemetery custodian lives with his family. Most of the area is flat and weakly covered with grass and low shrubs.

It is difficult to trace the oldest  scarcely preserved tombs; their age is thought to be approximately 800 years (Fig.9). A quarter of the territory shows poorly preserved burial sites (Fig. 10), the younger ones are furnished with epitaphs (Fig.11)

In the corner opposite to the mud brick building there is  a burial place for Torah scrolls (Fig.11). The Torah scrolls  out of use are not allowed to be destroyed, they  will be buried in this place going along with a special ritual (cf. the famous Geniza of Cairo).“[54]

Fig. 10 Already decaying graves approx. 250 - 300 years old  located near to the cemetery administrator's building - Courtesy Werner Herberg, 1973
Fig. 10 Already decaying graves approx. 250 - 300 years old located near to the cemetery administrator's building - Courtesy Werner Herberg, 1973

Indeed, in 1973 many of these important tombs, all of which are made of mud brick, no longer existed (Fig.9). Werner Herberg's sketch [57] of the Jewish cemetery with  all documented traceable tombs (1973)  reveals important insights. However, the figures referring to the age of the tombs (cf. 800 years) might be incorrect. The information is based on local oral tradition, there is a lack of documentation. The age of the mud brick tombs can be specified with a period of approximately 100 up to 250-300 years or even approximately up to 350-400 years:

- about 18 tombs dedicated to adults (approx. 250-300 years old)

- about 40 more recent tombs (barrel vaults) featering epitaphs dedicated to adults

- about 34 tombs dedicated to children (approx. 100 years old)

- about 46 tombs dedicated to adults (approx. 100 years old)

- tombs scarcely traceable (approx. 350-400 years old)

Sketch of Herat's Jewish cemetery after Werner Herberg 1973 - copyright Ulrike-Christiane Lintz,
Sketch of Herat's Jewish cemetery after Werner Herberg 1973 - copyright Ulrike-Christiane Lintz,

This Jewish  cemetery of Herat certainly contains some of the most important Hebrew-Persian inscriptions found in Herat, Afghanistan. All of the tombs were built  in commemoration of members belonging to the Jewish-Persian community, which definitely spanned several generations. The population of this Judaeo-Persian speaking community seems to have been grown significantly during the last 200-300 years. The increasing presence of hundreds of Jewish families in Herat - many were immigrants from the Jewish community of Mashhad founded during the reign of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah (r. 1736-47),[55] who was known for his tolerance toward Jews  - helped strengthen existing Jewish institutions and contributed to the flowering of Jewish life in Adghanistan.

In fact, in 1741 he allowed Jewish immigrants (approximately forty families) to settle in Mashhad where they coexisted peacefully with Muslims for decades. Over time, however, they began to suffer at the hands of zealous Shi’ites who initially attacked them by making false accusations.On March 26, 1839, a hostile Shi’ite mob, consisting of both city residents and Muslim pilgrims, launched an attack on the Jewish Quarter (known as the idgah or “place of celebrations”), which came to be known in Persian as Allahdad (lit. “God’s Justice). Nearly 2,400 Mashhad Jews who did not flee were compelled to convert to Islam. Thus, the Allahdad against the Jewish community put an end to the official and recognized existence of Mashhad’s Jewish community and drove them into a dual religious life as forced converts (anusim). Even though they outwardly embraced Islam, the majority of the converted Jews or jadid-e Islam (“new to Islam”) secretly continued to practice Judaism for well over a century as “crypto-Jews” in secret underground synagogues. Those who refused to lead a double life fled to Herat, where they intermingled with the large Jewish community there. Later, during the early decades of the twentieth century, Mashhad’s forced converts publicly returned to Judaism.[56]
Fig.11 Preserved barrel vaulted tombs of more recent date (in the foreground), older tombs (in the background) and the "Torah Ground" behind - Courtesy Werner Herberg 1973
Fig.11 Preserved barrel vaulted tombs of more recent date (in the foreground), older tombs (in the background) and the "Torah Ground" behind - Courtesy Werner Herberg 1973
Most of the former tombs and epitaphs are not traceable. It is pity that most of these important tombs and epitaphs were lost and irrecoverable. Thanks to the research of Werner Herberg, two epitaphs are well documented, one of them dating April 26th 1953 (Fig. 12a), the other attesting 11th october 1852 (Fig.12b).[58] The Hebrew-Persian epitaphs  can offer an invaluable insight into the Jewish life and burial practice in the region if the inscriptions are studied in a context of Jewish funeral practice as a whole in their particular historical and geographical contexts. As for the physical condition of the two tombstone inscriptions (Figs.12a-b) their palaeography and complete arrangement of the epitaph in eight lines are exceptionally well preserved. The epigraphical features are comparable with the Jewish tombstones of the medieval European cemeteries of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms.
Figs.12 a-b: Epitaphs from the Jewish Cemetery
Figs.12 a-b: Epitaphs from the Jewish Cemetery

Saving Cultural Heritage - "The Herat Jewish Cemetery Project"

     Due to the current warefare in Afghanistan, no further investigation at the Jewish cemetery could be undertaken, since the  "Herat Cemetery Project"  started in 2015: the Jewish cemetery was secured with a new wall, the ground and graves were cleaned from rubbish. A great part of the traceable tombs were restored and the epitaphs saved from decay (Fig.14-17).   

Future research and fieldwork could shed further light on many of the important questions raised and might reveal the social and ethnic background of the deceased more clearly. How did the Jewish community come to live at Herat? That is still an unsolved mystery, but future archaeological findings in the region would help to document the origin of the Judaeo-Persian speakers in Afghanistan. That is another compelling reason to hope for a future peace in Afghanistan and its surrounding regions.

Figs. 14-17:   "The Jewish Cemetery Project" - Courtesy Saraj Sarajudin
Figs. 14-17: "The Jewish Cemetery Project" - Courtesy Saraj Sarajudin


     The present study suggests that we need to rethink our current understanding of the concepts of “religion,” “religious identity,” and “freedom of religion” in the modern world.  Indeed, it is hoped that this chapter will contribute to a critical understanding of both ancient and contemporary globalized religious dynamics. It suggests the need to critically reflect on intercultural  influences (political, social, religious) in light of religious multiculturalism and the transnational  historical experience of different faith communities.

Finally, this research may also spark an interest in determining how intercultural and international negotiations on (religious) self-definition can both reduce conflicts and facilitate the peaceful coexistence of different religious communities. This area of inquiry is becoming visibly important, based on the growing antisemitism, racism and increasingly unscrupulous influence of religious splinter groups that attempt to promote their own political interests while disregarding the long-held traditional beliefs that have hitherto bound together and governed communities of faith.

Copyright Ulrike-Christiane Lintz

June 6th 2020

 [1] Raverty, H.G. Tabakāt-i-Nāsirī: A General History of the Muhammadan Dynasties of Asia, Including Hindustan; from A.H. 194 (810 A.D.) to A.H. 658 (1260 A.D.) and the Irruption of the Infidel Mughals into Islam by Minhāj-ud-Dīn Abū- ‘Umar-i-‘Usmān Maulānā Juzjani. Vol.1. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 2010, 313-315

[2] Niẓām al-Mulk, Abū ʿAlı̄ Ḥasan ibn ʿAlı̄, 'Siyásat-náma',Traité de gouvernement: Siyaset-Name composé pour le sultan Malik Chah, traduit du persan et annoté par Charles Schefer et préfacé par Jean-Paul Roux (Paris: Sindbad, 1984), 138-205 (139).

[3] The historical term ‘dhimmī’ (Arabic: ذمي ) refers to non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state who were "second- class" citizens deprived of social and political equality by contract

[4] The son of the first Saljuq ruler of Khorasan, Čaḡrī Beg Dāwūd, brother of Ṭoḡrel, the first sultan of the Great Saljuqs of Iraq and Iran. See K. A. Luther, “ALP ARSLĀN: Saljuq sultan from 455/1063 to 465/1072,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 8-9 (1985): 895-898,  .

[5]  Browne, Edward G. A Literary History of Persia, vol. II: From Firdawsi to Sa’di. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 214.

[6] Walter J. Fischel, “Persia,” Jewish Virtual Library, 2008

[7] A Persian prose work written in the 6th/12th century by Abu’l-Ḥasan Neẓām-al-Dīn (or Najm-al-Dīn), Aḥmad b., ʿOmar b., ʿAlī Neẓāmī, ʿArūżī Samarqandī, originally entitled Majmaʿ al-nawāder. See Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Yūsofī, “ČAHĀR MAQĀLA,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 4:6 (1990): 621-623, online:   .

[8] Browne 2009, 336.

[9] His name can also be spelled as Nidhámí-i-'Arúḍi. The reference is in Anecdote XXII of the ‘Third Discourse on Astrologers.’ See Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte und Naturforscher (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1840).

[10] Edward G. Browne, Revised Translation of the Chahár Maqála ("Four Discourses") of Niẓámí - I- 'Arúḍí of Samarqand. Followed by an Abridged Translation of Mírzá Muḥammad's Notes to the Persian Text (London: Cambridge University Press, 1921), 64 and note 1.

[11] David C. Thomas, The ebb and flow of an empire: the Ghūrid polity of central Afghanistan in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, vol. 1 (Bundoora, Victoria: La Trobe University, 2011), 87.

[12] Thomas 2011, vol. 2, 376-392.

[13] Clifford E. Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual (Edinburgh: University Press Ltd., 1967); Clifford E. Bosworth, “The Early Islamic history of Ghur,” Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 6 (1961): 116-133.

[14] Ulrike-Christiane Lintz, “The Qur'anic Inscriptions of the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan,“ in: Calligraphy and Architecture, ed. Mohammad Gharipour and Irvin Cemil Schick (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 83-102.

[15] Raverty 2010,vol. 1, 339.

[16] Browne 2009, 340.

[17] Bosworth, Clifford E., “The Early Islamic history of Ghur.” Central Asiatic Journal 6 (1961): 116-133 (121-124); Pinder-Wilson, Ralph. “Ghaznavid and Ghūrid Minarets.” Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 39 (2001): 155-186; Nizami, Khaliq A. “The Ghurids.” In Muhammad S. Asimov and Clifford E. Bosworth, ed., History of civilizations of Central Asia, vol. IV: The age of achievement: A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century. Part 1: The historical, social and economic setting. Paris: UNESCO Publishin178. Not in Bibliography 1998.

[18] Pinder-Wilson 2001, 155-186 (124,180).

[19] Susan Gilson Miller, Attilio Petruccioli, and Mauro Bertagnin, “Inscribing Minority Space in the Islamic City: The Jewish Quarter of Fez (1438–1912),” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 60, no. 3 (September, 2001): 310–327.

[20] Daniel Tsadik, “Judeo-Persian Communities of Iran: V. Quajar Period (1876–1925),” in Encyclopaedia Iranica (2012):  ; idem , Between Foreigners and Shi’is: Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority, 36, 81 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 121.

[21] Abigail Green, “Old Networks, New Connections: The Emergence of the Jewish International,” In Green and Viaene, Religious Internationals in the Modern World, 113.

[22] Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art & Life: Costume and Jewelry: A Matter of Identity, The Israel Museum: Permanent Exhibitions.

[23] In contrast, the Jews of Balkh lived along one street, and their quarter was “closed in by a gate, locked every evening caused by security reasons and shut up on a Sabbath-day”; Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours Among the Jews, Mohammedans and Other Sects, During His Travels Between the Year 1831 and 1834 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1837), 209.

[24] Najimi, Herat: The Islamic City, 45, Fig. 3, 13.

[25] Hanegbi and Yaniv, Afghanistan, 28–39.

[26] The mikva (plural: mikva’ot): a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion and ablution in Judaism to achieve ritual purity.

[27] Samizay, Islamic Architecture in Herat, 210.

[28] Samizay, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” 92.

[29] Samizay, Islamic Architecture in Herat, 174.

[30] Hanegbi and Yaniv, Afghanistan, 18.

[31] “Hariva School: Herat, Afghanistan,” Archnet,  (accessed October 5, 2016)

[32] See “maktab,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014).

[33] “Hariva School: Herat, Afghanistan.”

[34] See “Afghanistan: Kabul and Herat Area Development Projects,” Aga Khan Trust for Culture Historic Cities Programme, 

[35] Samizay, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” 86–99; See also David C. Thomas, “The Ebb and Flow of an Empire: The Ghurid Polity of Central Afghanistan in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” (Ph.D. diss., La Trobe University, 2011).

[36] Warwick Ball, The Monuments of Afghanistan: History, Archaeology and Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008).

[37] Anette Gangler, Heinz Gaube, and Attilio Petruccioli, Bukhara: The Eastern Dome of Islam; Urban Space, Architecture, and Population (Stuttgart: Axel Menges, 2004), 35–37.

[38] Abdul Wasay Najimi, Herat: The Islamic City; A Study in Urban Conservation (London: Curzon Press, 1988), 36–37 and Figs. 3.2, 3.3; Oskar von Niedermayer, Afghanistan (Leipzig: Verlag Karl W. Hiersemann, 1924), Plan 3.

[39] Elena Georgieva Paskaleva, “The Architecture of the Four-Iwan Building Tradition as a Representation of Paradise and Dynastic Power Aspirations” (Ph.D. diss., Leiden University, 2010), 133; see also Rafi Samizay, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” Environmental Design: Journal of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Centre 1–2 (1987): 86–93.

[40] Four walls of about half of a farsakh (three miles) each, forming a rough square; Maria Szuppe, “Herat,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica, 211–217, ; Samizay, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” 88.

[41] Paskaleva, “The Architecture of the Four-Iwan Building Tradition,” 133.

[42] Vincent J. Cornell, Voices of Islam, vol. 4, Voices of Art, Beauty, and Science (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), 94–95; Cenk Yoldas, A Prototypical (School) Design Strategy for Soil–Cement Construction in Afghanistan (Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University Press, 2004).

[43] Samizay, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” 88; Najimi, Herat: The Islamic City, 94–95.

[44] Musalla is a large open-air gathering place for Muslim worship, especially for the two major annual festivals.

[45] Samizay, Islamic Architecture in Herat, 114–115; idem, “Herat: Pearl of Khurasan,” 90





[50] 5551

[51] 5415

[52] 5552

[53] Werner Herberg,  Forschungsreise 1973 nach Afghanistan (unpublished document)

[54] translation by the author

[55] “Nadir Shah,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nadir Shah (1688–1747) was an Iranian ruler, and conqueror who created an Iranian empire that stretched from the Indus River to the Caucasus Mountains, .

[56] Werner Herberg, Forschungsreise 1973 nach Afghanistan (unpublished document); David Yeroushalmi. The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century. Leiden: Brill , 2010, 31-32 n12; 32 n13, 33, 247 n9.   Ulrike-Christiane Lintz, Reflection of Sacred Realities in Urban Contexts: The Synagogues of Herat." In Mohammad Gharipour, ed., Synagogues in the Islamic Word, Architecture, Design, and Identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, 51-72 (with a detailed documentation of Herat's Jewish community). 

[57] Zohar Hanegbi and Bracha Yaniv, Afghanistan: The Synagogue and the Jewish Home (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1991), 13–17.

[58] Fotos made by Werner Herberg in Herat, Afghanistan 1973 (courtesy of Werner Herberg) copyright