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Sasanian conquest of Jerusalem

Siege of Jerusalem (614)
Part of the Jewish revolt against Heraclius during the Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628
Date April–May 614 (per Sebeos and Antiochus)
Location Jerusalem, Palaestina Prima
Result Decisive Sasanian victory
Jerusalem and Palaestina Prima annexed to the Persian Empire as Jewish-Sasanian Commonwealth.
Byzantine Empire Sasanian Persian Empire,
Jewish allies
Commanders and leaders
Patriarch Zacharias (POW) Shahrbaraz
Nehemiah ben Hushiel 
Benjamin of Tiberias
Christian rebels Persian forces;
20,000 or 26,000 Jewish rebels[1]
Casualties and losses
Minimal: 4,518 Christians[2] Maximal: 66,509 Christians[3]
Many Jews slain in the revolt

The Sasanian Empire conquered Jerusalem after a brief siege in 614, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628. The Persian Shah Khosrau II appointed his general Shahrbaraz to conquer the Byzantine controlled areas of the Near East. Following the victory in Antioch, Shahrbaraz conquered Caesarea Maritima, the administrative capital of the province.[4]: 206 By this time the grand inner harbor had silted up and was useless. However the Emperor Anastasius had completed a reconstruction of the outer harbor, consequently Caesarea was an important maritime city, providing the Persian Empire with access to the Mediterranean Sea.[5] The Sasanian Persians were joined by Nehemiah ben Hushiel[6] and Benjamin of Tiberias (a man of immense wealth), who enlisted and armed Jewish soldiers from Tiberias, Nazareth and the mountain cities of Galilee, and together with a band of Arabs and additional Jews from southern parts of the country they marched on Jerusalem. Some 20,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantine Christians.[7] Depending on the chronicler figures of either 20,000 or 26,000 are given.[1] The Persian army reinforced by Jewish forces lead by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias would capture Jerusalem without resistance.[4]: 207


  • Background 1
  • Revolt and its aftermath 2
  • Sources 3
    • Sebeos' account 3.1
    • Antiochus' account 3.2
    • Dionysius' account 3.3
    • Theophanes' account 3.4
    • Sefer Zerubbabel 3.5
    • Quran 3.6
    • Other sources 3.7
    • Archaeological evidence 3.8
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Primary sources 6


Jews and Samaritans were persecuted frequently by the Byzantines resulting in numerous revolts. Byzantine religious propaganda developed strong anti-Jewish elements.[4]: lxiii, 195[8]: 81–83, 790–791[9] In several cases Jews tried to help support the Sasanian advance. A pogrom in Antioch in 608 would lead to a Jewish revolt in 610 which was crushed. Jews also revolted in both Tyre and Acre in 610. The Jews of Tyre were massacred in reprisal. Unlike in earlier times when Jews had supported Christians in the fight against Shapur I, the Byzantines had now become viewed as oppressors.[10]

Following the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE Jews were prohibited from entering the city. Constantine allowed Jews to enter for one day each year, during the holiday of Tisha B'Av.[11][12][13] In 438 CE the Empress Eudocia removed the ban on Jews entering the city. However, following strong Christian opposition the ban was reinstated.[14] The ban on settlement was maintained until the Arab conquest, except during the reign of the emperor Julian and from 614-617 under the Persians.[15] Due to these circumstances Jerusalem is thought to have had only a small Jewish population prior to the events of 614.

Revolt and its aftermath

The Golden Gate likely built around 520 CE.[16]

Following the unopposed capture of Jerusalem,[4]: 207 control of the city was handed to Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias. Nehemiah was then appointed the ruler of Jerusalem.[6][17] He began making arrangements for the building of the Third Temple, and sorting out genealogies to establish a new High Priesthood.[18] After only a few months a Christian revolt occurred. Nehemiah ben Hushiel and his "council of the righteous" were killed along with many other Jews, some throwing themselves off the city walls.[4]: 69–71[6]

Following the outburst of violence in Jerusalem the surviving Jews fled to Shahrbaraz’s encampment at Caesarea. Christians were able to briefly retake the city before the walls were breached by Shahrbaraz’s forces who lay siege to the city.[4]: 207 According to Antiochus Strategos, the abbot Modestos set out to Jericho where he mustered a force from the Byzantine troops which were garrisoned there. However, once the Byzantine troops caught sight of the overwhelming Persian army encamped outside the city walls, they fled, fearing a suicidal battle.[3] Sources vary on how long the siege lasted. Depending on the source it lasted 19, 20 or 21 days.

According to Sebeos the siege resulted in a total Christian death toll of 17,000,[4]: 207 4,518 prisoners were massacred near Mamilla reservoir per Antiochus[2] in reprisal for the Christian rebellion and pogrom of the Jews. Christian sources later exaggerated the extent of the massacre, claiming a death toll as high as 90,000.[4]: 207–208 In addition 35,000 people including the patriarch Zacharias were deported to Mesopotamia.[4]: 69–71 The city is said to have been burn down. However, neither wide spread burning nor destruction of churches has been found in the archaeological record.[2][17] The search for the True Cross is said to have involved the torture of clergymen.[4]: 207 Once found the True Cross was carried off to Ctesiphon.[19] It would later serve as a symbol of the victory over Persia and hope for victory over the Arabs.[20]

Modestos was appointed over the city.[4]: 208 Damage was done to many Christian churches and other buildings. By the first half of 616 order had been restored in Jerusalem and Modestos had authorized the reoccupation of St Sabas. Reconstruction on the following churches was under way: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Golgotha, the 'mother of churches' at Sion and Chapel of the Ascension. Modestos’ letter gives the impression that the reconstruction of these sites was already completed. However this is unlikely to be the case.[4]: 208–209 By 617 CE the Persians had reversed their policy and sided with the Christians over the Jews, probably because of pressure from Mesopotamian Christians in Persia itself.[4]: 208[21] However it does not appear that Jews were violently expelled from Jerusalem, as Sebeos thought. Instead Modestos’ letter and other sources seem to imply that further Jewish settlers were banned from settling in or around Jerusalem. A small synagogue on the Temple Mount was also demolished.[4]: 209–210 Following the change in policy the condition of the Mesopotamian deportees also improved. Sebeos records that they were each resettled according to their prior trade.[4]: 69–71, 207–210

In 628, following the deposition of Khosrau II, Kavadh II made peace with Heraclius giving Palaestina Prima and the True Cross back to the Byzantines. The conquered city and the Holy Cross would remain in Sasanian hands until they were returned by Shahrbaraz. Shahrbaraz and his son Niketas, who converted to Christianity, would controlled Jerusalem until at least the late summer/early autumn of 629.[22] On March 21 630 Heraclius marched in triumph into Jerusalem with the True Cross.[23] Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and were not allowed to settle within a three mile radius. A general massacre of the Jewish population ensued.[17][24] Following the massacre the Christian population instituted a yearly fast, which the Copts still practice, called ‘the fast of Heraclius’ in order to sooth their consciences.[24]


Sebeos' account

The Armenian bishop and historian Sebeos wrote an account of the fall of Jerusalem. Sebeos’ account does not use the polemical language of Antiochus. Sebeos writes that at first the inhabitance of Jerusalem voluntarily submitted to the Jews and Persians, however after a few months the governor appointed by Khosrau II to rule Jerusalem was killed in a Christian revolt.[4]: 206–207, 195[25]

Various dates for the revolt have been given: 9 April or 19 May 614,[4]: 207 and 25 June 615.[25] Sebeos writes that during the revolt many Jews were killed. Some throwing themselves off the city walls to escape. The remaining Jews fled to the Sasanian general. Different names are given for this general: Khoream, Erazmiozan[4]: 69 and Xorheam[25] However they are all thought to refer to Shahrbaraz, who was known to Armenian sources as Khoream.[26] Shahrbaraz’s campaigns are well documented by other sources helping to put time constraints on the siege. Shahrbaraz assembled his troops and went and encamped around Jerusalem and besieged it for 19 days. The walls were breached by undermining the foundations. The Christian death toll of 17,000 was later corrupted to 57,000 in T'ovma Artsruni work History of the House of the Artsrunik'.[4]: 207 35,000 people including the patriarch Zacharias were deported to Mesopotamia. For three days the Persian forces slaughtered and plundered the inhabitants of the city. The city was burnt down. The Jews were then driven from the city and an archpriest named Modestos was appointed over the city.[4]: 69–71[25]

Antiochus' account

  • The Capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614 ADAntiochus Strategos, , F. C. Conybeare, English Historical Review 25 (1910) pp. 502–517.
  • Sebeos chapter 24, [Robert Bedrosian]
  • Sefer Zerubbabel, [John C. Reeves. University of North Carolina at Charlotte.]

Primary sources

  1. ^ a b James Parkes (1949). A history of Palestine from 135 A.D. to modern times. Victor Gollancz. p. 81. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 CE) – an archeological assessment by Gideon Avni, Director of the Excavations and Surveys Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g The Capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614 ADAntiochus Strategos, , F. C. Conybeare, English Historical Review 25 (1910) pp. 502-517.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa R. W. THOMSON Historical commentary by JAMES HOWARD-JOHNSTON Assistance from TIM GREENWOOD. (1999). The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos. Liverpool University Press. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Joseph Patrich (2011). "Caesarea Maritima". Institute of Archaeology Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Retrieved 13 March 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson (1976). A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press. p. 362. Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Th. Nöldeke, Grätz, Gesch (1906). Jewish Encyclopedia CHOSROES (KHOSRU) II. PARWIZ ("The Conqueror"):. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 January 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Robert Bonfil, Oded Ishai, Guy G. Stroumsa, Rina Talgam, ed. (2012). Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures. Hotei Publishing the Netherlands. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  9. ^ J. D. Howard-Johnston (2006). East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.,. pp. 124–125, 142. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  10. ^ Jacob Neusner (1975). a history of the jews in babylonia v. later sasanian times. Brill Archive. p. 122. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  11. ^ Larry Domnitch. "Western Wall: This remnant of the Second Temple is an important symbol in Judaism.". Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Elizabeth Speller (2004). Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey Through the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 207. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  13. ^ J Abraham P. Bloch (1987). One a Day: An Anthology of Jewish Historical Anniversaries for Every Day of the Year. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. p. 246. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  14. ^ Leslie J. Hoppe (2000). The Holy City: Jerusalem in the Theology of the Old Testament. Liturgical Press. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  15. ^ Zank, Michael. "Byzantian Jerusalem". Boston University. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  16. ^ MobileReference (2011). Jerusalem Sights: A Travel Guide to the Top 30 Attractions in Jerusalem, Israel. Includes Detailed Tourist Information about the Old City: The Golden Gate. MobileReference. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Edward Lipiński (2004). Itineraria Phoenicia. Peeters Publishers. pp. 542–543. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  18. ^ a b "Sefer Zerubbabel". Translated by John C. Reeves. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  19. ^ Trudy Ring, Robert M. Salkin, Sharon La Boda, ed. (1996). International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa, Volume 4. Taylor & Francis. p. 193. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  20. ^ Reynold Spector (2008). She Smiled on Constantinople. p. 25. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Avner Falk (1996). A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 353. Retrieved 2014-03-10. 
  22. ^ Walter Emil Kaegi (2003). Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press. pp. 185, 189. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  23. ^ Michael H. Dodgeon, Samuel N. C. Lieu, ed. (2002). The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars Ad 363-628, Part 2. Taylor & Francis. pp. 227–228. 
  24. ^ a b Alfred Joshua Butler (1902). Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion. Clarendon Press. p. 134. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  25. ^ a b c d Sebeos. "Sebeos chapter 24". Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  26. ^ Philip Wood (2013). The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq. Oxford University Press. p. 179. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  27. ^ Theophanes (the Confessor), Roger Scott (1997). Cyril A. Mango, Roger Scott, Geoffrey Greatrex, ed. The chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern history, AD 284-813. Clarendon Press. p. 431. 
  28. ^ Silver, Abba Hillel (2003). "II The Mohammedan Period". History of Messianic Speculation in Israel. Kessinger Publishing. p. 49.  
  29. ^ Jewish Martyrs in the Pagan and Christian Worlds. Cambridge university press. Cambridge , New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo. 2006. pp. 108–109. Retrieved 2014-01-10. 
  30. ^ "Human Skeletal Remains from the Mamilla cave, Jerusalem" by Yossi Nagar.
  31. ^ a b c d e f DANIEL K. EISENBUD (2013-09-09). "Israeli archeologists strike gold at Temple Mount". Retrieved 15 March 2014. 


See also

In 2013, a treasure was found in the Old City of Jerusalem by archaeologists, containing a large stash of Persian coins from the 5th to early 7th centuries and a golden medallion.[31] According to Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, the contents of the discovery in early September 2013 were two bundles containing thirty-six gold coins, gold and silver jewelry, and a gold medallion, ten centimeters in diameter, adorned with images of a menorah, a shofar and a Torah scroll. The item is thought to have been a decoration to hang around a Torah scroll as a breast plate.[31] The find was discovered in a ruined Byzantine public structure a mere 50 meters from the Temple Mount’s southern wall.[31] The way the items were found suggests one bundle was carefully hidden underground, whereas the second was apparently abandoned in haste and scattered across the floor.[31] Given dating, Dr. Mazar suggested the items were abandoned following the Christian re-establishment of control of the city.[31] Since there was only a small Jewish presence in Jerusalem during the Byzantine period, Mazar thinks the treasure was brought to the city by Jewish emissaries after the Persian conquest in 614 CE.[31]

Demographic continuity might have resulted from population exchange by the victorious Jewish rebels, but apparently also the Christian habitation remained relatively constant, despite the disturbance by the Persian conquest, and no significant impact on the population of Jerusalem was made during the following period of Sassanid-Jewish dominance.[2]

... all excavated sites in Jerusalem show a clear pattern of continuity, with no evidence for destruction by the Persian conquest of 614 or the Arab conquest of 636.[2]

A significant number of burial sites were allocated according to Strategius. A mass burial grave at Mamilla cave was discovered in 1989 by Israeli archeologist Ronny Reich. Near the site where Strategius reported the greatest number of corpses were found. The human remains were in poor condition containing a minimum of 526 individuals.[30] Other mass burial sites have also been found although they cannot be accurately dated to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem.[2] Yet, excavations of Jerusalem show a continuous habitation in Jerusalem neighborhoods and essentially little impact of population during the period of Persian governorship. As stated by archaeologist Gideon Avni:

Despite the claims of large scale destruction, the archaeological evidence do not reveal layers of destruction associated with the Persian conquest.[2] There was also no hard evidence found for the widespread destruction of churches.[2]

Archaeological evidence

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari and the Khuzistan Chronicle both report that the search for fragments of the true cross involved torturing clergymen.[4]: 207 The Opusculum de Persica captivitate is a document attributed to Modestos. It gives a death toll of 65,000. This number may give an idea of the total Christian population in and around Jerusalem.[17] The Chronicon Paschale is notable because it does not accuse the Jews of Anti-Christian violence or sedition during the fall of Jerusalem in 614.[8]: 790 It is loosely dated to June 614. Another important document is Modestos' Letter.[4]: 207–210

Historians have been able to piece together the events following the fall of Jerusalem based on other sources as well. A brief abridged list of the many relevant documents is given below.

Other sources

The fall of Palaestina Prima to the Persians was mentioned as a contemporary event in the thirtieth sūrah of the Qur'an, Sūrat al-Rūm. It went on to predict the imminent defeat of the Persians by the Byzantines: "The Roman Empire has been defeated in a lowest land on earth by, but after this defeat of theirs they will soon be victorious, within a few years" (Qur'an 30:2-4).


Kavadh II made peace with Heraclius in 628 after the reign of Khosrau II. Armilus is thought to be a cryptogram for Heraclius.[29]

In the Sefer Zerubbabel Aaron's rod, Elijah and Nehemiah ben Hushiel will be hidden in the city of Tiberias. After Nehemiah ben Hushiel takes' possession of Jerusalem he proceeds to sorts out Israel’s genealogical lists according to their families. He is killed in the fifth year which would be 619 during the month of Av (July - August). The Sefer Zerubbabel states that Kavadh II will stab Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Israel. His thoroughly crushed corpse will be thrown down before the gates of Jerusalem. And sixteen of the righteous shall be killed with him. Armilus enters Jerusalem on the 14th day of the new year during the month of Nisan. Assuming the year is 628. This would coincide to March 28 628.[18][6]

The Sefer Zerubbabel is a medieval Hebrew apocalypse written in the style of biblical visions (e.g. Daniel, Ezekiel) placed into the mouth of Zerubbabel. It is thought to have been written at least partially during the beginning of the 7th century.[28]

Sefer Zerubbabel

Theophanes the Confessor another 9th century author records that “some say it was 90,000” in reference to the number of Christians killed.[27]

Theophanes' account

Dionysius of Tel Mahre’s account was written much later in the 9th century. It gives a body count of 90,000. This number is thought to be dubious.[4]: 195, 207

Dionysius' account

: 207[4] The greatest number were found at [17] Other copies report approximately half this number.: 207[4][3] Some versions of Antiochus’ manuscript record a total Christian death tolls as high as 66,509.

Then the Jews... as of old they bought the Lord from the Jews with silver, so they purchased Christians out of the reservoir; for they gave the Persians silver, and they bought a Christian and slew him like a sheep.

[3] and the Jews offered to help them escape death if they "become Jews and deny Christ". The Christian captives refused, and the Jews in anger purchased the Christians from the Persians and massacred them on the spot. Antiochus wrote:Mamilla reservoir further claimed that captive Christians were gathered near Antiochus Strategos [3] According to Antiochus, shortly after the Persian army entered Jerusalem, an "unprecedented looting and sacrilege" took place. In his words "church after church was burned down alongside the innumerable Christian artifacts, which were stolen or damaged by the ensuing arson".[3] the walls were breached. Ballistae were used to bring down the walls.: 69[4]

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