Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 11

Content warning for a particularly gory massacre involving decapitation. 

The minority Jewish community of about 4,000 living in Tyre reached out to the veteran victors in Jerusalem. They wanted a Jewish incursion to overtake the Christian city on Easter night. An army of 20,000 Jewish soldiers amassed from as far away as Damascus, the modern capital of besieged Syria, to the Mediterranean island city (now country) of Cyprus for a sneak attack. But they were betrayed. Christians in Tyre got word of the planned assault and captured the entire Jewish population in retaliation before their reinforcements could arrive. 

When the Jewish army came riding through and started to burn down churches, the Christians claimed they were justified in killing one hundred Jews for every ruined church. They slaughtered 20,000 that night. Unable to breach the walls, the Jewish army was forced to fall back and wait out the bloodlust as the Christians threw the heads of fallen Jews over the walls to taunt them. Christian antisemitism had grown tremendously under Byzantine rule, encouraged by religious wartime propaganda. Losing the Holy City to the Persians had been interpreted by many as Divine Wrath. If it could instead be blamed on the treachery of the Jews, the Christians would not have to shoulder any portion of culpability. 

Jerusalem remained under Jewish autonomy for a few years, but Khosrau became increasingly less generous with his allies. By 617 he had ordered that no new Jewish immigrants could settle in Jerusalem or within three miles of its borders, probably in response to Christian pressure. Khosrau also imposed heavy taxes on the Jews at Jerusalem. Records of this era are incomplete and missing. We don’t know much about what life was like for the Hebrews living in Jerusalem amidst war, how chaotic or structured their lives became over the years. 

In 622 Heraclius the Byzantine assembled an army to retake his lands. Khosrau was deposed and murdered by his own son Kavadh, who in turn was killed by the Boar of the Empire Shahrbaraz. It was Kavadh who made peace with Heraclius but Shahrbaraz who returned the True Cross in 628 in a ceremony of great spectacle. The Holy Sponge was attached to it and the whole thing was hoisted up into the Hagia Sophia (which had had all its precious metals stripped to help fund the decades long continents crossing world war of its era.) 

Benjamin of Tiberius (remember him?) on behalf of the Jewish people met with the victorious Heraclius on his journey to Jerusalem. According to Coptic Christian tradition, Benjamin threw himself on Heraclius’s mercy, begging for the lives of the other Jews, and even himself converting. Heraclius is said to have sworn their safety, however by the time they arrived in Jerusalem Christian monks had persuaded him to go back an his word. Benjamin’s conversion and Heraclius’s promise of protection may well be later fabrications of apologists. 

The massacre of 628 CE, however, is certain. It was not contained to Jerusalem, but swept across the empire in a wave of anti Jewish pogroms. Only those who could escape to mountains or border countries survived. Egypt saw a great influx of Jewish refugees. Coptic Christians in Egypt still observe the occasion of Heraclius’s betrayal with an annual fast. The extended fighting had weakened both Byzantine and Sassanid empires economically and neither was prepared a few short years later for the Arab Muslim conquest. 

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