Iranian Cultural Sites Include Landmarks Important to Jews and Christians as Well

The interior of Vank Cathedral, a 17th century Armenian church in Isfahan, Iran. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

When President Donald Trump tweeted about the possibility of retaliatory strikes on “52 Iranian sites,” including some that are important to “the Iranian culture,” the world reacted with alarm.

Strikes on cultural sites are considered illegal — some would even say a war crime. The U.S. is a signatory to several international agreements, including the 1954 Hague Convention, which calls on warring parties “to protect cultural property.”

Trump’s own defense secretary, Mark Esper, followed up Monday (Jan. 6) by saying the United States would not target Iranian cultural sites, should Tehran retaliate for America’s targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.

But scholars say it’s important to distinguish today’s Iranian leadership from the rich legacy of Persian culture, which predates the rise of Shiite theocracy, Islam, even monotheism.

Iran is part of the cradle of civilization, the place where civilization is understood to have emerged. Its history goes back at least 2,000 years before the rise of Islam. The country, which is about twice the size of Texas, has many religious sites important to Jews and Christians, too.

“It has very significant sites for the Zoroastrian religion, Jewish and Christian communities, and of course Muslims,” said Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. Safi grew up in Iran until the age of 15, and he studies Persian mystical literature.

Many pointed out that Iran has 22 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But in addition, a number of its religious landmarks continue to function as places of worship and pilgrimage.

“They’re not just cordoned off but are woven into the fabric of everyday life,” said Seema Golestaneh, assistant professor of Middle East studies at Cornell University.

Golestaneh compared the threat of attacking these sites to “threatening to bomb Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel.”

Thousands of people took to Twitter in the wake of the president’s tweet using the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites to post photos of their favorite Iranian landmarks. Here are five that serve as important religious sites:

The Tomb of Esther and Mordechai

Located in Hamadan, the tomb is believed by some to house the remains of the biblical Queen Esther and her cousin (or by some accounts, uncle) Mordechai. It is the most important pilgrimage site for Jews in the country.

The Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Iran. Photo by Zahramoradii/Creative Commons

Esther, as described in the Bible, was the Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai informs her of a plot to kill the Jews, and together they work to save Jews throughout the Persian Empire from annihilation.

The exact date of the 50-foot-tall brick dome’s origin is disputed. An outer chamber holds tombs of famous rabbis. The interior chamber features Hebrew writing along the walls and holds two carved sarcophagi, with the two burial plots for Esther and Mordechai.

The Tomb of Daniel

There are many places that claim to be the traditional burial place of the biblical prophet Daniel, but this one, in Susa, Iran, is the most widely accepted. According to the biblical book by the same name, Daniel was taken to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. There, he was rescued from lions with the aid of the prophet Jeremiah. The apocalyptic genre of the Book of Daniel is important to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Above the mausoleum of Daniel is a conical-shaped building.

The Tomb of Daniel in Susa, Iran. Photo by Meysam Ebrahimi/Creative Commons

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great

Many evangelicals have compared Trump to King Cyrus, who became the first emperor of Persia. Cyrus is celebrated multiple times in the Bible for freeing a population of Jews who were held captive in Babylon — an act some consider to have made him anointed by God. Cyrus died in 530 B.C. and is buried in Pasargadae, an archaeological site about 56 miles from the modern city of Shiraz. According to literary sources, more than two centuries later, Alexander the Great ordered his tomb to be restored.

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, Iran. Photo by Bernd81/Creative Commons

Vank Cathedral in Isfahan, also known as Holy Savior Cathedral

Vank means “monastery” or “convent” in the Armenian language, and this one is especially important to Armenians who are part of the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are a total of 16 Armenian churches in the New Julfa region on the outskirts of Isfahan. Murals adorn the walls of the cathedral with gold inlay. The cathedral was completed in 1664 and includes a bell tower, built in 1702. It is still used.

The interior of Vank Cathedral in Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Bernard Gagnon/Creative Commons

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Source: Religion News Service