Monday, February 6, 2012

Esther and Xerxes - A Cross-Cultural Love Story

Tomb of Esther and Mordecai
Photo by Philippe Chavin
On a quiet street in Hamadan, a sprawling city in the foothills of Iran’s Alvand mountains, stands an unassuming monument to Biblical history. It is a crudely fashioned brick building with a domed tower rising awkwardly at one end. The sand-colored structure has no adornment except for two diamond-shaped patterns on the side of the dome, made of turquoise-colored tile. And yet this odd little building is reputed to house the final resting place of two beloved Old Testament figures: Queen Esther, the second wife of Persia’s King Xerxes (486–465), and Mordecai, Esther’s older cousin and guardian.

Of course, there is a story attached to this holy site, and it begins with a big party. King Xerxes had been drinking a little too much wine when he ordered his queen, Vashti, to display her beauty in front of all his male friends. She refused and in a rage, he cast her aside and went looking for a new queen.

Xerxes replaced Vashti with a Jewish orphan named Esther, who’d been raised by her cousin , Mordecai, after her parents died. This cousin had earned favor with the king when he’d overheard two guards plotting to murder Xerxes. Naturally, Mordecai went straight to the monarch with the news and was rewarded with many royal favors, not least of which was to become Xerxes’s cousin-in-law. Nevertheless, neither Esther nor Mordecai told the king that they were Jewish and not Persian.

Not everyone was happy with the king’s new marital situation. Haman, a powerful royal adviser, became enraged when Mordecai refused to bow down before him. (And why should the Mordecai do so? He’s now related to the king.) In his rage, Haman hatches a plot to kill not just the queen’s recalcitrant cousin, but all Jews in Persia. He casts lots to determine which day would be the most auspicious time for a massacre.

The sharp-eared Mordecai again uncovered the plot. But this time, instead of going straight to the king, he asked Esther to use her influence with her husband to prevent the calamity. However, Persia had a law at the time that prevented anyone from approaching the king unbidden on pain of death. Apparently, this law also applied to the Queen. But Esther overcame her fear of breaking this law and asked her husband if he could grant her a favor.

“You may have anything you wish,” Xerxes told her, not at all enraged that she’d approached him without permission. “Even if it is half my kingdom.”

All Esther asked for was a banquet, to be held for her, the king, and Haman. At a second banquet some time later, she revealed the plot to kill the Jews as well as her own Jewish faith. (I’m not entirely sure why she needed two banquets to get the job done, but apparently she had her reasons.) Outraged by the revelation, Xerxes ordered Haman to be hanged on the same gallows the man had erected for Mordecai.

Jews today celebrate their deliverance from the impending massacre with the festival of Purim, named after the lots Haman had drawn to determine the day on which the deed was to take place. (Pur means “lot” in Hebrew.) And they revere Esther for having the courage to face possible death so as to save her people.

This story raises questions in my mind. Why didn’t Mordecai go straight to Xerxes and ask him to save the Jews? Why did Esther fear for her life when it’s clear that the king loved her so much he was willing to grant her half his kingdom? Wouldn’t a wife have known that? And why was Esther buried next to her cousin and guardian and not near her husband, the king?

In fact, no one knows for sure if Esther and Mordecai really are buried in the unassuming, brick shrine in Hamadan. No archaeological studies have been conducted on the remains. What’s more, the village of Kfar Baram in northern Israel also claims to be the place where Esther is buried. Yet many scholars do not believe that Esther existed in the first place but is merely the central figure in a Biblical morality tale.

As for me, I like to think that the tomb of Esther and Mordecai is the real deal. I still remember the sense of wonder I felt on entering the plain, brick-walled shrine and finding myself inside the richly decorated inner sanctuary where the reflection from the red brocade cloths draped over the sarcophaguses created an ethereal glow in the soft light from an overhead chandelier. The place fits Esther’s story somehow, a rags-to-riches tale of intrigue, courage, and survival.

It’s also a love story, and a cross-cultural one at that. Xerxes would likely not have stopped the massacre out of the kindness of his heart, let alone execute his trusted advisor. But he adored his wife and, since she was Jewish, he wanted to save her people to please her. So maybe love does indeed conquer all.


  1. I love the puzzle this story raises. Why, indeed, isn't Esther buried beside her husband if he loved her so much?

  2. I suppose one answer is that she was buried with her husband and someone else is in the tomb. One story has it that Shushandokht, the Jewish wife of another Persian king, Yazdegerd, is buried there. But that story raises another question: who is in the other coffin? Probably not the Persian king.

  3. Oooh, Heidi, delicious questions that would tantalize any mystery writer! I'm surprised archaeologists haven't unlocked some clues to help us understand what might have happened.

  4. A truly beautiful love story, one whose legacy will hopefully last forever.