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Siege of Jerusalem 614 |
A short-lived Jewish restoration

Siege of Jerusalem 614 is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 136, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

In the wake of the Persian invasion, a Jewish administration returns to Jerusalem, but with it came the massacre and slavery of the city’s Christian population

Siege of Jerusalem 614 - A short-lived Jewish restoration

Siege of Jerusalem 614 - A short-lived Jewish restoration
The original church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed by the Persians in their assault on Jerusalem in 614. The Greek Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem reenacts the washing of the disciple’s feet during Holy Week outside the present building, which dates from 1149.

The conflict between Christians and Jews, bitter and occasionally violent from the first Christian century onward, produced a series of bloodbaths in the seventh century when the Persian invasion of Palestine enabled the Jews to repossess, for three years, their holy city of Jerusalem.

Persia held a mystical charm for the Jews because it was Cyrus the Great of Persia who restored them to Jerusalem in 538 b.c., ending what is known as “the Babylonian Captivity.”1 Now, nearly twelve centuries later, the Persians were on the march again. Could history be repeating itself? Would they again restore Jerusalem to the Jewish people? Was Chosroes another Cyrus?

For this reason, thousands of young Jews volunteered for the Persian army as it moved massively into Syria at the turn of the seventh century. This, however, made them enemies of the Christians who were fighting the Persian advance.

But not all the Christians: Most Syrian Christians were Monophysites, and under vigorous persecution by the orthodox Christian emperor Phocas. When the Monophysites announced plans for a council in Antioch, the imperial authorities forbade it, and issued demands that the Monophysites conform to imperial religious policy and that all Jews become Christians.

“The consequence of this policy was a great revolt of the Jews in Antioch,” writes the British historian J. B. Bury (History of the Later Roman Empire). “Christians were massacred, and a cruel and indecent punishment was inflicted on the patriarch Anastasius.” The eighth-century historian Theophanes furnishes details of the aged cleric’s castration: “They hurled his genitals into his face, then dragged him into the mese (i.e., the main street), and murdered him and many landowners. Then they burned their bodies.”

Phocas retaliated by sending in two generals to quell the rebellion. Bury says they “drove the Jews out of Antioch.” Historian Alfred J. Butler, in The Arab Conquest of Egypt, describes their “wholesale massacre by hanging, drowning, burning, torturing and casting to wild beasts.” The following year, however, as the Persians advanced, the Christians fled the city, the roads were clogged with refugees, and the Jews surrendered Antioch to the invaders–then Damascus, then Caesarea.

In 614, the Persian army arrived before the walls of Jerusalem. A new Christian patriarch, realizing that a defense against the enormous Persian host must ultimately fail, urged immediate surrender on the good terms offered. But the populace, represented by the local wings of the Byzantine Blue and Green political parties, rejected his advice, declared him a traitor, and manned the defenses. It took the Persian army twenty-one days to breach the walls. The historian Andreas Stratos (Byzantium in the Seventh Century) describes what followed:

“Jerusalem suffered the fate of a city taken by assault. The savagery of the Persians and particularly the Jews was inconceivable. Slaughter and looting went on for three days. All the great churches were set on fire.” He says the estimates of the numbers of Christians killed (based on ancient records, often drastically inflated) range from thirty-four thousand to ninety thousand. Many others were taken as slaves, herded to the Mount of Olives, offered for sale, and then marched off to Persia–the patriarch among them. Jews purchased some of the prisoners, says one early account, in order to put them to death.

As a reward for their help in the conquest, the Persian commander turned Jerusalem over to Jewish administration. In the next three years, however, Persian policy abruptly changed. A broad tolerance for Christians was instituted, particularly for the Monophysites. At the same time, all Jews were ordered banished from the city. What caused this Persian—Jewish rupture is not clear. Some attribute it to the Persian king’s influential Armenian Christian wife, Shirin. In any event, these new Persian overlords proved far less benevolent to the Jews than the ancient ones had. n

1. Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C., destroyed the Temple, and herded thousands of Jews to Mesopotamia. After Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, he restored the Jews to their homeland, and authorized the construction of a new Temple. The new building was opened in 516, exactly seventy years after the Babylonian conquest, thus fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy: “And this whole shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25:11).

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