Over the last few months, the world’s attention has turned to Iran as tensions with the United States has been on the rise. While The Complete Pilgrim will not comment on the current diplomatic situation, the possibility that Iran may soon be less accessible to American visitors is a depressing prospect, especially for religious pilgrims. This is due to the fact that Iran is home to more Biblical sites than any other place outside of Israel, the West Bank or Syria (if any sacred sites are still standing in the latter when that war is over). Both the Old Testament and New Testament are represented in Iran, with the tombs of several major prophets and possibly one of the apostles scattered around the country.
Tomb of Daniel
Daniel is counted among the greatest (and among the most adventurous) of the prophets of the Old Testament. He lived during the late 7th and early 6th century BC, during an age when the land of Israel lay under the domination of foreign powers. In the days of the Babylonian Empire, he predicted the conquest of Babylon by Persia, and endured persecution by both the Babylonians and Persians. In the end, he arose to a position of great importance in the Persian court, and in the latter years of his life boldly prophesied about the end of times.
The Bible does not address Daniel’s final fate, but local traditions in Iran and among the greater Jewish population at large strongly suggest that he remained in Persia for the rest of his life. Today, no fewer than six locations claim to be the place of his burial. But the strongest and most supported claimant by far is the Tomb of Daniel in Shush (Susa), Iran, which is recognized by almost all Jews and a large majority of Muslims.
Tomb of Habakkuk
The prophet Habakkuk is one of the most enigmatic major figures of the Bible. Counted among the Twelve Minor Prophets and author of the Book of Habakkuk, virtually nothing is known about his life. Evidence suggests that he lived at the end of the 7th century BC, and may have been a contemporary of Daniel. One tradition that originated in apocryphal writings indicates that he might have known David around the time he was incarcerated in the Lion’s Den.
If Habakkuk was closely involved or at least a contemporary of Daniel, than it is not unlikely that he lived in Persia and was probably buried there. Several locations claim to be the site of his burial, with the two strongest contenders being the town of Kadarim in Israel and the city of Toyserkan in Iran. The Shrine of Habakkuk in Toyserkan is the older of the two, and probably enjoys the stronger tradition.
Tombs of Esther and Mordecai
Esther is one of the most famous of all of the women mentioned in the Old Testament. Historically, she may be the most important woman in the Old Testament, as she played an absolutely critical role in the survival of the Jewish people during the Exile period. Esther and her Uncle Mordecai lived sometime around the end of the 6th or early 5th century BC. He was an important advisor to the royal court, and she was chosen to marry the emperor, and together they foiled the plot of a rival courtier named Hamen who sought the extermination of the Jewish people.
The events of Esther’s life are celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Purim. While she went on to marry the Emperor Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes I) and become queen, the Bible offers virtually no details of her later life. She is believed to have remained in Iran until her death, along with her uncle, and both were believed to have been buried there. Although there is a village in Israel that claims her tomb, Jews, Christians and Muslims overwhelmingly recognize the shrine located in the city of Hamadan as being the burial site of both Esther and Mordecai.
The Place of the Prophets
The Place of the Prophets is one of Iran’s most fascinating Judeo-Christian sites, though it may not necessarily be a Biblical site. According to tradition, four prophets are buried here, all of whom are believed to have lived sometime between the life of Jesus and the life of Muhammad. One of the four prophets, Khalid e Nabi, espoused the teachings of Jesus but also foresaw the coming of Muhammad, offering an important historic connection between the two faiths.
The other three, Shamun, Yuhanna and Yunus, proclaimed Christianity, and may be connected to the tradition of the Three Wise Men. There is some confusion as to whether they were around before, during or after the life of Christ. The four are considered to be of great historic importance in the tradition of the various eastern churches in Asia. They are entombed together in a shrine in Qazvin.
Monastery of St. Thaddeus
The Monastery of St. Thaddeus may be one of the world’s greatest and least well known treasures of Christendom. According to local tradition, the New Testament figure known as Thaddeus was martyred and buried here in the 1st century AD. The only real question is, which Thaddeus (there may have been two)? Many argue that it is none other than Jude Thaddeus, one of the Twelve Apostles who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Others suggest it was Thaddeus, one of the seventy-two early Christians were went forth to proclaim the Christian faith in its infancy.
Either way, archaeological evidence indicates that a church has been here since the 1st century, though the current structure dates from a later period. The tradition of Christian pilgrimage here is very strong and goes back to very ancient times. Access to the monastery is currently heavily restricted, and is open to pilgrims on only one day a year (the feast day of St. Thaddeus).