A virtual reconstruction of Esther’s shrine

As the festival of Purim approaches – it begins tomorrow night – thoughts turn towards Queen Esther, the beautiful Jewess who saved her people from the evil Haman in ancient Persia. An article about Esther’s shrine, as recreated by the website Diarna, which aims to make available virtual reconstructions of Jewish sites of the Arab and Muslim world, features in an article in the Tablet magazine (January 2012). Esther’s shrine was renovated in the 1970s, and a six-pointed star on the roof is supposed to be visible from space.

In the poet Mowlana Shahin-i Shirazi’s re-telling of the Book of Esther as an Iranian epic, Hegai, a Zoroastrian priest, approaches the lovelorn shah Ardashir and “like a lion” revealed to him the secret of Esther – whose peerless existence had not previously been known to the royal court. Another secret, however, that of Esther’s Jewish identity, endured for sometime thereafter.

As in the story, Diarna has discovered through research on Iran’s historic Jewish sites that secrecy, indeed a double secret, shrouds the Hamadan shrine to Esther and Mordechai.

Knowledge of the shrine is limited outside of the Iranian-Jewish community. Those who do know about the site’s existence are mostly unaware of how Yassi Gabbay, the architect of its renovation in the early 1970s, rooted his design in Persian and Islamic architecture. For instance, the site’s once iconic fence with a “Jewish” or “six-point star, combined of two triangles” motif was an homage to an Isfahani mosque ceramic.

A recent Tablet Magazine articlehighlights Diarna’s efforts to make this site and its fascinating history digitally accessible:

There is quite possibly only one Star of David on Earth visible from space…. Location: Hamadan, Iran…. The problem is that the shrine that houses the prominent star has fallen into disrepair at the hands of the local government, and last year anti-Jewish mobs rallied at the shrine, calling for its demolition. In the absence of a Jewish community capable of defending it, a U.S. organization called Diarnarna (Judeo-Arabic for “Our Homes”) has decided the only option is to restore the site—virtually.

Before the 1979 revolution in Iran, at the time when the government of the Shah was organizing an unnecessary and exaggerated festival to commemorate ’2500 years of Iranian monarchy’, the Jewish minority of Iran, like every other minority and institution, was obligated to participate in the celebration. The project of expansion of the shrine was selected and I was commissioned as the architect. My main goal in approaching the architectural concept was to express the relationship of the Jews of Iran, as the oldest minority and living in the country for the last 2500 years, with the Iranian nation. During the design process, in order to avoid any obstruction of the shrine, all new spaces including the small synagogue, were designed to be in a semi-basement. Therefore the only exposed portion of the synagogue’s structure was the roof.

The beams and the roof, being at the ground level of the shrine, were designed in the shape of the “Star of David” mainly to reach the goal explained above. It is important to mention that the “six-point star”, combined of two triangles, could be seen in many ancient Persian and Islamic arts.

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