March 1, 2007
Tehran cemetery Web site links local Persians to Iran
Nearly four years ago, Shahram Farzan, an Iranian Jew living in Los Angeles, traveled to Tehran to have a hand-carved marble tombstone placed on his father's grave at the Jewish cemetery, which has been called "beheshtieh" by the city's Jewry for more than half a century. (The word beheshtieh is Persian for "heavenly place.")
After Farzan had photographed his father's new tombstone, he was inspired to create a Web site -- Beheshtieh.com -- to share what he had seen. For the next two months, Farzan painstakingly cleaned and photographed nearly 80 percent of the graves at the 20-acre cemetery, so that the exiled Iranian Jewish community in Southern California could view their loved ones' gravesites online.
"After the revolution, many people lost their ties to Iran and to the cemetery because it was not a priority," said Farzan, 52. "I thought by taking these photographs of the graves, their relatives living in Beverly Hills would maybe see this and realize that the world is not just about money and power."
For the past three years, Farzan, who owns a Los Angeles demolition business, spent his own funds and his spare time translating, cataloging and posting more than 10,000 photographs in preparation for the Web site's launch last June. Each photo is accompanied by English translations listed beneath.
Many of the tombstones are made from white marble and have elaborate hand-carved designs, including Stars of David, menorahs and inscriptions in both Persian and Hebrew. Others are just mounds of earth without a proper headstone or identifying marker. And many of the tombstones have been damaged by poor weather and lack of upkeep, Farzan said.
"On the grounds of the cemetery, I saw a lot of used drug needles, roaming dogs, trash dumped everywhere, a greenhouse with shattered windows and some homeless people loitering there," Farzan said. Despite the cemetery's worn condition, Farzan spoke only praise for the remaining Jews of Iran who, he said, have not abandoned the site.
He was also appreciative that the Iranian government has not allowed developers to build on the site, as has happened in some non-Jewish cemeteries in the country.
"I think the Iranian government has been very respectful for keeping the cemetery and not demolishing it," Farzan said. "Historically, from the time of Abraham, we are cousins with Muslims and must foster better relations with them."
Not all the Jews buried in Tehran's Jewish cemetery are of Iranian heritage. The cemetery is also home to more than 60 European Jews who escaped Nazi Europe for Iran in the early 1940s and died there, Farzan said.
The Jewish community in Iran has never had a mortuary business. Traditionally, Jewish volunteers donated funds and physically helped with preparations for burial of the dead; volunteers included some of the most affluent businessmen in the community.
Woodland Hills resident Yusef Hendizadeh, 80, who volunteered at the cemetery from the 1940s until the 1970s, is one of the original caretakers of Tehran's Jewish cemetery.
"I was a very successful businessman in the fabrics business; they [community leaders] came to me and gave me the responsibility of helping the community with their burial needs," Hendizadeh said in his native Persian tongue. "At that time, there was a difficult road to travel to the cemetery, so we had to carry the bodies by a horse-drawn carriage; later the community helped pay for a car."
According to Dr. Habib Levy's "Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran" (Mazda Publishers, 1999), the site for Tehran's Jewish cemetery was also used as a temporary refugee camp, housing thousands of Iranian and Iraqi Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. Many had fled their homes out of fear of being killed after Israel declared its independence.
Perhaps one of the best-known Jewish burial grounds in Iran is the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, located in the city of Hamadan. Although Iranian Jews have long believed that the tombs belong to Esther and Mordecai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.
"The great archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there," Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Journal in 2005. "But [he] later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there."
Netzer also said the tomb of the Jewish biblical prophet Daniel is located in the southern Iranian city of Susa, and is visited by both Jews and Muslims.
Local Iranian Jewish leaders said Farzan's photos of Jewish gravesites also serve an important role in preserving historical records of Iran's Jewry dating back more than 2,500 years.
"Some of these sites are older than the Talmud; some are as old as Queen Esther," said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. "In the absence of any other guaranteed alternatives, photographs may be the best option for preserving at least the memories of these sites."
Farzan said he would like to return to Iran and photograph the graves at various other Jewish cemeteries in the cities of Esfahan, Kermanshah, Kashan, Rezaeh, Shiraz, Sanandj and Yazd.
Kermanian said local Iranian Jews are looking to help Farzan expand his efforts in photographing and recording various significant Jewish burial sites throughout Iran.
Representatives from the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, who control the cemetery, indicated in a written statement that there are plans to transform a chapel on the grounds of the cemetery into a small museum honoring those who helped establish the cemetery in 1933.
Farzan said he is seeking online donations from those using the site. The funds will be used for maintenance and new landscaping renovations for Tehran's Jewish cemetery as well as to build a small memorial to Tehran's Jewish cemetery at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills.
"We must pay our respects to the past generations lying in that cemetery [who] sacrificed by enduring hardship while holding onto their Judaism, which we still have today," Farzan said.