The Tomb of Daniel

The mausoleum of Daniel, seen from the Bronze Age settlement

We would have expected the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, about which I already wrote, in Susa, but they are in Hamadan. In Susa, though, you can find the tomb of the prophet Daniel, which you would have expected in Babylon.

In its present form, the mausoleum dates back to the twelfth century, with many more recent additions. It is mentioned by the Jewish writer Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Susa in 1167. You will not meet many Jews over there, because the mausoleum is Islamic. A modern wall painting quotes Imam Huseyn (the man who died at Kerbala), who invites Shi’ite Muslims to visit the place: “Anyone who visits my brother Daniel, it is like he visited me.” There used to be another wall painting, showing Daniel in the lions’ den, but it has been overpainted.

But why do Muslims venerate Daniel? After all, the prophet is not mentioned in the Quran. The answer is given by Tabari, a Persian collector of historical anecdotes who lived in the late ninth and early tenth century, and wrote about the Arabian conquests.

The tomb of the prophet

He tells that the Arabs had invaded southwestern Iran (Khuzestan) and started to besiege Susa. The Christian priests and monks insulted their enemy, boasting that the Arabs could only capture the city only if they’d receive support from the devil. However, the city gate collapsed more or less spontaneously, and the Arabs took Susa without much effort. Persian noblemen were executed and the treasury of the church was looted.

Here, the conquerors found a silver sarcophagus with a mummy, which was believed to Daniel’s. A signet ring showing a man between two lions seemed to confirmed this, and when Caliph Umar, who had first ordered the sarcophagus to be buried in the river Shaour, heard about this, he had second thoughts and ordered a decent funeral.

An ancient Christian cult for a Jewish prophet had become an Islamic cult, even though the Quran knew nothing about Daniel. This is quite interesting, because it proves that in the age of the great Arab conquests, the Islamic religion still had to get its own character. I like the idea, proposed by Fred Donner, that it was a kind of ecumenical movement of Jews, Christians, and Arabs who had accepted monotheism. If that was indeed the nature of early Islam, it is less of a surprise to find a Jewish prophet being venerated by Muslims.

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