Jewish Kingdom of Mesopotamia

by Jonah Gabriel Lissner

Copyright © 2000 Jonah Gabriel Lissner, B.A., All Rights Reserved. Published at with permission of the author.


Nestled in the highlands of modern-day Kurdish Iraq, Armenia and northern Iran, two millennia ago this land sheltered the proud Jewish kingdom of Adiabene, with its capital at Arbela, nominally part of the Assyrian province of the Parthian Empire.1

In the midst of changing alliances between Claudius Caesar, Herod and the remnants of the old Jerusalem Priesthood, a Jewish kingdom east of the Tigris was born in the first century CE that had a direct and benevolent effect on the Israelites living in the Jewish Kingdom of Judea, and throughout the great sweep of the eastern Roman Empire.

Jerusalem at the time was under the thrall of the Roman procurator Fadus and thus subject to the changing whims of the Roman senate, emperor and oligarchs. Jews throughout the land of Judea had suffered under the increasing power of the Roman empire's interests and had seen their holy Priesthood whittled and gutted to house a pro-Roman theocracy.

In Antiquities of The Jews: Book Twenty, Josephus cites the ongoing battles of consolidation between Jews and non-Jews surrounding their kingdom, including the case of the Perean Jews versus the Philadelphians:

But [Cuspius] Fadus, as soon as he was come procurator into Judea, found quarrelsome doings between the Jews that dwelt in Perea, and the people of Philadelphia about their borders, at a village called Mia, that was filled with men of a warlike temper; for the Jews of Perea had taken up arms without the consent of their principal men, and had destroyed many of the Philadelphians.2

Eager to save face, Fadus had the three leaders of the Jewish revolt against the Mians captured, murdering one, named Hannibal.3 The other two, named Areram and Eleazar, were banished.4 An additional partisan named Tholomy was captured and killed by the Romans, but not before he had inflicted demonstrable damage onto the Idumeans and their kindred Arabians in and around Judea.5

New Procurator in Judea

In the year 44 CE, Fadus continued to consolidate Roman power, symbolic or otherwise, in his insistence by promulgation that the priests and oligarchs of the city of Jerusalem render the "long garment and the sacred vestment, customary for no-one but the High Priest to wear, in the tower of Antonia,"6 that it might be under Roman control, as had been the case before the advent of Fadus under the reign of Herod.

Cutting no corners, and remembering the previous Roman admonishment to the Judeans in this time of political ferment, and accompanied by Roman troops to quell any hint of riot by the zealous Jews, Fadus sought counsel with his Roman counterparts. The Jews then agreed to send a contingent of their best "peaceable sons" with their ambassadors to Rome, where they were met by Agrippa son of the deceased Agrippa. The negotiations were positive for the Judeans and the Romans received the Judeans' request for control of the holy vestments of the High Priest.

Meanwhile Herod wished license to consolidate his dynastic power among the Jerusalem Priesthood and obtained permission by petition to Claudius Caesar authority over the temple, monies of the sacred treasure, and the choice of high priests. At the end of the intermittent Judean Wars Herod had replaced the last high priest, "called Cimtheras, and bestowed that dignity on his successor Joseph, the son of Cantos."7

Helena of Adiabene

Nearly two thousand miles away east of the Tigris in the foothills of the Adiabenian Empire, vassals of the unpredictable Parthians, a kingdom stood on the verge of a historic series of changes.

Helena, Queen of Adiabene, ruled of an empire influenced by the sciences of the Hellenes and the arts of the Persians, in the old foothills of the northern Tigris, on the south shores of the Caspian Sea, ruled a land increasingly swayed by the policies of the Roman Empire of the east, even as memory of the old Alexandran customs had begun to evaporate from the hearts and minds of the residents. To her east lay the treacherous Parthians, to the north the unpredictable Saksa, Dane and affiliated horse-nomads. The Romans, through networks of trade, diplomacy and the promise of military reinforcement radiating from Rome, gradually extended their influence northeastward from Jerusalem. Judging from the time of the war of Judea against the Romans, circa 66 to 70 CE, the Queen Helena began her rule some four decades previous, or 30 CE.

According to Josephus, it occurred then that Monobazus:

the king of Adiabene, who had also the name of Bazeus, fell in love with his sister, Helena, and took her to be his wife, and begat her with child. But as he was in bed with her one night, he lad his hand upon his wife's belly, and fell asleep, and seemed to hear a voice, which bid him to take his hand off his wife's belly, and not hurt the infant that was therein, which by God's providence, would be safely born, and have a happy end.8

Nonetheless, Monobazus had many other royal children by other wives, and when this son Izates grew, Monobazus felt it prudent to send him to a local king, Abennerig of Charax-Spasini. Abennerig received the young man with openness, and with great affection bestowed his own daughter, Samacha, and a country upon him by which he could collect revenues, enhances his own kingdom, and enhance the overall power of the Adiabenians.

Monobazus grew old and his son Izates, his favorite son, learned the ways of power; Monobazus sent for Izates and bestowed him a new land named Carra, with the crop amomum, a crop known to grow throughout Central and East Asia and in the case of Adiabenians' interest, the central Iranian plateau south of the Adiabenian lands and the Caspian Sea basin,9 known best in the ancient world as a cooking agent, stimulant, perfume, and medicine.10

The Incentive of Noah's Ark

Yet Monobazus, and the Monobazids, including his wife Queen Helena and son the would-be King Izates, may have had additional reasons for interest in conversion to Judaism. Legend held that Carra had sheltered the Lost Ark of Noah, and is still a legend today in Armenia and Southwest Asia. In the third century the Church historian and Hippolytus, in the wake of the Jewish suzerain throughout the old Parthian Empire, wrote:

The relics of this Ark are ...shown to this day in the mountains called Ararat, which are situated in the direction of the country of the Adiabene [Iran].11

Julius Africanus, also writing in the third century, had this location in mind:

...and the Ark settled on the mountains of Ararat, which we know to be in Parthia [Iran]. Another tradition locates the Ark in Persia [modern Iran]. It was said to have landed in the area of Ecbatana [Hamadhan].12

A map in Calmet's Dictionnaire Historique de la Bible (1722), shows the Ark atop this mountain, which it indicates as "Mont Ararat." Various ancient writings of the Assyrians tell of Assurnasirpal fighting a battle on Mount Nisir (Mount Ararat) which the Lullumi call Kinipa. The Lullumi and Zamua are from the same region. This region is in western Iran in the Zagros Mountains east of the lower Zab River.13 Josephus cited Adiabene as resting between the Great and Little Zab Rivers.

Upon the death of Monobazus, Izates' mother Helena sent for all of the governors, rulers, and oligarchs of the kingdom of Adiabene for Izates' coronation. In short, the men agreed to nominate Izates but held reservations about the remaining children of Monobazus, and their allies, whose ties to the throne could potentially endanger the nomination of Izates. Helena asked that the men not support a putsch of the pretenders to the throne, but instead give the interim throne to Izates' older brother Monobazus II, who thence received all of the physical trappings of rulership14 while Izates traveled across the kingdom, in the hope of holding the challengers in their places.

Izates of Adiabene

While events transgressed in Jerusalem and Judea proper, a Jewish tradesman named Ananias, mingled among the women of Izates' harem in the land of Charax-Spasini. Next, Ananias spoke with Izates and introduced him directly to the tenets of Judaism, by any account a well-known religion throughout the Roman world, including North Africa and the frontier lands of West Asia, if not a widely-observed one in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire.

The entente went well, and Izates was persuaded by Ananias to adopt Judaism.15 Helena meanwhile had been instructed by another Jew on the matters at hand, and mother and son met with their advisers to discuss the situation of the regency. It was decided that a portion of the conspirators would be sent to Claudius in Rome, and the other to Artabanus, king of Parthia, as hostages.

Being young and zealous, Izates decided he would adopt Judaism in its entirety, including circumcision; his mother warned against it, citing possible reaction among the citizenry of Adiabene to such a thorough observance of the religion in the mind of the king. Izates, Helena and Ananias discussed the issue, and Izates resolved at face to a moderate observance.

But the debates similar as waged between the Saducee and the Pharisee in those turbulent times found their course into Adiabene. Josephus adds that "a certain other Jew that came out of Galilee, whose name was Eleazar,"16 and esteemed in Judea for his learning, came into the Royal Palace at Adiabene, possibly at the request of the increasingly pious but hesitant Izates, and persuaded Izates to become circumcised. Eleazar admonished:

How long wilt thou continue uncircumcised? But if thou hast not yet read the law about circumcision, and dost not know how great impiety thou art guilty of by neglecting it, read it now.17

Shortly thereafter, Izates agreed. The resistance expected by the citizens did not materialize; indeed Josephus indicates that the populace admired him for his bravery and piousness to Judaism.

Mindful of the events which in her view were of a positive nature, Helena journeyed with her retinue to Jerusalem and the Great Temple to worship and offer thank-offerings while the throne in Arbela had been safeguarded. Queen Helena offered items of blessing including a special addition to the Kodesh, or Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple:

The doorway of the Kodesh was 10 cubits wide and 20 cubits high. Over the doorway was a carving of a golden menorah donated by Queen Helena, a convert to Judaism. The morning service could not begin before sunrise. The Temple was surrounded by high walls, and it was not possible to see the rising sun, so priest had to be sent outside to see if it was time for the service to begin. After Queen Helena donated the Menorah, it was no longer necessary to send a priest outside the Temple. As the sun rose in the east it shone against the menorah and the reflected light was cast into the Azarah. The priests then knew that the morning service could begin.18

Simultaneously a famine had developed in Jerusalem. Helena coordinated an aid package with Izates and monies were sent to Roman Alexandria for a shipment of corn and other supplies, including dried figs from Cyprus, to the beleaguered inhabitants of Jerusalem.19 The food was distributed under Helena's direction in Judea; Izates sent sums of money to the oligarchs of Jerusalem and the international coordination of resources from one Jewish nation to another Jewish nation was completed.

But the contrivances of the opposition never go unnoticed. Meanwhile in Parthia, King Artabanus, the former recipient of hostages from the Jewish oligarchs of Jerusalem, discovered a plot against him in his own kingdom. Worried, he sought assistance from King Izates of Adiabene.

Josephus indicates that Artabanus "brought a thousand of his kindred and servants with him, and met him [Izates] upon the road, while he knew well Izates, but Izates did not know him."20 Diplomatic flourishes exchanged. Izates, possessing the knowledge that his religious compatriots in Jerusalem had been forced to give their sons and other hostages to the Roman and Parthian nations, relished this opportunity for a swinging back of the pendulum of power for the Jewish cause.

Parthia Upset

Apparently there was a power vacuum in Parthia, and Parthia itself may have been only a confederation of small kings in a number of city-states.21, 22

Nevertheless, King Artabanus begged King Izates for aid, and the two kings held a conference in which Artabanus asked for supplies and diplomatic reassurance and representation from the Adiabenians. Izates agreed, with the price being Artabanus agreeing to be a vassal of Adiabene, and by extension this regent of the Parthian kingdom a vassal of the Jewish kingdom Adiabene. It was agreed.

Having secured Artabanus, Izates wrote to the Parthian rebels in Artabanus' kingdom and asked them to receive Artabanus on his [Izates'] "right hand and his faith,"23 to which the Parthians responded that while they did not dislike Artabanus, they had already selected another king, named Cinnamus, and that if Artabanus returned, a civil war in that province should erupt into full expression. The detente arranged by Izates for the two kings was arranged, and upon Artabanus' arrival, he was recrowned regent of his province on the authority of Izates of Adiabene province, the Jewish King.

Once re-elected, Artabanus conferred the highest honors to Izates as a reward of his service, including the right to "wear his [Artabanus'] tiara upright, and to sleep upon a golden bed, which are privileges and marks of honor peculiar to the Kings of Parthia."24 Artabanus also, "cut off a large and fruitful country from the king of Armenia, and bestowed it upon him [Izates]. The name of the country is Nisibis, wherein the Macedonians had formerly built that city which they called Antioch of Mygodonla. And these were the honors that were paid Izates by the king of the Parthians."25

Then, according to Josephus, Artabanus died, leaving his kingdom to his son Bardanes. As a first matter of royal business concerning international relations of Parthia with its neighbors, Bardanes held a conference with Izates, asking him to enter an intra-Parthian alliance with his kingdom and others against the Romans. Izates apparently declined, for "Izates so well knew the strength and good fortune of the Romans."26 Not only had Izates sent five of his sons to study with the Romans, but his pan-religious alliance with the Judeans, themselves in an uneasy truce with the Roman military machine so much more so than with the Roman culture, forsook him to agree to any further entreaties by Bardanes of a pan-Parthian, anti-Roman coalition.

Bardanes announced a war immediately against Izates. Yet Bardanes was rewarded for his intentions by a coup d'etat, in which other Parthian contenders murdered him. So the reign of Bardanes was no more. His brother Gozartes succeeded him, but was also assassinated; then his brother Vologases. Vologases was apparently the wisest of the three, and immediately bequeathed two of his owned provinces to his paternal half-brothers, with Pacorus receiving Medes territory, and Tiridates receiving Armenia.

Judaism Sweeps Through Parthia

The royal family not only of Adiabene but throughout the Parthian kingdoms observed the change in Izates after his conversion to Judaism and esteemed his moral character and strength. Josephus states that "Monobazus, and his other kindred, saw how Izates, by his piety to God, was become greatly esteemed by all men, they also had a desire to leave the religion of their country [Zoroastrianism], and to embrace the customs of the Jews,"27 of necessity antagonizing the entrenched Parthian oligarchs.

A plot developed among these Parthian oligarchs to upend Izates' reign. They made diplomatic contact with the King of Arabia, Abia, and promised him an economic aid package, should he make a military expedition against Izates. Abia agreed, and mounted an expeditionary force.

When Abia's army invaded the Parthian headlands, passing across the Euphrates and north from northern Arabia, the Parthian traitors deserted Izates' army. Planning ahead, Izates, retreated into camp, held meeting with his generals, and slew the available traitors. The next battle-day he killed his enemies and forced the rest of Abia's army to flight. Izates himself pursued King Abia and "drove him into a fortress called Arsamus,"28 in which Izates' forces destroyed the remainder invading army, and surrounded the Arab King Abia, who in panic committed suicide.

Because Izates had to a real extent consolidated power with the Romans, Judea, within his own kingdom and was establishing greater contact with the other Parthian kingdoms, the Parthian oligarchs, sensing a diminishing of their control, and in hatred of Izates for "abrogating the laws of their forefathers,"29 organized another coup d'etat extending an offer of rebellion to Vologases, an ally of Izates.

Vologases agreed to the rebellion. Izates would not renounce his alliances or his religion, and took his family to retreat in a fortress on his own, and probably fortified his home city against attack. Josephus cites that he "laid up his corn in his citadels, and set the hay on grass on fire."30 Vologases came with an army of infantry and cavalry at great haste, and made his camp at "the river that parted Adiabene from Media"31 Izates looked on with six thousand horsemen. Then Izates received a communique from Vologases, emphasizing that Vologases' domains, whether accurate or fictitious, reached from the Euphrates River to Bactria, in far Eastern Persia, abutting the Khyber Pass, the old Alexandran territory.

Izates decided that the bulk of the threats were true, and he called upon God for supplication and made testimony of his sins, and fasted with his wives and children. In this grim time, a miracle occurred. The night before Vologases' planned attack, his camp received letters from his home kingdom: great tribes of the steppe-dwelling Dahe and Sacse32, in retaliation for the constant Parthian attempts on their own Transoxian territories, made a great expedition into Parthia and laid massive parts of it to waste. Vologases had no choice but to return to his kingdom in the same haste had had left it. Izates and his camp celebrated the withdrawal of Vologases.

Izates Completes His Rule

Izates ruled the kingdom for twenty-four years and died in the fifty-fifth year of his life, circa 58 CE, leaving twenty-four sons and twenty-four daughters. Josephus does not indicate any more disturbances to the Kingdom of Adiabene. Izates requested that his brother Monobazus, son of Monobazus, be elected to Kingship, preserving the government. Queen Helena mourned the death of her son, and joined him in death months later. Monobazus had their remains buried in Jerusalem, in the Three Pyramids outside the city that Queen Helena had erected in her reign, three furlongs, or roughly .375 miles, from the old city of Jerusalem proper.

Izatid Epilogue

Judaism in Adiabene survived the death of Izates and Helena. History indicates that the Jewish religion continued to play a part in the kingdom of Adiabene; non-royal Adiabenians converted. "The names of the Adiabenite [sic] Jews Jacob Hadyaba and Zuga (Zuwa) of Hadyab,"33 indicate a non-Hebrew origin and possible conversion to Judaism.

Kevin Brook cites that the Jewish kings of Adiabene were regularly involved in policy and military affairs. In 61 CE, Monobazus II, the king who Izates meant to succeed him, sent troops to Armenia to try to thwart an invasion of Adiabene. Two years later, he was in attendance at a peace settlement between Parthia and Rome. During the war of Judea against the Roman Empire (66-70 CE), the Adiabenian royal family supported the Judean side.34

According to Paul E. Kahle, there were many Jews in the city of Arbela even after the establishment of bishops and the spread of Christianity in Adiabene.35

According to Brook, "The last king of an independent Adiabene was Meharaspes [Mebarsapes], who ruled in around 115 CE."36 The next year Adiabene became part of Assyria, a province of the Roman Empire, when it was invaded by Trajan of Mesopotamia. And in the following year, 117 CE, Hadrian ended Roman control over Adiabene.


Today part of the ancient kingdom of Adiabene is in Armenia, an Orthodox Christian nation. Yet according to the History of Christianity in Asia, the first historical Bishop of Adiabene was Pkidha, circa 104 to 114 CE.37 And according to the Bible Archaeology, Search and Exploration Institute, "By the time of the conversion of Armenia to Christianity (fourth century) and the introduction of an alphabet, so that the Bible could be translated into Armenian (fifth century), Armenia was a semi-independent kingdom whose religious and administrative centers were concentrated in the northern part of the country."38

If that is the case, then the Armenian bishoprics could not have been Christian until the serviceship, at the earliest, of Sri'a, circa 291 to 317 CE. Following that logic, one may wonder what religion was practiced by the population of Adiabene, and what the religion was of the rulers of Adiabene until the advent of Christianity in Adiabene. It was arguably Judaism, established in the reign of Queen Helena of Adiabene nearly three centuries before.


         1. Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1981).
         2. Ibid.
         3. Ibid.
         4. Ibid.
         5. Ibid.
         6. Ibid.
         7. Ibid.
         8. Ibid.
         9. Ibid. It should be noted that royal incest was not an uncommon custom in antiquity, practiced throughout much of the pagan Mediterranean world.
         10. Heber W. Youngken, Textbook of Pharmacognosy (Philadelphia: The Blakiston Co., 1950), pp. 231-236.
         11. Ibid.
         12. Hippolytus, The Extant Works And Fragments of Hippolytus, trans. Rev. S. D. F. Salmond, Section V., on Gen. viii. I.
         13. Julius Africanus, History of the World (220 CE), Vol. 1-5. It is curious that rumors of Lost Tribes of Israel in and around Hamadhan are reported to the present day.
         14. Calmet, Dictionnaire Historique de la Bible, (1722).
         15. Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1981).
         16. Ibid.
         17. Ibid.
         18. Ibid.
         19. Rabbi Leibel Reznick, The Holy Temple Revisited (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990).
         20. Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1981).
         21. Ibid.
         22. The Parthian Empire may be considered a part of Persian history, closely connected to Greece and Rome through trade and conquest. Ruling four centuries from 247 BCE to 228 CE in ancient Persia, the Parthians defeated Alexander the Great's successors, the Seleucids, conquered most of the Middle East and southwest Asia, and built Parthia into an Eastern superpower. The Parthian empire counterbalanced Rome's strength in the West.
         23. Ibid.
         24. Ibid.
         25. Ibid.
         26. Ibid.
         27. Ibid.
         28. Ibid.
         29. Ibid.
         30. Ibid.
         31. Ibid.
         32. Ibid.
         33. Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria (Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1999), p. 266.
         34. Ibid.
         35. Paul E. Kahle, The Cairo Genizah (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 189.
         36. Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria (Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1999), p. 267.
         37. A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques, via Samuel Hugh Moffett, History of Christianity in Asia (Orbis Books, 1998), p.88.
         38. Anonymous, Bible Archaeology, Search & Exploration Institute (website, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1998).

"In the first millennium of our era, Judaism's attractiveness was indicated by the conversion of kings and large populations. In the first century, the royal family of Adiabene and perhaps much of the population converted to Judaism. Adiabene occupied the territory that had once been Assyria. The royal house proved exemplary. The converts of Adiabene fought alongside other Jews in the war against Rome." - Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), p. 77.
Additional information about Adiabene:
  • Arbela
  • Bishops of Adiabene
  • The Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston
  • "How did Trajan Succeed in Subduing Parthia where Mark Antony Failed?", by Graham Wylie, in The Ancient History Bulletin 4:2 (1990): 37-43.
  • "Christianity in Persia", in East of the Euphrates by T. V. Philip
  • Tomb of the Kings - place where Queen Helena and her family are buried

    Books available for sale:

  • Josephus: The Complete Works, translated by William Whiston
  • The Jews of Khazaria, by Kevin Alan Brook

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