Nehemiah ben Hushiel and The Jewish Crusade
Khosrau on the plea of avenging the death of his father-in-law, the emperor Maurice, who had been murdered by the usurper Phocas invaded Asia Minor and Syria at the head of a large army, but in reality Khosrau had his eye on Egypt. Egypt was in rebellion against Phocas, and if Khosrau could manage to conquer Egypt, he could probably come to terms with Phocas. All that remained between Persia and Egypt was Syria-Palestine. Khosrau developed a plan: he could gain Egypt, settle his domestic problems, and gain a powerful ally behind the lines of Roman troops if he declared the Jews be entitled to all their hereditary rights; more than this they could reclaim their ancestral homeland. The Jews may or may not succeed, but they would keep the Romans busy as he concentrated on Egypt.
In 608 CE, Khosrau placed the son of the Exilarch de Jure, Nehemiah ben Hushiel as the symbolic leader of Persian troops. Nehemiah was a mystic so Khosrau feared little interference in military affairs. Promising to re-enact the military feats of bygone years, the Exilarch drafted a Jewish army said to have consisted of 20,000 men. In return Khosrau allowed the reopening of the leading Jewish academies Pumbedisa (607) and Sura (609); Later Khosrau would write to the Emperor: "Do not deceive yourself with your vain hopes, for how can that Christ who was unable to save himself from the Jews [but was crucified instead] save you from me [and my Jews]? For [even] if you descend to the bottom of the sea, I shall stretch forth my hands and seize you. And then you will see me under circumstances which you would rather not."
Hearing news of the Exilarchs' march in full spender, at the head of the combined Judeo-Persian forces, Jews fully expected nothing short of the miraculous. In Antioch the Jews rioted, killing the Christian Patriarch. In Arabia, they rioted and killed the Christian representative in Yemen. In Sefer Zerubavel, both these events are attributed to the miraculous work of the prophetess Hefzibah. Within a few years, Phocus' armies were put to rout in succession, Khosrau reached Edessa (Al-Rai, modern Urfa, in Asia Minor), on the one hand, and Aleppo and Antioch in Syria, on the other. Khosrau set the Exilarch up with a full court in Edessa. In the 20th year of king Khosrau , Persian general Shahen raided through the western areas, going to Cappadocian Caesarea. Now while the Christian inhabitants of the city arose and departed, the Jews went before Shahen and submitted. He remained in that city for one year. Everything was going according to plan: Persia would conquer Egypt. Persia would make peace with Phocas. Then the unexpected happened.
When the Roman ministers saw that Phocas could not save the country, they sought the help from the African governor, the powerful Exarch of Carthage. He sent his son, general Heraclius, who was currently in rebellion against Phocas. Heraclius had been one of East Roman Emperor Maurice's key generals in the 590 war with Persia. Heraclius was sent to Constantinople with a strong fleet. With the support of Priscus, one of Emperor Phocas' top military leaders, the patriarch Sergius and the Green political faction, Heraclius overthrew Phocas and personally executed him. On October 5, 610, Heraclius I was crowned Emperor (r610-641). Now the leader of the rebel province had become the Emperor of Rome. This was not according to Khosrau's plan. According to Islamic historians, this happened the year the Prophet was appointed to Prophethood.
When Heraclius took power, the Empire was in a desperate situation and he considered moving the capital from Constantinople to Carthage. Now as soon as Heraclius ruled, he dispatched messengers with great treasures and edicts to king Khosrau, requesting peace with great entreaties. King Khosrau, however, did not want to listen. He said: "That kingdom belongs to me, and I shall enthrone Maurice's son, Theodosius, as emperor. [As for Heraclius], he went and took the rule without our order and now offers us our own treasure as gifts. But I shall not stop until I have him in my hands." Taking the treasure, Khosrau commanded that his envoys be killed and he did not respond to his message.
The moral excuse for which Khosrau had started the war was no more valid after the deposition and death of Phocus. Had the object of his war really been to avenge the murder of his ally on Phocus for his cruelty, he would have come to terms with the new Emperor after the death of Phocus, but Persia continued to fight. In 612 CE, to counter the Persian choice of the Exilarch, Heraclius summoned a certain priest P'ilipikos to military service. This P'ilipikos was the son-in-law of Emperor Maurice and had been in the military for a long time, triumphing in battle. But then, during Maurice's reign, he took it into his head to cut his hair and to wear priestly garb, becoming a soldier in the covenant of the Church. Heraclius forcibly made him a general and dispatched him to the East with a large army. This gave the war the color of a crusade between Jew and Zoroastrian against Christianity.
Heraclius was a brilliant general and he ranked among the greatest of the Byzantine emperors. His reforms of the government reduced the corruption which had taken hold in the disastrous reign of Phocas, and he reorganized the military with great success. He developed the idea of granting land to individuals in return for hereditary military service. This arrangement ensured the continuance of the Empire for hundreds of years and enabled Heraclius to reconquer lands taken by the Persians, ravaging Persia along the way.
- "Sebeos' History", Chapter 26
- Jewish History (Ohr Sameach) http://www.jewishhistory.org.il/
- Sefer Zerubavel
- "Sebeos' History", Chapter 23
- Encyclopedia: Heraclius
- "Sebeos' History", Chapter 21
- "Sebeos' History", Chapter 23
- Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi in his "The Meaning of the Qur'an"