Jews of the Middle East

Regardless of where Jews have lived most recently, all Jews have roots in the Middle East.

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Upon examining the history and heritage of the Jewish people, we find that Judaism is deeply connected to the Middle East and North Africa: Sarah and Abraham came from Mesopotamia, the land that is today Iraq--the same land where the first yeshivas and the Babylonian Talmud were developed. The festival Purim celebrates the liberation of ancient Iranian (Persian) Jews, and Passover tells the story of ancient Egyptian Jews. Hebrew developed alongside other Semitic languages in the Middle East and North Africa and Jewish prayers and holiday cycles reflect the weather patterns of that region. (It was not, for example, meant to snow in the Sukkah.)

Regardless of where Jews lived most recently, therefore, all Jews have roots in the Middle East and North Africa. Some communities, of course, have more recent ties to this region: Mizrahim and Sephardim, two distinct communities that are often confused with one another.

The Beginnings of the Jewish People

Mizrahim are Jews who never left the Middle East and North Africa since the beginnings of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonian Empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Yehudah (Judah), the southern region of ancient Israel.

Babylonians occupied the Land of Israel and exiled the Yehudim (Judeans, or Jews), as captives into Babylon. Some 50 years later, the Persian Empire (ancient Iran) conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return home to the land of Israel. But, offered freedom under Persian rule and daunted by the task of rebuilding a society that lay in ruins, most Jews remained in Babylon. Over the next millennia, some Jews remained in today's Iraq and Iran, and some migrated to neighboring lands in the region (including today's Syria, Yemen, and Egypt), or emigrated to lands in Central and East Asia (including India, China, and Afghanistan)

map of middle eastSephardim are among the descendants of the line of Jews who chose to return and rebuild Israel after the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire. About half a millennium later, the Roman Empire conquered ancient Israel for the second time, massacring most of the nation and taking the bulk of the remainder as slaves to Rome. Once the Roman Empire crumbled, descendants of these captives migrated throughout the European continent. Many settled in Spain (Sepharad) and Portugal, where they thrived until the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition and Expulsion shortly thereafter. 

During these periods, Jews living in Christian countries faced discrimination and hardship. Some Jews who fled persecution in Europe settled throughout the Mediterranean regions of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, as well as Central and South America. Sephardim who fled to Ottoman-ruled Middle Eastern and North African countries merged with the Mizrahim, whose families had been living in the region for thousands of years.

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Loolwa Khazzoom

Loolwa Khazzoom writes about Jewish multiculturalism and the cultural traditions and modern struggles of Sephardi, Mizrahi, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews. She is involved in the Jewish Multicultural Project and in the organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).