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Eighteen miles southwest of the city of Isfahan lies the town of Pir-i Bakran (also known as Linjan), the home of one of the holiest sites in Iran.1 This is the shrine to Serah bat Asher, the granddaughter of the patriarch Jacob. According to tradition, the inner room of the synagogue is Serah’s cave, with a secret tunnel that leads directly to Jerusalem. The shrine attracts pilgrims from all over the country, appealing for help with anything from personal misfortune to national crises. In the past, local Muslims also made pilgrimages to “Lady Sarah”.2
Serah bat Asher The first mention of Serah bat Asher comes in the list of those who travelled to Egypt with Jacob to be reunited with Joseph. Notably, she is the only woman in the genealogical list besides the matriarchs and Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.3 Eventually, Serah became the heroine of several different legends. She told Jacob that Joseph was still alive by singing the news, accompanied by a harp—his children feared that being any more blunt would cause Jacob to die of shock.4 Jacob was so overjoyed that he blessed her with immortality. This would become a key part of her legend: her immortality made her a link between generations, bearing information from one age to the next.5 She is said to have showed Moses where Jacob’s bones were and identified him as the Redeemer, showed King David the location of the foundation stone for the Temple of Jerusalem, helped Jeremiah hide vessels from the Temple after its destruction, and corrected a rabbi on what the walls of water that surrounded the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea looked like (mirrors, not sprouting bushes).6 Although one account says that she died in a fire in the Pir-i Bakran synagogue in the ninth century AD, others claim that because of her immortality, she became one of the ten or eleven people who never died, and entered paradise alive.7 A gravestone in Isfahan's Jewish cemetery marked the resting place of "Serah the daughter of Asher the son of our Patriarch Jacob," and bore a date equivalent to 1133 AD, but by the end of the 19th century the stone had vanished.8
Pir-i Bakran Legend According to one legend, Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629) was hunting near Isfahan when he saw a beautiful doe that he pursued all the way to Pir-i Bakran, leaving his companions far behind. When he followed the doe into a cave, the cave’s entrance closed, trapping him inside. The doe changed into a woman, who told the shah that he would never leave the cave unless he rescinded a decree that had forced Jews to wear demeaning headgear. Some accounts claim that the Pir-i Bakan synagogue was renamed in honor of Serah after this.9
Antiquity of the Synagogue A stone inscribed in Hebrew found beneath the synagogue bears an illegible date that some have argued may be equivalent to 1130 AD, while others argue that it is a later date. Archeologists discovered a stone dating to 500 BC in Pir-i Bakran’s Jewish cemetery in 1948, suggesting that Jews have inhabited the area for at least twenty-five hundred years.10 This fits with another legend of Serah, which suggests that she led some of the tribe of Asher into exile during the reign of Shalmaneser V (r. 727-722 BC).11
Description of the Synagogue, Cemetery, and Shrine "The cemetery shaped like the Hebrew letter ḥet, enclosed on three sides around a large, shaded yard, while the fourth side faces a nearby stream. The synagogue, known as the Kenīsā-yi Yaʿaqūb Avinu (The Synagogue of Our Father Jacob), is built at one side of the yard and has a low entrance. A relatively narrow passage connects the sanctuary and an inner room, which according to tradition is actually the cave of Serah bat Asher. The yard is surrounded by rooms, creating a structure that resembles a caravanserai. Each room can lodge one visiting Jewish family...The cemetery may have occupied a much wider area in the past and is still in use. In a special section reserved for foreign Jews, there are tombstones, decorated with elaborately carved flowers and other ornaments, and inscribed in English, Italian, German, or Dutch as well as Hebrew. Some date back hundreds of years. According to local legend, there was once a village adjacent to the cemetery area inhabited by Jewish silversmiths who were converted to Islam by force to protect it. The cemetery is still regarded as holy because of a popular belief that an underground secret route connects a nearby place called Kūkūlū (the meaning of this word is now lost) to Jerusalem, so that the dead buried in the cemetery will be the first to arrive there on the Day of Judgment".12