I was born in Tabriz in Northwestern Iran, one of the largest and most famous cities in Iran. A beautiful city, with a rich heritage, remarkably pleasant weather, delightful natural scenery, unparalleled fruits and vegetables, and a variety of delicious foods. Geographically, Tabriz is a major transit point for trains and trucks carrying goods and passengers from Tehran to Turkey and the Caucasus states — Armenia, Georgia and Soviet Azerbaijan. Tabriz is the capital of East Azerbaijan province, and a center of administration, communications, commerce, industry, culture and government.
Most people in Tabriz speak the Tabrizi dialect of Azeri Turkish, with Persian as their second language. Due to circumstances and necessity, we also spoke the Aramaic dialect of Urmia, Assyrian Aramaic, Armenian, Kurdish, and to a certain extent Russian.
Tabriz was chosen as capital by rulers from different dynasties between the 13th and 16th centuries CE, the last of which was the Safavid dynasty. Shah Ismail I, founder of the Safavid dynasty, was crowned in Tabriz, and immediately replaced Sunni Islam with Twelver Shi’a Islam as the state religion of Iran. To this day, the city’s population (and Iran’s population) is mostly Shi’ite Muslim. Minorities include Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Kurds (who are Sunni Muslims), Zoroastrians and Baha’is. The Jewish community of Tabriz was never large. Taking into account the nomadic history of the province, and based on an account given by my uncle Rabbi Shimon Khakshouri in the book Esther’s Children edited by Houman Sarshar (Persian edition), it seems that the community consisted mostly of people from the Jewish community of Urmia who came to Tabriz for limited periods of time.
Urmia, also known as Rezaiyeh, was the nearest large Jewish community. It was named Rezaiyeh by Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925–1979), who found the city so beautiful that he gave it his own name. After the Islamic Revolution, the name was changed back to Urmia (Persian Orumiyeh). The city is located in West Azerbaijan, about 150 km West of Tabriz. We had many relatives in Rezaiyeh and also lived there for several years.
My cousin Elisha Yonati writes:
I was born in Urmia, in Northwestern Iran. We had a big, beautiful synagogue with twelve arks for Torah scrolls, corresponding to the 12 Shevatim, the 12 tribes of Israel. Two of the Torah scrolls were proven to be 500 and 1,000 years old. My family, like the other four hundred Jewish families in the city, conversed in Aramaic, said to be the language spoken by Avraham Avinu (Abraham the Patriarch).