The Medes—Daniel 8:20

The Medes (Madaia) and the Persians (Parsua) first appeared in historical texts during the ninth century BC. Sometime between 2000–1000 BC, waves of Indo-European peoples swept into the high grasslands west of Central Asia and began moving southwest into the region along the southern rim of the Caspian Sea and into the Zagros Mountains. The migrants included Iranian tribes, with the Median tribe rising to supremacy by the first millennium BC.

The extent and power of the Median “empire” are still unknown. To date, archaeologists have not discovered any Median written texts. The language has survived only in loanwords and personal names found in Old Persian texts. What little is known about the Medes come from Neo-Assyrian, Babylonian, and Greek sources.

The Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 BC) first mentions the Medes and Persians in an Akkadian cuneiform text written on the Black Obelisk discovered by Sir Henry Layard at Nimrud. The obelisk, detailing the king’s military campaign, describes his incursions into Media and then Persia around 836 BC. Later Assyrian kings continued to advance into Median territory, including Shamshi-Adad V (823–811), Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727), and Sargon II (721–705). Sargon II relocated some of the conquered Israelites from Samaria to Median towns (2 Kings 17:5, 6; 18:11).

Deioces (700–647 BC) was probably the first Median king and founder of the Median kingdom. Under Cyaxares (625–585 BC), the Medes conquered the ancient Neo-Assyrian center at Ashur in 614 BC. Cyaxares then formed a coalition with the Babylonians led by Nabopolassar (founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire) and the Scythians. In 612 BC, the coalition attacked and conquered Nineveh. As Nahum had predicted (Nah. 1:14–3:19), the fall of Nineveh ended the formidable Assyrian Empire. The coalition sealed the division of the Assyrian lands by a pact that wedded Cyaxares’ granddaughter, the Median princess Amytis, to the Babylonian crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar II.

Cyrus II, son of Cambyses I (c. 600–559 BC), a Persian prince whose mother was Mandane, a Median princess, unified the Medes and Persians. The biblical narrative often combines “the Medes and the Persians” (Dan. 5:28; Esther 1:19; 10:2) as a single empire likely due to the unification by Cyrus II. In Daniel 8:20, “the kings of Media and Persia” represent the kings of the Persian Empire. The Bible also refers to “Darius the Mede” (Dan. 5:31; 9:1), although scholars have not been able to identify him. The Bible also mentions the Medes that were among those who Peter preached to on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9).

Much of the archaeological exploration of the Median Empire has concentrated on what scholars refer to as the “Median triangle.” The heartland of the Median territory was situated in Luristan in the Zagros Mountains, centering in the Kermanshah and Assad Abad valleys. The Median capital city, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), near the base of the towering Alvand Range (the classical Mt. Orontes) on the Khorasan Road, is a part of the great Silk trade route.

Distinguishing “Median” material remains from other nearby cultures has long challenged archaeologists. However, the site known as Tepe Nush-e Jan, excavated by David Stronach, provides an extraordinary example of Median architectural accomplishments. The site has yielded architectural and ceramic finds that have offered criteria for identifying Median artifacts. The Median architecture at Tepe Nush-i Jan includes a Fort and two temples, and the hilltop Central Temple that preserves an earlier stepped altar on which priests burned fire, possibly one of the first pieces of evidence of Mazda-worship in Iran (forerunner of the Zoroastrian religion). The site’s signature Columned Hall apparently inspired the later Persian columned halls of Pasargadae, Persepolis, and Susa.


Kuhrt, The Persian Empire.

Stronach, “Archaeology II: Median and Achaemenid.”

Stronach and Mousavi, Ancient Iran from the Air.

Stronach and Road, Nush-i Jan I. the Major Buildings of the Median Settlement.