Persia—Esther 1:3

Most early Western historians, the Greeks especially, viewed Persia negatively. Nevertheless, archaeological and textual remains attest to the many contributions the Persians made to world civilization and shed light on the positive memories that biblical authors recorded about them. Under such rulers as Cyrus the Great (c. 553–530 BC), Cambyses (530–522 BC), Darius (522–486 BC), Xerxes I (486–465 BC), Artaxerxes I (465–423 BC) Darius II (423–405/04 BC), Artaxerxes II (405/04–359/358 BC), Artaxerxes III (359/358–338/337 BC), Arses (338/337–336/335 BC), the Persians developed a powerful and influential two century-long empire. The Greeks whittled it away until it fell to Alexander the Great during the reign of Darius III(336/335–331)

Mesopotamia was a cradle of civilization in which writing, mathematics, and science developed in city-states that became early empires. Before the second millennium, Acadians, Sumerians, Elamites, Assyrians, and Babylonians became the first political powers to exercise their influence over the area known as the land between the rivers.

On the other hand, it was not until c. 1000 BC that Assyrians mention the Parsu (Persians), Medians, and Bactrians, Indo-European nomadic tribes that had arrived from Central Asia. During that time, the Neo-Assyrians were in a power struggle with the Neo-Elamites for the control of Mesopotamia and the land bridge to the Far East, the Zagros Mountains (the area of today’s southwestern Iran).

The Elamites ruled from Susa and Anshan, controlling the Iranian plateau and influencing Mesopotamia for centuries. The Neo-Assyrians used the Parsu tribes to crush the Elamites and rewarded the Persians with the territory that once belonged to Elam. While the once-powerful Elamite kingdom succumbed to enemy forces (see Ezek. 32:24), the people themselves did not disappear. The use of the Elamite language in Persian inscriptions indicates their continuing presence. The worship of Elamite gods and the appearance of Elamite stylistic influences were seen in Achaemenid imperial art and architecture.

The Persian king Teispes, the son of Achaemenes (origin of the “Achaemenid” designation), ruled from Anshan under Assyrian hegemony. His son Cyrus I succeeded him in the seventh century BC. Cyrus I had to pay tribute to the Medes when they became the regional power (609 BC). The Medes had joined the Neo-Babylonians in defeating the Neo-Assyrian Empire and took over the territories of Fars. Afterward, Cyrus I married his son Cambyses to the daughter of the Median king Astyagues.

A combination of military prowess against his grandfather Astyagues and diplomatic ability to forge alliances with Median generals placed the Median Empire under the control of the Persian Cyrus II the Great by 550 BC. Cyrus II married the daughter of Astyagues and established the Medo-Persian Empire. The Persians made more use of propaganda and cultural assimilation than previous empires to extend their hegemony, even though they were also effective warriors. Their policies differed from the Neo-Assyrians and Neo-Babylonians who had intimidated their vassals with destruction and massive deportations.

Taking over the kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia, Cyrus extended the Persian frontiers to Central Asia. Then he turned his attention to Mesopotamia and conquered Babylon in 539 BC. The Persians became the largest empire that the world had yet seen as Cyrus II’s son Cambyses II extended the borders south to Egypt (525 BC). Cambyses had no direct impact on the Judahites, as had his father Cyrus, who had permitted the Hebrews to return to the Judean highlands (539 BC; see Isa. 45:1-3; Ezra 5:14).

The next Persian monarch, Darius I (522–486 BC), had a direct influence on those who worshiped Yahweh. He led reforms that shaped the Achaemenid Empire for the next two centuries and beyond. The Bible reports that Darius I was instrumental in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, as recorded in the books of Haggai and Ezra-Nehemiah. However, ancient Near Eastern history remembered him as “Great” for his contributions to the legal system, tax reform, political re-organization, and for being a patron of the arts. The Bible knows his son Xerxes as Ahasuerus, a central character in the book of Esther, who ruled Persia while Malachi was delivering his prophecies. The following Achaemenid king, Artaxerxes, was a major figure in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. During Artaxerxes’ seventh year of rule, he returned the status of national capital to Jerusalem and permitted the restoration of her military defenses (457 BC; see Ezra 7:8).

The Achaemenids, as the Elamites before them, relied a lot on oral tradition, and thus their history has survived mostly in accounts written by their political enemies. The picture that emerges from the architectural remains and successful political victories, however, demonstrates that the Persians were not savage nomads who devastated civilizations with their mighty hordes of cavalry. Rather, they were patrons of art and colossal architecture that remain visible in several of their capitals: Pasargadae, Persepolis, Ecbatana, and Susa. Some clay tablet records indicate their meticulous organization, infrastructure for international trade, and interest in cross-continental communications. The Greeks adopted their tolerant policies and canonization of local laws and religious traditions, building their civilization on the foundation of the Achaemenid Empire.


Andamaev and Lukonin, The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran.

Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire.

Henkelman, The Other Gods Who Are.

Mousavi, Persepolis: Discovery and Afterlife of a World Wonder.