Bible Archaeology



The Persians were latecomers to the land area now known as Iran. As in other areas in the Near East, archaeology has increased our knowledge far back into the B.C. millennia, but early Iranian history is dependent on neighboring Mesopotamia for substance. It is, for example, from cuneiform texts dating to about 3000 B.C. that we know of various people groups, including the Elamites and Kassites, lining up along the border with Mesopotamia and engaging in peaceful trade. Because, however, of the lack of natural geographic barriers between Babylonia and the plains of southern Iran, the records speak more often of military activity. Sargon, Hammurapi, and others boasted of their armies marching east and invading Elam (southwestern Iran). The records also tell of repeated invaders from the east burning Ur, plundering Babylon, and other cities. During one such attack the Code of Hammurapi (see pages 46-47) was taken as booty from a city north of Babylon. It was recovered during the excavation of Susa.

Over the centuries Iran wrestled for its cultural identity, and cylinder seals are just one of the hallmarks of Mesopotamia's material culture to find their way east. Interestingly, the best-preserved ziggurat is not found in Mesopotamia, but at the site of Choga Zanbil, near Susa.



Ecbatana is mentioned only once in the Bible (Ezra 6:2). The Medes governed from Ecbatana, and then the city was taken over by Cyrus the Great. The modern city of Hamadan covers the ancient site so no large-scale excavation has been possible. Over the years, however, small finds have surfaced.


Pasargadae was founded by Cyrus shortly after his conquest of Ionia. The buildings on the site are scattered over an area of approximately 1.25 miles (2 km) but they seem to be the result of a unified plan. A palace set in a large garden, and an apadana (audience hall) are among the buildings that have been found. Cyrus' tomb is located a short distance to the southwest. Pasargadae seems to have been little used following his reign.

Gold and silver rhyton. Similar drinking cups, some in pure gold, have been found at several Persian centers. Such cups call to mind Esther 1:7, which records that, "Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds."


When Darius became king, he initially resided in Babylon, probably using one of Nebuchadnezzers palaces, before building a new one for himself. Rather soon, however, Darius moved to the more centrally located Susa. Susa covers more than 173 acres (70 hectares) and consists of four major mounds. Darius built a defensive wall around the city, and perhaps surrounded that with a wet moat. He made some use of the old Elamite palaces and temples, but his palace and apadana exhibit an eclectic art-style that would be characteristic of the Persians for the next 200 years. In a text found in the ruins Darius lists how, not surprisingly, he used supplies and employed craftsmen from all over the empire. Unfortunately, despite extensive excavation, the massive expedition house is the most visible architectural feature at Susa today. In order to "see" the palace, one scholar resorted to the imagery in the book of Esther.


The Susa palace was barely finished when Darius decided to move again.. This time he chose a location southwest of Pasargadae. To Darius the city would be Parsa, to the Greeks Perse-polis, the "city of the Persians." Persepolis, like Pasargadae, is not mentioned in the Bible, but it provides the best visual insight into the world that Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah would have known.

A large terrace, some 1,500 by 900 feet (457 by 274 meters), was partily quarried and partly built of huge stone blocks. The combination of terrace and unbaked brick wall resulted in a defensives system roughly 60 feet (18 meters) high. A monumental double stairway gave access to the terrace. Atop the terrace is a complex of loosely grouped but separate buildings. A palace, apadana, and treasury are the major contributions attributed to Darius. The Persepolis apadana is similar in plan to the earlier audience halls built at Pasargadae and Susa. Here the columns are 65 feet (20 meters) high and fluted, the mark of Ionian craftsmen. The doorways of Darius' palace south of the apadana feature cavetto cornices, an Egyptian architectural feature.

Xerxes finished the apadana and built the Gate of all Nations entryway, which greets visitors when they ascend the double stairway. The huge guardian bulls that are part of the gateway are Assyrian in style. Xerxes is also credited with a palace, harem, and the Hall of One Hundred Columns. Artaxerxes I made only modest contributions to the complex.

The staircases of the apadana are covered with reliefs of the Immortals, Persian and Median nobles, and delegations from around the empire bearing gifts or tribute. Over 800 figures  are involved,  and the delegations reveal the power and diversity of the empire. There is a monotony in the art, however, as the same scene repeats with only subtle differences. Perhaps, when the reliefs still retained their original paint, that sameness was not as marked. These stairway reliefs, as well as reliefs placed in doorways, are not where people would be inclined to loiter and admire. Persian art was primarily a form of decoration; it did not try to tell a story in the way that reliefs and paintings did in Egypt and Mesopotamia.


There were repeated immigrations into Iran from the north. Two Indo-European tribes, the Medes and the Persians, seem to have arrived late in the second millennium B.C. They settled in northwest Iran where Shalmaneser III (see pages 48-50, 52) mentions encountering them during his eastern campaigns. Later, Sargon II used Median territory as a resettlement area after the fall of Israel (2 Kings 17:6).

Initially the Medes were the stronger of the two groups, and it is they who helped the Chaldeans defeat the Assyrians at Nineveh (see page 61). By the end of the seventh century B.C. the Persians (also called Achaemenids after the founder of their dynasty) had moved south into an area east of Elam. A marriage between the Median and Persian royal houses resulted in the birth of Cyrus II, the man who would allow the Jews to return home from exile.

Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.)

Cyrus II began his kingship as a vassal to his Median grandfather, but he soon began making alliances, most notably with Nabonidus, king of Babylon, who wanted Haran, a city held by the Medes since the fall of Assyria. Cyrus, for his part, wanted a weakened Media in order to end his vassalage. Nabonidus took Haran and Cyrus was victorious in two battles against the Medes. Cyrus spared the Median capital of Ecbatana, but the Persians had become the dominant power.

Cyrus had dreams of empire, and he first set his sights on western Anatolia. He marched west and met the army of Croesus of Lydia near the old Hittite capital of Hattusha. There was a standoff and Croesus retired to Sardis, but Cyrus pursued him and forced a battle just east of the city. Cyrus was victorious and Sardis fell. Then one by one the Greek cities on the west coast of Anatolia (Ionia) also fell, and a Persian empire now stretched west to the Aegean. During this campaign the Persians learned two facts that would prove invaluable in future years: the Greeks had difficulty working together and they could be bought with Persian gold.

Cyrus was not yet satisfied. Persian armies advanced east into what is now India, and west into Mesopotamia. Nabonidus, Cyrus' onetime ally, had departed for Tema and left his son Belshazzar to rule. Cyrus began chipping away at the Chaldean empire until, by 539 B.C., little more than Babylon itself remained free of Persian control. Only a few hours before the city fell, Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5:26-28). Belshazzar died (Daniel 5:30), but the fate of Nabonidus, who had returned home only to be captured, is not clear. Before the end of October 539 B.C. Cyrus made a triumphal entrance into the city of Babylon; palm branches were strewn in his path, and peace was proclaimed for everyone.

Cyrus had carved out an empire-larger than anything the Near East had ever seen. Daniel 5:31 reports that "Darius the Mede received the [Chaldean] kingdom" but no such person is known extrabiblically. One suggestion is that the title is simply another designation for Cyrus the Persian. The Persians tried to retain local administrations whenever possible. This explains why, although Daniel's position as "third ruler" (Daniel 5:29) did not outlast the fall of Babylon, the Persians appointed him as one of their officials.

The Cyrus Cylinder. This baked-clay cylinder, 9 inches (23 centimeters) long, records the fall of Babylon: Marduk [the chief god of the Chaldeans] ... beheld with pleasure Cyrus' good deed ... and therefore ordered him to march against his city Babylon. He made him set out on the road to Babylon, going at his side like a real friend ... Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into Cyrus' hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship Marduk. All the inhabitants of Babylon ... bowed to Cyrus and kissed his feet, jubilant that he had received the kingship ... I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon ... king of the four rims of the earth. 

Persian policy toward subject peoples differed radically from that of previous empire builders. Whereas previous world rulers had humiliated and oppressed their conquered subjects, Cyrus engaged in what has been called "persuasive propaganda," which helped both to won and maintain empire. Rather than forcing new subjects to take on at least a portion of the conquerors religion, Cyrus encouraged them to worship their own gods in their own ways. And Cyrus asked that those gods pray that he and his son would have long lives. Similarly, Darius later asked the Jews to pray to God "for the life of the king and his sons" (Ezra 6:10). People were also allowed to return to their homelands. The most familiar biblical example of this policy is the decree Cyrus issued authorizing not only that the Temple should be rebuilt in Jerusalem, but that Jews should be encouraged to go back and begin the task (Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5). Incidentally, these verses should not be understood as evidence that Cyrus was converted to worship of the true God. Rather, they are another example, as in the Cyrus Cylinder above, of his "persuasive propaganda."

Cyrus ruled another nine years after the fall of Babylon. Then in 530 B.C. he personally led a march against a semi-nomadic tribe in the northeast. Cyrus was mortally wounded in battle and died three days later.

Cambyses II (529-522 B.C.)

Cambyses II followed his father to the throne, but his short reign is largely a bridge between Cyrus the Great and Darius, the next great Persian king. The biblical account ignores his kingship (Ezra 4:5). Cambyses did realize his fathers plan to add Egypt to the Persian empire, and he founded Egypt's twenty-seventh dynasty in 525 B.C. (see page 91). Whether or not Cambyses' rule of Egypt was as disastrous as Greek historians painted it, he was in that country only three years when word reached him of unrest back home. Cambyses started for home, but died en route. The circumstances of his death are not clear.

The tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae. The windowless tomb rises about 35 feet (10.5 meters) above the garden that once surrounded it Its entranceway, 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) tall, was originally secured by two swinging stone doors. The inside dimensions are only 8 by 10 by 8 feet (2.4 by 3 by 2.4 meters) high. The tomb is long since empty, but it is reported to have held a tublike golden sarcophagus, and a table for offerings.

Darius the Great (522-486 B.C.)

Cambyses died in 522 B.C. leaving no heir and Darius, from another branch of the Achemaenid line, needed some time to put down the unrest that had caused Cambyses to leave Egypt, and to defeat those who opposed his rule.

Shortly before the Behistun relief and inscription were completed, work resumed on the Jerusalem Temple. When a local Persian governor questioned whether the Jews really had been granted permission for the rebuilding, a letter was sent off to Darius. Ezra 6:1-5 tells of the search that was made and the discovery in the archives at Ecbatana of Cryus' decree permitting the construction. The Bible does not say how long it took to locate the pertinent document, but the Persian cataloguing system was so efficient that it was later adopted for the library in Alexandria. According to Ezra 6:6-12, Darius not only gave his blessing to the project but also provided aid.

Tolerance for local religions, laws, and traditions greatly helped the Persians maintain peace within the empire. There were some uprisings, however. For example, revolt broke out in Ionia in 499 B.C. and it was not put down until five years later. The Persians preferred to rule with a "velvet glove," but they could be brutal to those who resisted their authority: in Ionia people were resettled, made slaves, eunuchs, or put into harems. Darius blamed the mainland Greeks for the unrest in Ionia and in 492 B.C. his army gained a foothold in Macedonia and Thrace in northern Greece. Then in 490 B.C. his army moved farther south and the famous battle of Marathon was fought. The battle began when the Athenian forces advanced on a run toward the Persian lines.

The Greeks attacked with a weak center and strong wings. The Persians pushed the center back, but then found themselves outflanked by the Athenian wings. The Persians broke and fled. According to the casualty count, 6,400 Persians but only 192 Athenians, died. Such lopsided body-counts are known in antiquity, and the last figure rings true since each of the Greek dead is listed by name. It should be noted that the account of Phidippides; running from Marathon to Athens to proclaim the victory is only legend. Additionally the distance run in modern marathon races was set early in the twentieth century; it is not based on the distance between the battle site and Athens. Darius began plans personalty to lead another campaign against the Greeks, but he also had a second front to contend with. The news of Marathon had pushed the Egyptians into revolt. Perhaps fortunately for him,

Darius died in 486 B.C. before he could deal with either country.

Administration had been one of Darius' strengths. The empire was divided into satrapies (districts), each with a satrap (governor). The satraps were powerful, but they were also closely monitored, each district having a secretary who acted as liaison between king and satrap. With each satrap there was also a commander-in-chief in charge of the local military force. This commander was directly responsible to the king, not to the satrap. There were also "the eyes and ears of the king," inspectors who traveled about the empire, sometimes with their own army. They could drop in unannounced on the various satraps, and they answered only to the king.

Darius was very proud of his "Ordinance of Good Regulations." It was copied on steles, clay tablets, or parchment, and sent to all parts of the empire. What little is preserved of this lawbook suggests that it borrowed from the Code of Hammurapi: Hammurapi's Stele was in Susa when Darius used that city as a capital. The Persians demanded that their judges be totally honest. In a story set in the reign of Cambyses II, a judge was caught taking a bribe. He was killed, skinned, and his skin was cut into strips and tanned. The strips were then used to cover the judgment seat used by the next judge— who was advised to remember upon what he was sitting! To administer his vast empire, Darius created a network of roads, which were closely patrolled and maintained; portions of certain roads were paved, and in other roads artificial ruts were sometimes cut to guide wheeled vehicles. The "Royal Road" stretched almost 1,700 miles from Susa to Sardis and post stations with fresh horses were placed about every 15 miles along its length. Ancient records reveal that a caravan could travel the length of the Royal Road in ninety days, but a courier made the same distance in a week.

The Behistun relief. This relief was placed high on a cliff near Ecbatana, and near where Darius had won a decisive battle. On the left are the bearers of the king's spear and bow. Then Darius, depicted life size, faces his defeated enemies, who are roped together around the neck. A winged figure, presumably the god Ahura Mazda, hovers over the scene. Beside and below the relief is a trilingual inscription, in Akkadian, Elamite, and Old Persian, recording Darius' rise to power. The Behistun inscription helped make the decipherment of cuneiform possible, achieving for cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone had done for Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Treasury relief from Persepolis, the Persian military, stand at either end of the scene, made from limestone, and just over 20 feet wide, this relief has long been understood to depict Darius receiving a report from a Median official. Immortals, the elite corps within the Persian military, stand on either end of the scene, and Darius' son Xerxes appears behind his father.  Behind Xerxes are the royal cupbearer (?) and the holder of the king's battleaxe and bow case.

After Cyrus, the Persian kings were interred in nearly identical tombs, each cut into cliffs near Persepolis. The door leads into a chamber only large enough to receive the king and his immediate family. The relief above the doorway shows representatives from around the empire holding a platform aloft. On the platform, the king is depicted standing and facing a fire altar.

Xerxes (485-465 B.C.)

When Xerxes ascended to the throne, he quickly restored Egypt to the empire. Also early in his reign, he put down two revolts in Babylon, but it was his father's defeat at Marathon that most consumed him. In the spring of 480 B.C. the Persians crossed into Greece. According to Herodotus, Xerxes' forces numbered in the millions. Scholars reject such a total, but they cannot agree on what might be a realistic figure. The Persians met little resistance until they encountered the narrow pass at Thermopylae, which was blocked by a few thousand Greeks. The Persians were not able to break through until they learned of a path that came out on the other side of the Greek positions. When it was discovered that the Persian Immortals were advancing along the path, most of the Greeks retired before they could be outflanked. Only Leonidas, a Spartan king, and 300 of his men chose to stand and fight. They were all killed, but their sacrifice is immortalized in Greek history.

After the Persians had pushed through the pass of Thermopylae, they marched on Athens and set fire to the Acropolis. Then the Persian fleet blockaded the Greek fleet within the Bay of Salamis. When the Persians were lured into the narrow straits of the bay, the superior number of their ships proved to be a disadvantage; they had no room to maneuver. As Xerxes sat on a nearby hill to watch the battle, his fleet was defeated. Unnerved, he quickly withdrew with the bulk of his troops to Sardis. Historians fault Xerxes at this point since the Battle of Salamis was only a minor setback and all the Greeks had really won was encouragement. But Xerxes had lost his taste for war. Persian troops left on the mainland continued to fight, but all of Greece and Ionia were eventually lost.


The artificial terrace at Persepolis was accessed by a monumental staircase on the west (A) in the plan and photo below). Just to the east of the staircase is the Gate of all Nations (upper right in the photo below, and page 142 top). Also on the terrace is the apadana (B), the Treasury of Darius (C) the Hall of One Hundred Columns built by Xerxes (D), the palace of Xerxes (E), and his harem (F).

Above: The Gate of All Nations.   

Below: Detail of a procession of Mede (distinguished by their round hats) and Persian Immortals from the north stairway to the apadana.

Above: Two of the many delegations, here from Gandara and Bactria, bearing gifts of tribute; north stairway of the apadana.

Below: Looking west over Persepolis from the cliffs above its east side. The tall columns stand on the apadana.

A relief of the king fighting a bull, from a doorway in the Hall of One Hundred Columns.

When Xerxes was back in Persia, he dedicated himself to finishing the works his father had begun at Susa and Persepolis, and also began new buildings in a grandiose style. At Persepolis Xerxes razed a portion of his father's treasury in order to add to the number of suites in what the excavators identified as his harem. Xerxes never again left home, and his personal life became increasingly chaotic. Intrigue within the royal family led to revolt, mutilation, and torture. Toward the end of his life Xerxes was as manipulated by the commander of the immortals and his own cupbearer. In 465 3.C. these two assassinated him.

[One of the many capitals atop the 65-foot- (20-meter-) tall columns in the apadana]

The book of Esther fits nicely within what is known from Persian and Greek history, and numerous scholars have remarked on the book's great "familiarity with both general and specific features of Persian life." The book is sprinkled with loan words and personal names of Persian origin. The kings name, Khshayarsha in Old Persian, is rendered Ahasuerus in Hebrew and Xerxes in Greek. It is generally accepted that Mordecai can be identified with Marduka, a high official working in Susa. Some would identify Esther with Queen Amestris.

The disastrous Greek campaign fits nicely into the time gap between Xerxes' third year (Esther 1:3) and his marriage to Esther in his seventh year (Esther 2:16). Our knowledge of the turmoil in the king's personal life certainly makes us see that Esther's position was less than attractive. The enlarged quarters at Persepolis bring to mind Esther 4:11 where she tells Mordecai that she has "not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days." Her novelty had apparently worn off. It is probable that after the death of Xerxes the remainder of Esther's years were spent in some non-functional part of the royal harems.

Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.)

After Xerxes was assassinated, his heir apparent was murdered by a younger brother, Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes himself barely escaped assassination before he was finally recognized as king of Persia. In 461 B.C. Artaxerxes moved to Susa where he stayed for most of his reign. Three years later he sent Ezra to Jerusalem with a decree to further the worship of God (Ezra 7:11-26). It was Persian policy to foster local religions, but Artaxerxes had an additional reason for sending Ezra. Egypt, with the help of Athens, had revolted soon after Artaxerxes took the throne, and he wanted Palestine, the land bridge to Egypt, to remain quiet until such time as the Persian army could respond.

Artaxerxes relied on other resources besides Ezra. Repeatedly the Persians found their gold as effective as any man or armed force. Repeatedly, they were able to bribe peoples and cities that should have been allies to fight against one another. For example, since Athens had given aid to Egypt in its revolt, Artaxerxes sent a bribe to Sparta. The Spartans used the money to finance a victory over Athens. In 454 B.C. the Persian army marched through Palestine and the Persian Dynasty 27 was reestablished in Egypt.

In 444 B.C. Artaxerxes allowed Nehemiah to travel to Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the king (Nehemiah 1:11). As cupbearer, one of his duties would have been to protect the king from being poisoned (Nehemiah 2:1). Holders of such a sensitive position were often eunuchs because, having no prospect of establishing their own dynasty, they were less likely to poison the king. Scholars debate whether Nehemiah was a eunuch, but there is no firm evidence either way. Nehemiah was sent to Jerusalem as governor of Judah, and despite opposition he was able to restore the defenses of the city.

A few years earlier Athens and Persia had agreed to share control of Ionia, but by 441 B.C. they were once again fighting over the territory. When Sparta attacked Athens, all Artaxerxes had to do was watch the two Greek cities try to destroy each other. This time no Persian gold was required.

[Gold coin with the image of a Persian king as an archer. Such coins were repeatedly used by the Persians to keep Greek cities at odds with one another. At one point a Spartan complained that he had been driven from Ionia by 10,000 archers—that is, 10,000 gold coins]

Late in Artaxerxes' reign the palace in Susa burned to the ground. He then moved to Persepolis and only left the city so he could die in Susa—of natural causes. Artaxerxes ruled forty years, longer than either Cyrus the Great or Darius the Great. There were no Persian forays into mainland Greece during his reign, but the Persians fostered the love-hate relationship between Athens and Sparta. Artaxerxes I is the final Persian king to play a role in the Old Testament. The Persian empire continued on for almost another century, but the glory days of Cyrus and Darius were but a memory.