Part 4—Medo-Persia—The Fourth Great World Power in Bible History
The Medes and the Persians were involved in many events that are related in the Bible. They are also mentioned in a number of Bible prophecies. Would you like to know more about these ancient and interesting peoples?
THE ancient Medes and Persians were on the march! At their head was Cyrus the Great, who already controlled an empire. Now he focused his attention on mighty Babylon, the major world power of that day.
Inside the capital city of Babylon, King Belshazzar, who the Bible says was “under the influence of the wine,” was hosting a feast for a thousand great guests. In revelry, they praised their idol gods while drinking from sacred vessels that had been taken from Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem. (Daniel 5:1-4) They felt secure within Babylon’s mighty walls.
Outside, however, Cyrus’ army had diverted the waters of the Euphrates River that ran through Babylon. With that natural barrier removed, his soldiers sloshed up the riverbed—right past Babylon’s walls and into the city through open gates that faced the river. Before the sun rose, Belshazzar was dead, Babylon had fallen, and Medo-Persia had become the fourth great world power of Bible history! But who were these Medes and Persians?
The Medes came from the mountainous plateau region to the east of Assyria. Some reliefs found in Assyria picture them wearing what appear to be sheepskin coats over tunics and high-laced boots, appropriate for their pastoral work on the high plateaus. The Medes left virtually no written records. Most of what we know about them is learned from the Bible, from Assyrian texts, and from classical Greek historians. The Persians originally led an often nomadic life in the region north of the Persian Gulf. As their empire grew, they developed an outstanding taste for luxury.
At first the Medes were dominant, but in 550 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great of Persia gained a swift victory over the Median king Astyages. Cyrus combined the customs and laws of the two peoples, united their kingdoms, and expanded their conquests. Though the Medes were subservient to the Persians, the empire was definitely of dual nature. Medes held high office and led Persian armies. Foreigners spoke of the Medes and the Persians, or if they used a single term, it was “the Mede.”
Before the Medes and the Persians attacked Babylon, the prophet Daniel had been given a vision of a two-horned ram that represented this two-part nation. Daniel wrote: “And the two horns were tall, but the one was taller than the other, and the taller was the one that came up afterward.” There was no question about the ram’s identity, for the angel told Daniel: “The ram that you saw possessing the two horns stands for the kings of Media and Persia.”—Daniel 8:3, 20.
Daniel was present inside Babylon when it fell, and he witnessed the arrival of the Medes and the Persians. Darius the Mede, the first ruler of the newly conquered city, appointed 120 protectors of the realm and put three officials over them. Daniel was one of the three. (Daniel 5:30–6:3) In view of Daniel’s high administrative position both before and after Babylon fell, it would be hard to imagine that Cyrus was not made aware of the Hebrew prophecy that, two centuries in advance, had said that Babylon would be conquered by a man bearing the name Cyrus.—Isaiah 45:1-3.
Babylon’s fall set the stage for the rise of another city—Jerusalem. It had lain in ruins for nearly 70 years since its destruction by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E. The Bible prophecies had said that through Cyrus, Jerusalem would be rebuilt and the foundation of its temple laid.—Isaiah 44:28.
Did this happen? Yes. The priest, scholar, and scribe Ezra reports that Cyrus decreed that Jehovah’s worshipers could “go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of Jehovah the God of Israel—he is the true God—which was in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:3) Ezra 2:64, 65 takes note of almost 50,000 persons who made the journey back to Jerusalem, carrying the temple treasures with them. In 537 B.C.E. the land again began to be inhabited—just 70 years after Jerusalem had fallen.—Jeremiah 25:11, 12; 29:10.
Archaeology has confirmed that such a decree was in harmony with Cyrus’ policy. On a clay cylinder found in the ruins of Babylon, Cyrus says: “I returned to (these) sacred cities . . . the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations.”
Samaritan enemies of the Jews later caused temple rebuilding to be stopped by imperial ban. Jehovah’s prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred up the people, and the construction work was resumed. “Darius the king” ordered a search to find Cyrus’ original decree authorizing the temple’s restoration. The Bible says that at Ecbatana, Cyrus’ summer residence, a scroll was found with a memorandum establishing the legality of the temple work. That work was completed in the sixth year of Persian king Darius I.—Ezra 4:4-7, 21; 6:1-15.
Evidence of Grandeur
In the vision mentioned earlier, Daniel had foreseen the Medo-Persian two-horned “ram making thrusts to the west and to the north and to the south, and no wild beasts [other nations] kept standing before it, and there was no one doing any delivering out of its hand. And it did according to its will, and it put on great airs.” (Daniel 8:4) At least by Darius’ time, this vision had been fulfilled. In testimony to his feats, Darius the Great had himself represented on a colossal relief that can still be seen high on a cliff face at Bisitun, on the old road between Babylon and Ecbatana. In addition to conquering Babylon, the Medo-Persian “ram” had seized territory in three principal directions: north into Assyria, west through Asia Minor, and south into Egypt.
Some 400 miles [640 km] to the southeast of their summer residence at Ecbatana, the Persian emperors built a gigantic palace at Persepolis. A relief there shows Darius on his throne, and on an inscription he boasts: “I am Darius, great king, king of kings, king of lands . . . who constructed this palace.” A few towering columns of this splendid capital still stand today. Another capital was at Susa (Shushan), centrally located between Babylon, Ecbatana, and Persepolis. There Darius the Great built another magnificent palace.
Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who apparently was the “Ahasuerus” of the Bible book of Esther. It says that Ahasuerus “was ruling as king from India to Ethiopia, over a hundred and twenty-seven jurisdictional districts” as he sat upon “his royal throne, which was in Shushan the castle.” It was there that Ahasuerus made the beautiful young Esther his queen. (Esther 1:1, 2; 2:17) In the museum of the Louvre in Paris, you can see an ornate bull capital that stood atop a towering column in this palace, as well as wall decorations representing proud Persian archers and splendid animals. Alabaster flacons, jewelry, and other items that were found there fit well the Bible’s statements about the extensive beauty treatments given to Esther, as well as the luxury that existed in Shushan.—Esther 1:7; 2:9, 12, 13.
Stories told by Xerxes’ Greek enemies involved marital difficulties and a supposed dominance of the Persian king by certain of his courtiers. Although the facts may have been confused and twisted, these stories seem to reflect some basic points of the book of Esther, which says the king deposed stubborn Queen Vashti and replaced her with Esther, and that Esther’s cousin Mordecai attained a position of great authority in the realm.—Esther 1:12, 19; 2:17; 10:3.
Geniality Shown Toward Worshipers of Jehovah
In the year 468 B.C.E., Xerxes’ successor Artaxerxes (Longimanus) authorized the priest Ezra, who lived in Babylon after the original release of the Jews by Cyrus, to return to Jerusalem and advance the pure worship of Jehovah there. Some 1,500 men and their families—perhaps 6,000 persons in all—accompanied Ezra, bringing with them a large contribution for Jehovah’s temple.—Ezra 7:1, 6, 11-26.
It was also in the palace at Shushan that this same Artaxerxes, in his 20th year (455 B.C.E.), granted Nehemiah’s request to be sent back to rebuild Jerusalem and its walls. This marked the start of the “seventy weeks” of years of Daniel’s prophecy, which pointed forward to Jesus’ appearance as “Messiah the Leader” precisely on time in the year 29 C.E.a—Daniel 9:24, 25; Nehemiah 1:1; 2:1-9.
Some documents written on papyrus in the Aramaic language were found at Elephantine, an island in Egypt’s Nile River. These documents demonstrate the accuracy with which the Bible writers Ezra and Nehemiah depict both conditions and official communication during Persian rule. In Biblical Archaeology, Professor G. Ernest Wright states: “Now . . . we are able to see that the Aramaic of Ezra is precisely that of its age, while the government documents are of the general type which we have become accustomed to associate with the Persian regime.” One of the documents contained a royal Persian order concerning the Passover celebration by the Jewish colony in Egypt.
Medo-Persia Succumbs to Greece
In vision, Daniel had seen Medo-Persia represented as a two-horned ram. Next, two centuries before it happened, he saw “a male of the goats coming from the sunset [the west]” and moving so fast that “it was not touching the earth.” The fast-moving he-goat proceeded to “strike down the ram and to break its two horns, and there proved to be no power in the ram to stand before it.” (Daniel 8:5-7) Does history show that this really happened to Medo-Persia?
Yes, in the year 334 B.C.E., Alexander the Great came out of Greece to the west. With lightning speed like that of a male goat, he swept through Asia, gaining victory after victory over the Persians. Finally, in 331 B.C.E., at Gaugamela, he scattered a Persian army of a million men. Its leader, Darius III, fled, later to be murdered by onetime friends. The fourth world power had been struck down, its horns being broken, and Alexander’s empire became the fifth of the great world powers of Bible history. It will be discussed in our issue of April 15, 1988.
The Medo-Persian World Power had existed for just over two centuries—from the night it overthrew Babylon in 539 B.C.E. until it fell to Alexander. This is about the same length of time that has passed since the French Revolution or the establishment of the United States of America. During such a relatively short period of time, the Medes and the Persians unintentionally had much to do with the outworking of Jehovah God’s purposes and the fulfillment of his unfailing prophecies.
a For a detailed discussion of this prophecy and its fulfillment, see the book “Let Your Kingdom Come,” published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 56-66.
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Ruins of Persepolis, Persia’s ceremonial capital
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Tomb of Cyrus in Iran