We recently celebrated the holiday of Purim, which is based on events that occurred during the mighty Persian Empire of the middle of the first millennium BCE. Today, we face the descendants of the Persians, the modern state of Iran, whose stated goal is once again the destruction of the people of Israel. Despite the picture painted in Esther’s Megillah, 2,500 years ago relations with the Persians were somewhat different than they are today.
The founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, has been looked upon favourably in the long span of Jewish history. It was Cyrus who allowed the exiles to return from Babylon after the 70-year captivity following the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple.
The time spent in Babylon was a crucible in Jewish history. Contrary to popular belief, not all of the population of Judah was deported to Babylon. It was primarily the leadership and intelligentsia that were carried off to captivity “by the waters of Babylon.” This period saw the gathering together of our sacred texts. It also laid the groundwork for the meeting house, or beit knesset, which the Greeks would call the synagogue.
These institutions were developed to allow the survival of our people in exile. It was not the first time that such a catastrophe had befallen us. That had also happened about 125 years earlier, when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and deported thousands of its inhabitants, giving rise to the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes. These tribes never came back, while many of the exiles from Babylon did.
Interestingly, the Persian period, which lasted for 200 years, is one of the least understood phases in the history of ancient Israel. One of the best-known authorities of this age is Prof. Ephraim Stern of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has written the definitive text on the Persian era in Israel. Some of his evidence comes from the site of Tel Dor, the magnificent ruin on the Mediterranean coast of Israel north of Caesarea, which he excavated for over two decades.
Although the Persian age has very few monumental remains, such as those from the Roman period or the preceding monarchical age, it was a peaceful time in which we were governed with minimal outside interference. This is in marked contrast to the succeeding Hellenistic Age, when we fell under the sway of the successor states of the empire of Alexander the Great.
The period of Persian rule in Israel allowed us to return from exile. Under Nehemiah, the Persians gave us permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, albeit on a much smaller scale than the one before or the one that came after, built by Herod. Also, during the period of Persian rule, we nearly completed the canon of our holy text under Ezra the Scribe, thus laying the groundwork for our survival as a people in the tumultuous ages to come.