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Judea in the Persian Empire

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Bible and History.

The Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was established thanks to the conquests of King Cyrus the Great [r. 559–530 BCE], who defeated the King of the Medes at Ecbatana in 550 BCE and, in 539 BCE, captured Babylon, thus ending the Neo-Babylonian dynasty.

The empire’s territorial expansion continued with Cyrus’ son, Cambyse II [r. 530–522], who extended Persian dominance as far as Egypt. And it was under his successor, Darius I [r. ca. 522–486 BCE], that the empire reached its maximum limits stretching as far as Libya and the Aegean Sea.

In the Bible, the Persian Empire is shown in a rather positive light, as there are no reports of Judean rebellions against the Achaemenids. Cyrus is credited with the decision – presented as an inspiration from God – to allow the Judean exiles in Babylon to return to Judea.

According to the Book of Ezra, it was also Cyrus who authorized the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem [Ezra 1]. This positive role in the history of Israel led to Cyrus being seen as the ‘Messiah’ of God, that is to say, he whom God has chosen to accomplish his plans [Isa. 45.1].

The Book of Nehemiah states that, towards the mid-5th century BCE, King Artaxerxes I [r. 465–424 BCE] authorized Nehemiah, a Jew from Susa, to return to Judea and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem [Neh. 2].

But Judea was now no more than a very small province. Its frontiers were reduced to the hilly region around Jerusalem, which had recovered its position as a temple-city, but without the brilliance of the period of the Kings. In Jerusalem itself, it is estimated that, by then, there were only 1,500 inhabitants.

Administrative archives consisting of some 200 tablets, which were discovered during archaeological excavations in today’s Iraq, show that not all the exiled Judeans returned to their country, far from it.

These documents reveal the economic dynamism of a Judean community in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, in Al-Yahudu, “the city of Juda” in Babylonia.

Contrary to the Assyrians, the Babylonians did not seek to force its inhabitants to mix together, which explains the persistent presence of villages more or less inhabited exclusively by Judeans. Jewish communities remained in Babylonia until the 20th century.

The Achaemenid Empire and ‘Pax Persica’ also opened up new opportunities for Judeans. Some joined the Persian armies which protected the empire’s frontiers. In the mid-5th century BCE, we find a Judean garrison at Elephantine [Yeb in Egyptian], between Egypt and Sudan. These Judean soldiers, who lived there with their wives and children, were perhaps the descendants of those who had left Judah at the time of Babylonian reprisals in the 6th century. In any event, the Achaemenid period seems to have encouraged the development of the diaspora in Babylonia and Persia, and as far as Egypt.