Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. (Esther 1:1-5 ESV)
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, in front of the king’s quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace. And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.(Esther 5:1-2 ESV)
The glorious splendor that characterized the Persian capital at Susa provides the opulent setting for the dramatic events that unfold in the Book of Esther. Located on the northwestern edge of the plain of Khuzistan in modern Iran and situated alongside the Shaur River, ancient Susa, now known as the mound of Shush, occupies more than 120 hectares (300 acres) rising some 30 feet above the surrounding plain (Stronach and Mousavi 2012: 60-61, Plate 37; Perrot 2013: xxviii-xxix). Susa’s excavators recognize five distinctive occupational areas: the Acropole(acropolis) to the west, the Apadana(great audience hall) to the north, which includes the royal quarter and palace of Darius I, the Place d’Armes(military parade ground) in the center and the Ville Royale(royal city) to the east, which included a Donjon(castle keep) at the city’s southern tip (Pittman 1997: 106-107). Since prehistoric times, peoples have settled at Susa and in the surrounding region. Susa reached its height in greatness during the Achaemenid (Persian) Period (ca. 559-330 BC), when Darius I (522-486 BC) made Susa one of his royal capitals. The monumental buildings and complexes of Darius I dominated Susa during the time of Esther and included a royal complex and palace encompassing 32 acres adjacent to the great Apadanacomplex to the north. Their construction, which began about 519 BC, required extensive preparations on the mound, including gravel foundations some 40 cubits deep as well as importing Ionian and Sardian stonecutters and goldsmiths from Media and Egypt. Several monumental gates led to the Apadana, including a royal causeway to the Gate of Darius, the most impressive portal of all (Stronach and Mousavi 2012: 60-62). As the Book of Esther implies, Susa was a cosmopolitan city and functioned a major trading hub under Persian rule. Others argue that Susa, despite its extensive size, had only a limited population, apart from the presence of the king and his court (e.g., Curtis and Tallis 2005: 38). Extra mural settlements or quarters, better understood as ancient suburbs, encircled the city.
Relevance to the Biblical Account
The ability to envision the monumentally extravagant surroundings of the Persian court, as well as to imagine its power and decadence, which offsets the more benevolent depiction of Persian rulers in Isaiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, greatly assists the reader in contextualizing the Book of Esther into its proper historical and cultural milieu. The architectural fragments in the Horn Museum collection once adorned structures that King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) and Esther, as well as Nehemiah (1:1) undoubtedly frequented. Daniel (8:2) lived out his last days at Susa. The late archaeologist Jean Perrot, who oversaw excavations at Susa from 1968-1979, recognizes that the writer of the Book of Esther clearly possessed knowledge of the royal quarter of Susa. “There is a real possibility of a link between the lines from the ‘scroll of Esther’ and Susian archaeological reality as it appears today” (Perrot 2013: 475).
The first architectural object is a fragment from the top edge of a bell-shaped column base made of fine, dark lithographic limestone (60.002) preserving parts of four decorative incised pedals. The fragment originates from the palace of Darius I at Susa (e.g., Curtis and Tallis 2005: 60-61). The second object from Susa is another lithographic limestone fragment carved with two hair curls and a rosette (60.003), a decorative motif utilized as a border or fill (e.g., Curtis and Tallis 2005: 71, 84-85; Perrot 2013: 367-368). The fragment probably derives from an animal figure wearing a harness. The third fragment (60.004), of unknown provenance, may preserve part of another pedal, perhaps from a column base. A fourth piece is a fragment of an inscribed lintel collected somewhere on the site of Susa (60.005).
Royal Persian architecture, while largely confined to the royal centers of Persepolis, Pasargadae, Ecbatana, and Susa, as well as other sites in the Persian heartland of Fars (southern Iran), indeed appears sporadically at sites throughout their sprawling empire. Not unlike other cultures of the ancient Near East, Persian architecture draws upon foreing influences from diverse regions, such as Assyria and Egypt (Curtis and Tallis 2005: 30-31). The Horn collection includes a limestone fragment from the Persian capital of Persepolis that depicts curled hair locks, probably part of a bull relief (60.001). Two other stone fragments, also from Persepolis, originate from the palace throne room. One fragment may depict one of the legs of the throne (66.036; Perrot; Ladiray; and Ziffer 1996: 256, Figure 1; Curtis and Tallis 2005: 76-77). The other fragment, with sharply cut triangular pleated lines, probably reflects artistic architectural details from a relief attached to a building or monument (66.035).
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