In a previous post, I began a series of studies on Esther. The series, “For Such a Time as This” will be based on a series of sermons that Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois will be preaching during the month of November.
In that post I mentioned that Esther became the queen of Persia when Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, the king of Persia, took her to be his wife. Ahasuerus’ palace was in the fortress of Susa. The royal city of Susa is unknown to most readers of the Bible. This post provides an introduction to Susa, one of the world’s oldest cities.
The royal city of Susa was one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire and the winter residence of the kings of Persia (Nehemiah 1:1, Esther 1:2). The city was located in the ancient Elamite territory, southwest of Iran, near the Ulai canal (Daniel 8:2). The Ulai, an artificial river, was also known as the Eulaeus by the Greeks. The site of ancient Susa is located in the modern Iranian city of Shush. Susa appears in the KJV as Shushan (Esther 1:2).
Susa was an ancient Mesopotamian city, built around 3900 B.C. and inhabited by Semitic people. Around 3200 B.C. the city received an influx of non-Semitic people whose influence extended across the Iranian plateau. This proto-Elamite culture eventually was absorbed by the Sumerians and Susa became part of the empire of Sargon of Akkad ca. 2350 B.C. The Elamites conquered the city from the Sumerians around 2000 B.C. and Susa became an Elamite city until it was conquered by the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.
Elam appears in the table of the nations in Genesis 10: 22 and in the oracles of Isaiah (11:11), Jeremiah (49:34-39), and Ezekiel (32:34). The Elamites also appear in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers (Acts 2:9). All the biblical references to Susa in Nehemiah, Daniel and Esther pertain to the Persian period.
In 646 B.C. Assurbanipal, king of Assyria, conquered the Elamites and Susa became part of the Assyrian empire. Assurbanipal deported part of the Elamite population and settled them in Samaria (Ezra 4:9-10). After Susa became part of the Assyrian empire, the Elamites ceased being a major political force in the region. Susa was under Assyrian control until Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.
After the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus probably made Susa one of the capitals of his empire and gave Susa as much prestige as Ecbatana, Pasargadae, and Babylon. The royal palace at Susa was edified by Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, a Persian king who ruled from 522-485 B.C. The first two years of his reign was marked by political unrest and rebellions throughout the Persian empire. When the political situation was brought under control, Darius set out to reestablish the Achaemenid empire. In addition to building Persepolis as the new capital of the Persian empire, Darius also began substantial construction work at Susa, now the second capital of the empire. Under Darius, Susa again “became a vital, cosmopolitan city and a locus of interchange between people of the Mesopotamian plain and the Iranian highlands.”
The city was also the residence of Ahasuerus (485-464), the king of Persia who selected Esther to be his new queen. Ahasuerus is also known by his Greek name Xerxes I. Ahasuerus’s empire extended from the Indus Valley, modern day Pakistan, to Ethiopia, the area occupied by modern day Sudan. Ahasuerus finished the construction of the palace his father had built.
The ancient city of Susa was divided into four areas:
(1) the acropolis (“capital” [Esther 1:2]) was the strong and fortified palace complex within the city where the king kept his residence. Esther 1:2 uses the word “capital” to translate a Hebrew word that means “fortress.” The palace was designed after Assyrian and Babylonian palaces, with outer walls, several inner courts, and surrounding rooms. The Book of Esther mentions the “inner court” (5:1), “the outer court” (6:4), and “the court of the garden” (1:5).
(2) The apadana,, the area where the Hall of Pillars or Audience Hall, a structure with thirty-six columns, was built. According to an inscription found on one of the columns, the apadana was burned in the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-425 B.C.) and then restored again in the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 B.C.).
(3) The royal village, the section of the city where the merchants and the royal functionaries lived.
(4) The village of the artisans, the place where the craftsmen lived. The site of Susa has yielded an abundance of archaeological discoveries. Archaeologists have found hundreds of texts, inscriptions, pottery, jewelry, and other objects of art. In addition three important monuments were also found at Susa: the stela containing the Code of Hammurabi, the Stela of Naram-Sin, and the Obelisk of Manishtusu. The most famous of these, the Code of Hammurabi, is a collection of 282 laws written in Old Babylonian cuneiform. Some of these laws are similar to the laws in the book of Exodus.
During the exile, probably in the Persian period, a large Jewish community developed in Susa. In the last year of Belshazzar (539 B.C.) Daniel was in Susa when he had the vision of the Ram and the He-goat (Daniel 8:2). Nehemiah served as cupbearer in the royal palace of Artaxerxes I (Nehemiah 1:1). It was at the palace at Susa that Esther lived and became the wife of Ahasuerus and the queen of Persia.
The palace where Esther lived was renowned for its splendor and magnificence. When Darius decided to build a palace which would reflect the glory of his reign, he set out to make the palace the center of the government of the empire. “The whole empire was mobilized to contribute to this vast enterprize, using material and human resources of each province [of the Assyrian empire].” The palace was richly decorated with expensive woods, silver, gold, and precious stones. The Audience Hall was decorated with glazed bricks depicting winged bulls, sphinxes, griffins, and other representations.
The ancient city of Susa still has a great religious significance in the Muslim world. Shiite Muslims believe that the remains of the prophet Daniel were buried in the village of Shush, the site of ancient Susa. The alleged tomb of Daniel, enshrined within a mosque, has become the focus of religious pilgrimages.
NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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