Readers of the book of Esther are familiar with “Shushan the capital,” the seat of the Persian empire where the story’s action takes place. In recent years, archaeologists have learned quite a bit about this ancient city, known in the West as Susa and located in modern-day Iran. Lawrence Schiffman writes:
In [one ancient] inscription, the two individuals identifiable as Jews living in Shushan are witnesses in a loan document written in Akkadian, the language of Babylonia, not long after Babylonia was conquered by Persia. What this shows is that a Jewish community already existed in Shushan soon after the establishment of the Persian empire [in 550 BCE]. We can speculate that some Jews had moved there in the earlier Babylonian period, as Shushan was only a short journey eastward from the areas in which the Judean exiles were settled by the Babylonians after the destruction of the First Temple [in 586 BCE].
It wasn’t long before Shushan was home to a substantial Jewish population. . . . It was only natural that Jews would be attracted to this city. The emperor Darius I, [who ruled from 522 to 486 BCE], selected Shushan as his main capital. He also had a capital at Persepolis, which has also left behind beautiful archaeological remains. But Shushan was a natural choice for his primary capital, as it was the center of an empire reaching “from India to Ethiopia,” as the book of Esther repeatedly puts it. Furthermore, the Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Darius built a royal road to facilitate travel and shipping all the way from Shushan to Sardis in Turkey. . . .
The royal complex, which has been excavated thoroughly, was surrounded by a massive wall, and its buildings were about 50 feet higher than the lower city. Its main components were the actual fortified citadel, the palace (called the apadna, a term also used in Daniel 11:45), and the attached residential area (referred to as “the house of the king” in Esther 5:1) that included the harem, also mentioned in Esther. . . .
[T]he city entered a period of decline and insignificance after Alexander the Great conquered the Near East. . . . Some [talmudic sages] came from the province of Khuzestan, of which Shushan was the capital. However, we know nothing about its Jewish population from the Muslim conquest up until the earlier Middle Ages. By this time the tomb of Nabi Danyal (Arabic for “the prophet Daniel”) was being venerated in Shushan. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (ca. 1162) reported that it had a Jewish population of about 7,000 and fourteen synagogues. . . . By the 19th century it was home to several thousand Jews, and the village was called Shush. But a recent list of synagogues in Iran contains no entry for Shushan, and it appears that its community is no longer in existence.
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