539–336 BC


Astyges, King of Media in western Persia, dreamed that his daughter was urinating a golden stream which squirted out the whole of his kingdom. His magi, the Persian priests, interpreted this to mean that his grandsons would threaten his rule. Astyges married his daughter to a weak, unthreatening neighbour to the east, the King of Anshan. This marriage spawned an heir, Kourosh, who became Cyrus the Great. Astyges dreamed again that a vine was growing from between his daughter’s fecund thighs until it overshadowed him – a sexual-political version of Jack and the Beanstalk. Astyges ordered his commander Harpagus to murder little Cyrus, but the boy was hidden with a shepherd. When Astyges discovered that Cyrus was not dead, he butchered and cooked Harpagus’ son and served him to his father as a stew. It was not a meal that Harpagus would easily forget or forgive.

On the death of his father in about 559 BC, Cyrus returned and seized his kingdom. Astyges’ pungent dreams, as recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus, who liked to believe all Persian business was decided with the help of sexual or urinary auguries, came true: Cyrus, backed by Harpagus, defeated his grandfather, uniting the Medes and Persians. Leaving Belshazzar’s Babylon to the south, Cyrus confronted another potentate, Croesus, wealthy King of Lydia in western Turkey. Cyrus force-marched his cameleer army to surprise Croesus in his capital. The Lydian horses bolted when they detected the smell of charging camels. Then Cyrus turned on Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar’s blue-glazed metropolis opened its gates to Cyrus, who shrewdly paid homage to Bel-Marduk, the neglected Babylonian god. The fall of Babylon elated the Jewish exiles: ‘For the Lord hath done it; shout … break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein; for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel.’ Cyrus inherited the Babylonian empire, including Jerusalem: ‘every king on earth’, he said, ‘brought me heavy tribute and kissed my feet when I sat in Babylon’.

Cyrus had a fresh vision of empire. While the Assyrians and Babylonians built empires on slaughter and deportation, Cyrus offered religious tolerance in return for political dominance to ‘unite peoples into one empire’.*

Soon after, the King of Persia issued a decree that must have astonished the Jews: The Lord God hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem. Who is there among you of all his people? Let him go up to Jerusalem and build the house of the Lord God of Israel.’

Not only was he sending the Judaean exiles home, and guaranteeing their rights and laws – the first ruler ever to do so – but he returned Jerusalem to them and offered to rebuild the Temple. Cyrus appointed Sheshbazzar, son of the last king, to govern Jerusalem, returning to him the Temple vessels. No wonder a Judaean prophet hailed Cyrus as the Messiah. ‘He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.’

Sheshbazzar led 42,360 exiles back to Jerusalem in the province of Yehud – Judah. The city was a wasteland after the magnificence of Babylon, but ‘Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion.’ wrote Isaiah, ‘put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city … Shake thyself from the dust … O captive daughter of Zion.’ However, the plans of Cyrus and the returning exiles were obstructed by the locals who had remained in Judaea and particularly Samaria.

Just nine years after the return from exile, Cyrus, still in his prime, was killed in battle in Central Asia. It was said that his victorious enemy dropped his head into a blood-filled wineskin to satiate his greedy thirst for the lands of others. His heir redeemed his body and buried him in a golden sarcophagus at Pasargadae (in southern Iran) where his tomb still stands. ‘He eclipsed all other monarchs, before him and since,’ wrote the Greek soldier Xenophon. Jerusalem had lost her protector.22


The fate of Cyrus’ empire, already larger than anything that had gone before, was decided close to Jerusalem. Cyrus’ son Cambyses II – Kambujiya – succeeded to the throne and in 525 marched through Gaza and across Sinai to conquer Egypt. Far away in Persia, his brother rebelled. On his way home to save his throne, Cambyses died mysteriously near Gaza; there, seven noble conspirators met on horseback to plan the seizure of the empire. They had not decided who would be their candidate, so they agreed that ‘the one whose horse was first to neigh after dawn should have the throne’. The horse of Darius, a young scion of one of the noble clans and Cambyses’ lance-bearer, was the first to neigh. Herodotus claimed that Darius cheated by ordering his groom to dip his fingers into a mare’s vulva: he then gave Darius’ horse a thrilling whiff at the vital moment. Thus Herodotus gleefully attributed the rise of an eastern despot to a venereal sleight of hand.

Aided by his six co-conspirators, Darius galloped eastwards, and succeeded in reconquering the entire Persian empire, suppressing rebellions in virtually every province. But the civil war ‘ceased the work of the house of God in Jerusalem unto the second year of the reign of Darius’. In about 520, Prince Zerubbabel, grandson of the last king of Judah, and his priest, Joshua, son of the last priest of the old Temple, set off from Babylonia to rescue Jerusalem.

Zerubbabel rededicated the altar on the Temple Mount, hiring artisans and buying Phoenician cedarwood to rebuild the Temple. Excited by the rising edifice, encouraged by the disorder in the empire, the Jews could not help but entertain messianic dreams of a new kingdom. ‘In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, I will take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant … and make thee as a signet’, wrote the prophet Haggai, citing the Davidic signet-ring lost by Zerubbabel’s grandfather. Jewish leaders arrived from Babylon with gold and silver, hailing Zerubbabel (which means ‘Seed of Babylon’) as the ‘Shoot’ that ‘shall assume majesty and rule upon his throne’.

The local people, who lived around the city and to the north in Samaria, now wanted to join in with this sacred task and offered Zerubbabel their help, but the returning Exiles practised a new Judaism. They regarded these locals as half-heathens, disdaining them as the Am Ha-Aretz, ‘the people of the land’. Alarmed by the revival in Jerusalem or bribed by the locals, the Persian governor stopped the building.

Within three years, Darius had defeated all challenges and emerged as one of the most accomplished rulers of the ancient world, establishing a tolerant world empire that stretched from Thrace and Egypt to the Hindu Kush – the first to extend across three continents.* The new Great King turned out to be a rare combination of conqueror and administrator. From his image carved in rock to commemorate his victory, we know that this Darius – Darayavaush – presented himself as a classic Aryan with high brow and straight nose, shown as 5 feet 10 inches tall, wearing a war crown of gold studded with oval jewels, his fringe frizzed, his drooping moustache twirled, his hair tied in a bun and his square beard arranged in four rows of curls alternating with straight strands. In his majesty, he wore a long robe over trousers and shoes, and carried a duck-headed bow.

This was the awesome ruler to whom Zerubbabel appealed, citing the decree of Cyrus. Darius ordered a check of the imperial rolls and found the decree, commanding, ‘Let the governor of the Jews build this house of God. I, Darius, have a decree. Let it be done with speed.’ In 518, he marched westwards to restore order in Egypt, probably passing through Judaea to settle the over-excited Jews of Jerusalem: he may have executed Zerubbabel, who now disappeared without explanation – the last of the Davidians.

In March 515, the Second Temple was dedicated joyfully by the priests with the sacrifice of 100 bullocks, 200 rams, 400 lambs and twelve goats (to expiate the sins of the Twelve Tribes). The Judaeans thus celebrated the first Passover since the Exile. But when the old men who remembered Solomon’s Temple saw this modest building, they burst into tears. The city remained tiny and deserted.23

Over fifty years later, the cup-bearer of Darius’ grandson, King Artaxerxes I, was a Jew named Nehemiah. The Jerusalemites appealed to him for help: ‘The remnant are in great affliction. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down.’ Nehemiah was heartbroken: ‘I sat down and wept and mourned.’ When he was next serving at court in Susa, the Persian capital, King Artaxerxes asked, ‘Why is thy countenance sad?’ ‘Let the king live for ever,’ replied this Jewish courtier, ‘why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my father’s sepulchres, lieth waste? … If it please the king … send me unto Judah … that I may build it.’ Nehemiah was ‘sore afraid’ as he awaited the answer.


The Great King appointed Nehemiah governor and granted him funds and a military escort. But the Samaritans, north of Jerusalem, were ruled by their own hereditary governor, Sanballat, who distrusted this secretive courtier from faraway Susa and the schemes of the returning Exiles. By night Nehemiah, who feared assassination, inspected Jerusalem’s broken walls and burned gates. His memoir, the only political autobiography in the Bible, tells how Sanballat ‘laughed us to scorn’ when he heard the plans to rebuild the walls until Nehemiah revealed his appointment as governor. Landowners and priests were each given sections of the wall to rebuild. When they were attacked by Sanballat’s ruffians, Nehemiah set guards ‘so the wall was finished in fifty and two days’, enclosing just the City of David and the Temple Mount, with a small fortress north of the Temple.

Now Jerusalem ‘was large and great’, Nehemiah said, but ‘the people were few therein’. Nehemiah persuaded the Jews outside the city to draw lots: one out of every ten would settle in Jerusalem. After twelve years Nehemiah travelled to Persia to report to the king, but when he returned to Jerusalem he found that Sanballat’s cronies were lucratively running the Temple while the Jews were marrying with the locals. Nehemiah expelled these interlopers, discouraged intermarriage and imposed his new pure Judaism.

As the Persian kings lost control over their provinces, the Jews developed their own semi-independent statelet of Yehud. Based around the Temple, and funded by growing numbers of pilgrims, Yehud was ruled by the Torah and governed by a dynasty of high priests supposedly descended from King David’s priest Zadok. Once again, the Temple treasury became a coveted prize. One of the high priests was murdered inside the Temple by his own avaricious brother, Jesus (the Aramaic for Joshua), a sacrilege that gave the Persian governor the pretext to march on Jerusalem and loot its gold.24

While the Persian courtiers were distracted by their own homicidal intrigues, King Philip II of Macedon trained a formidable army, conquered the Greek city-states and prepared to launch a sacred war against Persia to avenge the invasions of Darius and his son Xerxes. When Philip was assassinated, his twenty-year-old son Alexander seized the throne and launched the attack on Persia that would bring Greece to Jerusalem.

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