The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
IRANIAN HISTORY: ACHAEMENIDS
Persian Syria (538-331)
Two Centuries of Persian Rule
By: Adnan Bounni
fall to the Persians ended two thousand years of Semitic dynasties that are
relatively well documented. The history of Syria during the Persian Achaemenid
Empire is, however, relatively poorly documented. The lack of epigraphic
documentation is the result, probably, of the fact that Persian and local
administrations wrote, in Aramaic, mostly on perishable materials. In addition,
the refounding of Syrian urban centers in the Greco-Roman periods caused
additional destruction. It is only recently that archaeological research has
been able to contribute to a better understanding of Syria under the Persians.
Syria (538-331 BCE)
538 BCE, Cyrus II, the Great, became master of Mesopotamia and Syria. The
annexation of Syria-Palestine was peaceful, except for Gaza, which submitted
only trough force (Polybius 16.40). Cyrus the Great allowed the return of the
Jews to Jerusalem, where, as sympathizers of Persian rule, their presence in
Palestine was likely intended to balance power in a district that was mostly
pro-Egyptian. The Babylonian texts of Nerab suggest that deported Syrians also
were sent back to the Aleppo region then, or soon after, for a similar purpose.
the Great’ son, Cambyses II (529-522 BCE), occupied Egypt. Cambyses probably
died in Damascus (Josephus, Antiq. 11.2), then the most important city in Syria
(Strabo 16.2.20) and the center of the Persian forces. Darius III stored his
treasures and furniture there before his battle with Alexander (Arrianus 2.6.3.
I, the Great (521-486 BCE) divided the extensive Persian Empire into satrapies
(provinces - the Greek form of the Persian khshathrapan-"king" in
Old-Persian). At his death there were twenty satrapies. Syria constituted one
satrapy with Babylonia. Later, Syria alone became the fifth satrapy under the
name Ebimari in Babylonian, or Abar-Nahra in Aramaic-Persian, which means
"beyond the river [Euphrates]."The province extended from the Amanus
to Sinai and included Cyprus. The administrative divisions of the Syrian
province were likely the same as during Neo-Babylonian rule (e.g., Damascus,
Hama, Hauran) and the capital was probably Damascus or Sidon. Arwad served as a
royal residence as well.
geographic location, its forests, and its navy were of great importance for the
Persians' Mediterranean projects, even though its annual tribute was only 350
talents, a relatively moderate sum compared with Egypt's tribute of 700 talents.
Persian rule, local Syrian dynasties permitted to govern in different coastal
cities (mainly Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre), treated as allied-subjects. Under
the Persian freedom-laws, these cities continued to practice their own
religions, carrying out their own commercial activities, and establish colonies
along the Mediterranean coast. These small Canaanite kingdoms (universally known
as Phoenician) refused to help Cambyses, who, while in Egypt, planned to attack
Carthage, their ancient colony. However, they sided with the Persians against
the Greeks in the wars (490-449 BCE), which were, from the Syrian point of view,
a precious occasion for getting rid of the Greek presence in the Mediterranean.
Phoenician possessions had extended to the Palestinian coast since the beginning
of the fifth century BCE. In the fourth century BCE, Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, and
Tyre constituted a federation, with Tripolis as the center of the federation.
Xerxes I (486-465 BCE) planned to invade Greece, the Phoenicians built a bridge
for him on the Bosporos that enabled the Persian armies to reach the interior.
Arwad, then a maritime power, put its fleet at his disposal. He was thus the
victor at Thermopilae, but he lost his fleet at Salamis (480 BCE) and withdrew.
Artaxerxes 1 (465-424 BCE) also failed in Greece and Egypt, but permitted the
return of a second wave of Jews to Jerusalem. In the time of Xerxes II (404-359
BCE), his brother, Cyrus the Younger, satrap of Asia Minor, attempted a revolt.
Cyrus mobilized an army and ten thousand Greek mercenaries to attack his
brother. The mercenaries crossed northern Syria and the Euphrates River, but
after Cyrus's death in battle returned to Greece under the command of Xenophon,
whose travelogue Anabasis documents the history and the historical topography of
northern Syria during this period. During the reign of Xerxes II, the Egyptian
pharaoh Tachos occupied Syria (361-360 BCE), aided by the Spartan king
Aegesilaus; however, he evacuated the country when a revolution began in Egypt.
III (358-338 BCE) repressed the revolutions in Sidon, the most powerful
Phoenician maritime city in the Persian period. From the beginning of the fourth
century BCE, the iconography of Sidon's coinage showed its redoubtable towering
rampart and its navy. Sidon allied with Egypt and with eleven Phoenician cities
and, encouraged by the agitation in the empire, moved against the Persian
Emperor but was defeated. Diodorus of Sicily reports that Sidon was destroyed
and burned with its inhabitants. Egypt also was restored to Persian rule.
Artaxerxes III and his son were poisoned, and one of their relatives, Darius III
Codomannus, took the throne front 338 to 331 BCE. He would have been able to
restore Persian rule if he had not been defeated by Alexander at Issus, on
Syrian territory, in 333 BCE.
satrap of Syria resided at Damascus, Sidon, or Tripolis in the fourth century
BCE. Gubaru, an Iranian companion of Cyrus the Great, was the first Persian
satrap of Syria and Babylonia, before their separation. The last satrap was
Persian Mazdai, satrap of Cilicia, to which Syria was added after the revolution
of 345 BCE. In Arwad. Tripolis, and Akko the fortifications were defended by
Persian officers. Persian tolerance was a necessity because their numerical
presence in the province of Syria was very weak. Tolerance was not only a matter
of strategic and commercial interest but also a Persian way of life, as well:
the Persian rulers built imperial roads connecting the empire across the
Euphrates with the Syrian coastal cities and fortified the coastline. The
Persians also created a unique and rapid postal system and an emergency force of
about three hundred Phoenician military boats.
the Persian period, Syrians spoke mostly Aramaic, but Canaanite was used in the
coastal cities. Aramaic was also dominant in southern Syria. Hebrew, a Canaanite
dialect, was limited to religious use after the fourth century BCE. The northern
Arabic dialect was the language of desertic Syria but was not yet written. The
Persian administration used Aramaic as an official language in the western
provinces and Aramaic script was used to transcribe Persian.
Persian rule Syria's ancient local cultures were allowed to develop; the
administration oriented its efforts mostly toward the duration and the integrity
of the regime that is, the Achaemenid state was a power of conquest,
administration, and military organization, which never imposed their Iranian
culture on their subjects, and gave them permission to practice their own
religion and beliefs.
religion and Persian beliefs in general found few sympathizers among the
Syrians, while Judaism and Christianity adopted some fundamental elements of
Persian religious doctrine. Persian paganism was represented in the Syrian
pantheon by only two deities, Anahita and Mithra. Persian onomastica and
toponyms are rare. Religious banquets (Gk., thiases) may be of Persian origin. Zoroastrian
religion was not permitted to be practiced by non-Iranians, and in case of disobedient
and conversion, the punishment was severe.
rule encouraged agriculture in Syria. Official and private projects existed in
different places: a renowned orchard was located near Sidon and cedar was
exploited near Tripolis. A vast agricultural domain was created in the northern
Biqa' and one belonging to the wife of Darius II existed between the Qweiq River
in Aleppo and the Euphrates. A species of grape was introduced to Damascus and
the pistachio but to Aleppo by the Persians.
the two hundred years of Persian rule, Persian influence on material culture was
slight. The predominant architecture and arts were Syro-Babylonian in inner
Syria. A Greco-Egyptian impact was, however, clear on the coast and in the
south. Along the eastern Mediterranean coast, at nearly every site or level of
the Persian period, Attic ceramics dominate, with Canaannite jars and some East
Greek and Cypriot pottery. The Cypriot style was also often adopted for
modern Lebanon, vestiges of Apadanas have been found at Sidon and at Umm
el-`Amad, but none have yet been excavated at sites in Syria-nor have fire
towers or any glazed bricks. Almost the only examples of characteristic Persian
architecture area Persian column base at Tell Denit and at Tell al-Kazel, a
merlon at Ras Ibn Hani, and a Persian capital found in ancient Damascus. At Tell
Mardikh/Ebla (level VIA 1-3) a building in a settlement from the Persian period,
which served a military and commercial function, may resemble contemporary
buildings in Palestine, but all lack a typical Persian architectural plan and
decoration. The rocky temple at `Amrit, south of Tortosa, is also dated to this
period, but both as a whole and in detail it has a Canaanite (Phoenician),
Egyptianized style with little Persian influence.
the domain of art, the Achaemenid influence is limited mostly to terracotta
figurines representing horsemen. Metal weapons and bowls have been found in
cemeteries at Nerab, Sarepta, and Kamid el-Loz. Some scholars find a probable
relationships between the tower tombs at Palmyra, Zenobia, and `Amrit and the
monumental altar with stairs in Syrian temples (e.g., Palmyra, Baalbek) and the
fire towers of Persia, however.
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