Monday, November 1, 2010

The Times of the Persians

The Mystery of the Lost Ark: Part 7

The Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon.  Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II.  In his short, eight year reign, Cambyses added the kingdom of Egypt to the vast empire assembled by his father.

In 525 BC, Cambyses defeated Pharaoh Psammetichus III first on the Nile Delta and then at the key city of Memphis.  He continued south destroying the Egyptian temples along the way knowing full well that men were demoralized by the desecration of their gods.  When Cambyses reached Elephantine Island opposite the city of Syene, he discovered a temple that was different from the others.  It was surrounded by a fortress occupied by Jewish mercenaries who offered their services to the Persian monarch.  Cambyses accepted their offer and his army left the Jewish temple unscathed.

(Psammetichus II recruited Jewish mercenaries in 593 BC during his triumphant campaign against the king of ancient Ethiopia.  He posted the Jews on Elephantine Island in Pathros.  Shortly after his victory over the Ethiopians, Psammetichus II was the welcomed guest of King Zedekiah at his palace in Jerusalem.  Now Jeremiah the prophet was also visiting Zedekiah under totally different circumstances.  He was confined to the court of the guardhouse, located within the walls of the palace.  While Psammetichus had become celebrated because of his military victory, Jeremiah's prophecies had also propelled him to celebrity status.  Psammetichus was anxious to meet the notorious prophet and learn what he could about Egypt's destiny. 

Upon Pharaoh’s return to Egypt and at his urging, the Jewish garrison on Elephantine Island built a temple.  Besides Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, it was the only Jewish temple on the face of the earth.  In 583 BC, that temple, in the land of Syene, was visited by Baruch the scribe and became the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant.)

In 522 BC, a sword wound inflicted to Cambyses’ leg became infested with gangrene and he died an untimely death.  That same year Cambyses was succeeded by his third cousin, Darius the Great, who seized control of the Persian throne.

Now the Jews began to rebuild Jerusalem's temple in 536 BC, during the reign of Cyrus.  The reconstruction was halted due to the harassment of the Samarians coupled with their own lack of dedication to the project.  Encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, they resumed the temple's reconstruction in the second regnal year of Darius the Great. 

While the Samarians lobbied Darius to prohibit the reconstruction project, the Jews claimed they were working under an edict proclaimed by Cyrus in 538 BC.  

To clarify the issue, Darius searched the archives at the treasury in Babylon but could find no such edict.  After checking the royal itinerary, he discovered that Cyrus left Babylon in 538 BC to summer in Ecbatana.  So he searched the fortress in Ecbatana, in the province of Media, where he found the scroll containing Cyrus' decree.

Then Darius resolved the disagreement with his own decree which was sent to the governor of Samaria:

“Leave this work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.

“And I issued a decree that any man who violates this edict, a timber shall be drawn from his house and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this.

“And may the God, who has caused His name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who attempts to resist, so as to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem.  I Darius have issued this decree, let it be carried out with all diligence.”

The temple was completed on March 12, 515 BC in the 6th regnal year of Darius the Great.  It appeared that God had gathered His people together again.   However, the Bible makes no mention of the Ark being returned to the second temple in Jerusalem.    


  1. Scriptural references: Ezra 6:7,11,12

  2. Syene was the ancient name for modern day Aswan.

  3. “Letter of Aristeas” 13: “large numbers of Jews had come into Egypt with the Persian and in an earlier period still others had been sent to Egypt to help Psammetichus in his campaign against the king of the Ethiopians.”

  4. After his victory over Nubia (ancient Ethiopia), Psammetichus II visited Palestine in 593 BC during the reign of Zedekiah (597-586 BC). K S Freedy & D B Redford, "Dates in Ezekiel" pp. 476-479; Anthony Spalinger, "Concept of the Monarchy" p. 23.

  5. Elephantine scrolls translated by Porten & Greenfield: “And during the days of the king of Egypt our fathers had built that temple in Elephantine the fortress and when Cambyses entered Egypt he found that temple built. And they overthrew the temples of the gods of Egypt, all (of them), but no one damaged anything in that temple.”

  6. Edwin Yamauchi, "Persia and the Bible" p. 98: “Some scholars associate the establishment of the Jewish garrison at Elephantine with Cambyses’ expedition to Nubia. But the documents from Elephantine indicate that the colony was already established prior to Cambyses. Psammetichus II is best known for his devastating campaign against Nubia in his third regnal year. It is possible that it was on this occasion that Jewish mercenaries were posted by the Egyptians on the island of Elephantine opposite Aswan. Later, as Cambyses traveled to Nubia, he seems to have recruited them to serve the Persians.”

  7. There is archaeological evidence of a Jewish temple on Elephantine. Jewish temples were not synagogues. A temple was built for the express purpose of housing the Ark of the Covenant.

  8. For a description of the Samarians, click Assyria on the sidebar.

  9. Related Articles: click Conquest of Babylon and Persia on the sidebar.