Archaeology Discovers Purim – Shushan the Capital City
י״ז במרחשון ה׳תש״פ (15 בNovember 2019)
The seat of King Xerxes was in Shushan, a city in western Iran also known today in Farsi by the name of Shush and in English by the name of Susa.
The Book of Esther notes an interesting fact about the city which we can now understand in the light of the archeological findings: the Book sometimes speaks about “Shushan” and sometimes “Shushan HaBira. In the Bible and rabbinic writings, “bira” means a high place, a fortress or a palace. (Over the years, this word came to mean the capital city where the government resides). In the Book of Esther, the expression “Shushan HaBira” indicates the area where the king's palace was located. As the Ibn Ezra points out: “in Shushan HaBira – where the palace was.” Today, we would call it the “Shushan palace” or the “Shushan fortress”.
The Hebrew language expert Abba Ben-David says about this: “Shushan had two parts: the city and the fortress. The king’s palace and the surrounding compound was called Shushan the fortress, and the rest of the city was called Shushan the city. Mordecai would come and go from the city to the royal compound, and from the royal compound to the city. The city was separate from the royal compound.
Shushan the fortress contained the royal palaces, the primary and secondary harems, government buildings, and more. The expression “Shushan Habira” also teaches us that the king's palace was on a high plateau. Indeed, Ahasuerus's palace in ancient Shushan was built on a high and wide plateau which is still in existence today.
The sages in the Talmud say that around Shushan the fortress was an arkuma d’mayo (river, canal). This detail too was revealed in contemporary archaeological excavations, and as Professor Elia Samuele Artom explains: “From excavations made in the area of ancient Shushan, a river separated between the city and the fortress, and the king's palace was in a high place in the royal compound.”
According to an accepted tradition described by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela in his book, Daniel's grave is in Shushan, in a special edifice known even today.
The Splendor of the King's Palace
The Book of Esther also presents a detailed description of the king's palace. These details have been uncovered in archaeological excavations and described by scholars in the field: “The author of the Book of Esther was thoroughly acquainted with the Shushan fortress and all the sections of the royal compound, such as the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard, the royal palace, and the pavilion that stood on columns and was open to the inner courtyard, as excavations conducted here by the French rediscovered.”
The Book of Esther focuses on the courtyard of the king's orchard garden, describing the grandeur of the garden grounds: “There were spreads of white, fine cotton, and blue, embroidered with cords of linen and purple on silver rods and marble columns; couches of gold and silver on a pavement of green, white, shell, and onyx marble.” The Persian king surrounded himself with fancy furniture, fine fabrics and expensive utensils.
This description corresponds to the Greek historian Herodotus’s description about the luxuries which Ahasuerus surrounded himself with. As scholars wrote: “The silver rods, gold and silver couches and large variety of utensils displayed at Ahasuerus’s banquet which is described in The Book of Esther, fits the description by Herodotus of the many silver and gold vessels left behind by the Persians when they fled from the Greeks during Khshayarsa’s days: “They spread throughout the camp and found tents decorated with gold and silver, beds coated with gold and silver, gold cups and goblets and other drinking vessels.”
Herodotus goes on to say that Khshayarsa’s own home utensils fell to the portion of the Greek commander, and they included utensils, beds and tables of gold and silver, just as is described in the Megillah.”
The wine banquet
“And the drinking was according to law, with no coercion.” This means that he passed a law that no person would be forced or pressured to drink.
A contemporary person reads this verse and wonders: Is it necessary to legislate a special law against forcing someone to drink wine?
The midrash explains that before this great banquet, in which King Ahasuerus sought to reach out to the citizens of his kingdom, the king canceled an ancient royal practice that was so much a feature of the palace banquets that the king had to enact a new law to annul it.
According to the usual norm, at the beginning of the banquet a giant golden cup filled with bracing, strong wine was brought to enhance the merriment of the ministers and courtiers. The Chief Butler was authorized by law to choose some of the guests who were dignitaries of the kingdom, and force them to drink a full glass. The goal was to get these guests to act imbecilic at the banquet, so everyone else could laugh at them and make them the butt of their comments. The unfortunate one chosen could not refuse, and he had to drink the whole glass even if he would become sick or would die as a result.
These are the words of the Midrash:
“This was a custom in Persia: They had a huge cup that held thirty shmatziyot [a Persian volume measurement], which was called a pitka. Each person had to drink from it even if he would die or go crazy from it. The one who was the Chief Butler would be enriched by the attending Persian dignitaries to hint to him [not to turn to them with the large cup during the banquet]. They would give him a few dinars of gold so he wouldn’t offer them the drink. Ahasuerus did not bring this cup to his banquet, and said instead that whoever wants to drink can drink.”
The meaning of the words in the Book of Esther, “And the drinking was according to law, with no coercion” is that “The drinking was according to the new law in which no one was coerced to drink.”
Archaeological excavations carried out in Achaemenid Empire palaces have found huge gold goblets, with strange shapes, which aroused wonder in all those who saw them: which person drinks from such a giant wine goblet? What oddball would do that? He certainly could not be one of the notables of the people. So for whom was such gold goblets created?
It appears that these goblets were used to maintain the cruel custom of Persian kings in their drunken orgies, besides this one banquet of Ahasuerus’s, as our sages report.
Aristophanes the Greek, who lived for some time after the end of the Persian era, describes the Persian banquets in the following words: “They would force the guests to drink bracing, sweet wine from gold cups.” But he does not specify the huge size of the gold cups which have recently risen from the dust and can be seen by our very eyes. Probably due to the long time that had elapsed from the downfall Persian kingdom, he was unaware of this detail.
Adapted from Rabbi Zamir Cohen's commentary on The Book of Esther – Coming soon in English
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