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Who is he?


January 2, 2006

In the piece entitled "The Ahmadinejad in us" I intimated by means of a question mark in parenthesis that Ahasuerus might have been Cyrus. I merely was basing my reflexive query on the sound of suerus, which sounded like Cyrus to me. It did not take long for me to be corrected. Two readers with vastly different levels of maturity pointed out my “glaring” mistake. In his opinion piece "An honest look in the Persian mirror", Steve noted, “the story of Esther in Persia did not take place under Cyrus, but probably under Artaxerxes (according to the Septuagint), or perhaps under Xerxes.” The name for Cyrus in the Hebrew Bible is "Koresh,” he pointed out, and this is a far cry from Ahasuerus. Another reader, however, in a typically disappointing rude manner derided me generally for not knowing anything, as evidenced by me not knowing what everyone else knows that Ahasuerus was indeed either Artaxerxes or Ardeshir!

I stand corrected. Not! To settle my curiosity I set out to investigate for myself the identity of king Ahasuerus. I relied on the disclosures in the Book of Esther and other biblical books and combed my Encyclopaedia Britannica for generally known historical facts about the Achaemenian kings and related subjects. According to the gospel of Britannica (1981MicroIII:971), the Book of Esther was written in the first half of the 2nd century BC, that is between 199-149 BC, well after the demise of the last of the Achaemenian kings.

Nobody knows for sure which Persian king is Ahasuerus supposed to represent. Britannica identifies him as Xerxes I (ruled: 486-465 BC). In the same breath, however, Britannica tells us that “The book purports to explain how the feast of Purim came to be celebrated by the Jews, but its fanciful explanation belongs to the realm of historical legend rather than fact.” In 1981EBMicroVIII:309, the story of Purim is said to be “probably fictitious.” Dehkhoda too identified Ahasuerus as Khashayarshah (Xerxes).      

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Hebrew Names, it would seem that the personal names Ahasuerus and Esther were Hebraicized form of Persian names. The chick with a “beautiful form and fair to look on” was born with the name Hadassah (Esther2:7), which in Hebrew meant “flowering myrtle.” The plant is an aromatic evergreen shrub with blue-back berries. The name Esther, however, is derived from Persian and its connection to the present-day Farsi word setareh (and to the English star) requires little elaboration. According to Dehkhoda, when the maiden Hadassah was made queen she hence was called Aestar, which in Persian meant the same as the present-day word setareh (star). We, who originate from the Gorgan-Astarabad region of Iran, are particularly keen to this name-giving story because according to Saeed Nafisi the place-name Astarabad derived from Astar, a contraction of Aestar (meaning star) and abad.

I recite the naming of Esther from the Persian Aestar in order to inquire then why not Cyrus for Ahasuerus?

Here is what I know about Ahasuerus from the Book of Esther. He was a Persian king and his capital was a Shushan (Susa?). The court of his palace garden had marble pillars and the pavement was made of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble. In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus threw a national festival and invited all his princes and servants, the army of Persia and Media (not armies, but singular army), and the nobles and princes to bask in his glory for 180 days. When the Book of Esther opens, he is the king from India to Ethiopia and over 127 provinces in all.

Here is what I know about Esther from the book by the same name. Born Hadassah, she was the daughter of Abihail. As she was orphaned, Abihail’s nephew, Mordecai took to raising her. King Nebuchadnezzar brought Mordecai and his cousin Esther from Judah/Jerusalem to Babylon. When the Book of Esther opens, Mordechai and Esther were living in Shushan and their Jewish faith was not public knowledge.     

This is what I know from the historical record. The conquest of Judah/Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II came in 597 BC. He destroyed the Temple of Solomon and sent off ten thousand Jews to Babylon as exiles. The Persian king and founder of the Achaemenian Empire, Cyrus II the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC and set the Jews free to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. 

This is what I know from the inscriptions at Bisotun. In the first three years of his reign Darius I (ruled: 522-486 BC) fought all manners of rebels and eventually subdued them all. I can imagine that the final consolidation of royal power deserved a feast of the like described in the Book of Esther, but of which there is no actual and separate historical record. I do know, however, that Darius’ administrative capital was at Susa and in his trilingual inscription on a gold and silver plate (DPh:3-10) he described his kingdom as stretching from Saka that is beyond Sugda to Kusha (Ethiopia), and from Hidauv (Hind, Sind) thence to Sparda (Sardis). While his Empire was divided into satrapies, he surely governed provinces far greater in number than 20 satrapies described by Herodotus, or the 23 provinces that were mentioned at Bisotun or 30 countries listed at Naqsh-e Rostam.

I also know about the ornamentation of Darius’ palace at Susa as described on clay and marble tablets and on the tile of the frieze of the great hall (DSf) – it rivaled if not surpassed the splendor that was described in the Book of Esther in terms of gold, silver, stones and other materials in Ahasuerus’ palace (Esther1:6).

In view of the aforementioned evidence one would think that the description of Ahasuerus would have been a closer match for Darius’ court. While it is historically and biblically documented that Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, Darius’ record with the Jews was equally noble. According to 1981EBMacro5:492, in 519 Darius “authorized the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the earlier decree of Cyrus.”

The reason why I do not believe Ahasuerus to be the same as Darius is one of taste – not necessarily mine but the royal desire for young flesh. When the then-Queen Vashti refused to come out and parade her butt before Ahasuerus’ assembled princes and public at the end of the aforementioned national feast at Shushan (Esther1:9-12), Ahasuerus ordained as the law of the Persians and the Medians that Vashti not show here mug before the king, ever!, and for wives to obey their husbands and each man bear rule in his own house (Esther1:18-22). The search then began for another to become queen.

Among other girls, one Hadassah was taken into the royal household, in the custody of the male “keeper of the women.” “And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him,” says the Book, and before you know it she was put up in a decent part of the palace. She was marinated for a whole year -- in oil of myrrh for six months, then sweet odours and ointments for another six months. So in the tenth (Tebeth) month of the Jewish calendar, in the seventh year of Ahasuerus’ reign, Hadassah was taken to the king and he liked what he saw and made her queen instead of Vashti (Esther:2).    

When Esther was brought to Ahasuerus’ attention she was of beautiful form and fair to look on. Yet by the chronology of Esther – from the time of her arrival in Babylon (ca. 597 BC) and assuming she was just a newly born, she would have been 75 years old by the time of Darius’ coming to the throne (522 BC). Unless Ahasuerus, whomever he was if at all real, was into great-grannies, it is safe to say that Esther would have not been any longer the head-turning babe that the Book had described her. By the time of Xerxes I (ruled 486-465 BC) or Artaxerxes I (464-425 BC) she would have been dead and buried!      

According to 1981EBMacro19:1057, toward the end of his reign Xerxes simply styled himself the “king of the Persians and the Medes.” This may be of coincidental significance because the army that feted Ahasuerus at Shushan in his third year was

“the army of Persia and Mede.” But that is not saying much. The Persian Empire of the Achaemenians was from the very beginning a Perso-Median structure. Again according 1981EBMacro5:410, “[n]o Persian chauvinist, … [Cyrus] not only conciliated the Medes but joined them with the Persians in a kind of dual monarchy of the Medes and Persians.” Incidentally, not too shabby in comparison with the extent of Ahasuerus’ or Darius’ kingdom, Cyrus’ empire too included all of the Near East from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Furthermore, Cyrus did not conquer Egypt and for that reason alone his empire like Ahasuerus’ stretched only from Indus to Ethiopia, otherwise the mention would have included Egypt farther west, as it would have in the description of the Persian Empire later under Cambyses II, Darius, Xerxes and the Artaxerxes. 

I suspect, the reason why Ahasuerus is identified so readily with Xerxes I is because of the generally held view that Xerxes had a penchant, big appetite, for harems and harem intrigue. According to “Persians: The Masters of Empire,” a Time-Life book in the Lost Civilization series (1995:100), the German archeologists Herzfeld and Schmidt “were convinced that one of these ancillary structures [at Persepolis] was the Harem of Xerxes I, the son of Darius I and his successor, known in the biblical book Esther as Ahasuerus, Esther’s royal husband….” Was it the Book of Esther that drove Herzfeld’s conclusion that Esther’s husband had a harem, or was it because Xerxes I had a harem that then he must have been the same as Ahasuerus? Or Ahasuerus was indeed Xerxes I because Herzfeld or someone else found Esther’s monogrammed underwear in the ruins behind the columns?  

In 1981EBMacro19:1058, Xerxes “allowed himself to be drawn into harem intrigues in which he was, in fact, only a pawn: thus he disposed of his brother’s [Masistes] entire family at the demand of the Queen [Artemisia, Amestris].” What made her counsel so persuasive no doubt stemmed from the good advice that she gave to Xerxes in the war against the Greeks, which he did not heed and paid the price (Herodotus VIII: 68-69, 101-103).

After the Persian fleet was destroyed by the Greeks, Xerxes retreated to the city of Sardis and while there he fell in love with his brother Masistes’ wife. “He sent her messages, but failed to win her consent; and he could not dare to use violence, out of regard to Masistes, his brother.” So Xerxes, the king of kings and having nothing better to do in his spare time, decided to arrange a wedding between his son, Darius, and the Masistes’ daughter, Artaynta, thinking this way he would get closer to Masistes’ wife. After the marriage, Xerxes went back to Susa and soon fell out of love with Masistes wife and took a shine to Artaynta, his niece, and this one unlike his prudish mother “very soon returned his love.” All hell broke loose when Xerxes’s wife Amestris found out about the affair, but instead of taking it out on Xerxes or Artaynta, she developed a grudge against Masistes’ wife as the source of this melodrama. On the king’s birthday she demanded from him and received Masistes as a gift. Amestris had Masistes’ wife mutilated by removing her breasts, nose, ears and lips, which were thrown to the dogs, and her tongue was ripped out from the root and then sent home. Masistes and his sons then set out to avenge her mistreatment by riding toward Bactria where they were to begin a revolt against Xerxes with the help of Bactrians and Saka, but Xerxes’ troops caught up with them en route and slew them wholesale before they could reach Bactria. Herodotus IX: 108-113.      

It seems that Xerxes’ father, Darius, was no slouch either when it came to tending to his libido. According to Herodotus (III:88, VII:2, VII:224), Darius’ wives included Gobryas’ daughter; his own brother Artanes’s daughter Phratagune; Cyrus the Great’s daughters Atossa and Artystone, of which Atossa was twice married before, once to her own brother Cambyses and once to Magus, but Artystone was [amazingly] a virgin; Cyrus’ grand daughter Parmys (from his son Smerdis), and Otane’s daughter. These were by marriage alone. Rule by the pussy, die by the pussy. Like Ahasuerus and Xerxes, Darius too was whipped. His wife Atossa, who so desired the service of maids from Lacedaemonia, Athens, Corinth and Argive, egged Darius to invade Greece instead of Scythia. Herodotus III:134.

The story of the Paeonian maiden is another example of Darius’ tenderness for women.

One day in Sardis, Darius noticed a tall and beautiful woman who bore a pitcher on her head, leading a horse with one hand and spinning flax with another, heading toward the river. He had her observed and it was reported that she had watered the horse and was returning with the jug full of water on her head and still twirling the spindle. The woman was summoned before him, along with his two brothers who had paraded her in this minuet to catch the king’s attention. The king inquired and was told that they were from Paeonia, an area that corresponded then with the present-day northern Greece, western Bulgaria and southern portions of former Yugoslavia. Darius sent orders to his governor in Thrace, Megabazus, to remove the Paeonians from their land and bring them to his presence, which he did. 

Ahasuerus was an equal to Xerxes when it came to being swayed by others. In essence, it was Ahasuerus’ sad and capricious temperament that gave rise to the story of Purim. It is not a coincidence that Jean Racine, the 17th century French master of tragedy, would entitle one of his last plays Esther (1689).

In the Book of Esther we first read how Ahasuerus fell under the influence of his entourage and banned his insubordinate Queen Vashti from his sight. Next he granted to his chief minister Haman, for pay, a license by which Haman was to set out to destroy “a certain people” that was scattered about the kingdom but “their laws [were] diverse from those of every people; neither [kept] they the king’s law.” The third manipulation of Ahasuerus occurred when Esther revealed to the king that she and her Jewish people were the target of Haman’s quest and got Ahasuerus to rescind the license and, instead, ordered:  – “The Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and provinces that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, upon one day in the all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.” Esther 8:10-13.

According to Esther 6:5-10, when Haman’s plot was laid bare by Esther at a banquet, the king, flush with wine, left the room and when he returned his upset was further aggravated when he saw Haman looking like he was forcing himself onto Esther. Haman was hanged. Mordecai took over Haman’s house and on the 13 Adar, as it was proclaimed  “The Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them.” In Shushan castle alone, the Jews killed 500 men and Haman’s’ ten sons and 75,000 were killed in the provinces. Esther:9.

When the news of the 13th Adar massacre reached Ahasuerus, the king asked if there was anything else Esther pleased. To be sure, she asked if the Jews could continue the smiting of their enemies in Shushan on the next day as well. And so on 14th Adar the Jews slew 300 more men in Shushan. As the second day of massacre was not carried out in the provinces, Jews of the villages, those who dwelt in the unwalled towns, made the 14th Adar the day of feasting and gladness. The Jews of Shushan  however made the15th Adar the day of feasting and gladness (Esther 9:1:19).

I happen to think that 13th Adar has something to do with the Iranian observance of syzdah bedar, which I will discuss in my next piece. But I digress.

So who was Ahasuerus? In the biblical Book of Daniel, I read of one Darius, the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes (Daniel 9:1). I also read in the same (6:29) that Daniel, after surviving his ordeal in the lion’s den, prospered in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

I think if Ahasuerus was any of the Achaemenian kings he was probably Cyrus I. Cyrus I flourished around 640 BC. This date puts him much closer than any other Achaemenian king to a time when Esther would have been a teen-ager if not even prepubescent. A look at his genealogy bears out my point. The Achaemenian progenitor is one King Achaemen (Haxaman-ishah). He had a son named Teispes (Cishpish) and Cishpish was known to be a vassal of Media before Media fell to the Saka in 612 BC. Cishpish had two sons: one was named Ariaramnes (Ariyaramna) and the other was Cyrus (Kurush).

Ariaramnes son of Cishpish (ruled ca. 640-615 BC) was the ruler of Parsa (Fars) and vassal of Media. His son and successor Arsames (Arshama) was also a vassal of the Median king.

Cyrus son of  Cishpish is known as Cyrus I and he, who flourished around 640 BC, was the king of Anshan (northwest of Susa in Elam). From Cyrus I came Cambyses (I, Kabujiya, ca. 600-559 BC); he too was the king of Anshan and a Median vassal.

The Median kings who held sway over the Persian rulers – Cambyses I and young Cyrus II of Anshan and Ariaramnes and Arsames of Fars were Cyaxares (Uvakhshtra), who ruled from 625 to 585 BC, and his son Astyages (in Babylonian, Ishtumegu), who ruled form 585 to 550 BC) .

This Persian ruler Cambyses I married the daughter of The Median king Astyages and from that union sprang Cyrus II the Great. While he is identified as a Persian, his mother was a Median. This is the reason why the Book of Esther would refer to Ahasuerus as the king of Persians and Medes, and the book of Daniel would refer to Ahasuerus’ son, Darius, as one from Median seed, as in Judaism the identification is through the matrilineal line. This was also apparently the practice among the Peloponnesians. In a passage in Herodotus (IX: 106), the Peloponnesian leaders contemplated chastising the Greeks who had sided with the Medes [in referring to Xerxes’ invasion].

If the name Ahasuerus was a Hebraicized form of a Persian/Median name then the question ought to be “What name?” Obviously the guy was not just a potentate, as in the Book of Esther he is portrayed as presiding over an empire from Indus to Ethiopia. The notion that Ahasuerus could be the name Artaxerxes is phonetically all the more enticing when considering that the Artaxerxes, No. 1 and subsequent, were favorably disposed toward the Jews. I think “Aha” in Ahasuerus can be viewed reasonably as a corruption of “arta.”

Herodotus (VI:98) wrote that in Persian the names for Darius [Persian: Darayavaush] meant “worker,” Xerxes [Persian: Xshayarshah] meant “warrior” and Artaxerxes [Persian: Artaxshaca] meant “Great Warrior.” Regardless of the lexicon of “warrior,” it is clear that “arta” in Persian meant “great” or “high,” as one can trace that word’s meaning in the form of alta into Latin and English having the same meaning. The French altesse, means “highness,” as in the royal highnesses of the various defunct and not so-defunct monarchies that litter the French landscape. The more familiar word “altitude” provides another stellar example of yet another Persian in English!  

I am inclined to think that Ahasuerus was probably a name whose first part was the prefix “Aha” that was a corruption or Hebraicized form of arta and Suerus, which was probably the Hebraicized form of not Kurush but Syrous (Cyrus), as the Iranians know the name “Cyrus.” The ArtaCyrus of the Book of Esther, if not a composite of a Persian king, was probably Cyrus the Elder (higher up the chart of descent) – namely, Cyrus I, who would have been a contemporary of Esther.

What if Ahasuerus was not really a Persian ethnic but was only mentioned as such and was in reality a Mede. In that case, I would be inclined to say that Ahasuerus was probably a Hebraicized form of the Greek form Cyaxares (per Herodotus) for the king of Media. His name in Iranian was Uvakhshtra. The prefix “Aha” stood for Cya (read Kia or Kai as in Kianiyan or Kaikavus, respectively) or “Uva.” The name “Xares” would be the same as Suerus. Regardless, Cyaxares ruled from 625 to 585 and this time-line encompasses the date of the arrival of Esther in Babylon around 597 BC. I discount the identification of Ahasuerus as a “Persian” king by noting that probably by the time the Book of Esther was written the distinction “Persian” was more a shorthand for an Iranian king than a “Persian ethnic” per se – Not unsimilar to the Europeans calling Nader Shah or Naser ed-Din Shah a “Persian kin” when ethnically he was really not a Persian. 

It should not be forgotten at any point in this reading that by the time the Book of Esther was put into written form the Persian Empire had ceased to exist and much had changed in language, pronunciation and political beliefs. The Book of Esther and Book of Daniel were written at a time when Jews were under assault by the Greek (Hellenist) -- Seleucid -- rulers of Syria. In 168 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also the Epimanes: in Greek, “the mad”) conquered Jerusalem and tried to Hellenize this Jewish stronghold. In the process he desecrated the Second Temple. The Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus rose in rebellion and triumphed over Antiochus. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates the resistance of the Maccabean army and the hanukkah (Hebrew, “dedication”) of the rebuilt Second Temple in 165 BC. Antiochus IV died in Tabae (now, Isfahan) in 164 BC.

In 138 BC another Seleucid king, Antiochus VII Sidetes (ruled ca. 159-129 BC) delivered an ultimatum to the Jews to acknowledge him as overlord. They refused and defeated his army that was sent to exact their obedience. In 135-134 BC Antiochus in person laid siege to Jerusalem and captured it and razed its walls, but resisted calls for the extermination of the Jews. He then turned against the Parthians. Driving them from Mesopotamia, he then invaded Media. By a counterattack in 129 BC the Parthians put an end to Antiochus.

The theology that produced the Book of Esther and Book of Daniel was in a manner seeking the sympathy of the Persian (Iranian) against the Greeks or scaring the Greeks from what the Persians and Medians would do to the Greeks. The stories reminded the Seleucids of the fate that by the hand of the kings of Persians and Medians befell those who oppressed the Jews, in fact or fiction, long ago and anon.

Ahasuerus is a composite, collage, and a mythical being and all this talk about pinpointing him to a real historical figure is therefore mere speculation – by others as well as by me. You be the judge.

Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and is the principal artisan at Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea >>> Features in

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