Shushan the Citadel or palace of the Persian King Ahasuerus features heavily in the Bible book of Esther. Ahasuerus is better to known to history as King Xerxes I, who presided over the empire of the Medes and the Persians when it was at its height. The ancient city of Shushan also known as Susa, is located on the edge of the modern Iranian city of Shush. It was excavated beginning in the 1890’s right through to the 1960’s. Unfortunately the site has been heavily damaged by looting as well as by the war between Iraq and Iran, 1980-1988.
The ancient city of Shushan was the capital of the kingdom of Elam until it was conquered by Cyrus the Great shortly before he went on to conquer Babylon. Before that time, Elam frequently found itself on one side or the other of the power struggle between Assyria and Babylon for regional supremacy. The Assyrians and Babylonians would deport and settle entire captive populations to various parts of their empires. Famously, the Assyrians deported the majority of the population of the northern 10 tribe kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah. The people of Elam were among those whom the Assyrians then in turn settled into the emptied land of Israel (Ezra 4: 9-10).
When Cyrus the Great captured Elam he brought it under Persian rule for the first time. Cyrus son and successor Cambyses II made Shushan one of the four capitals of the Persian empire. Years later the fourth king of the empire of the Medes and the Persians named Darius I (also known as Darius the Great) began building massive palaces in the capitals of Shushan and Persepolis. Shushan the citadel would mostly serve as a winter palace for the Persian kings as the extreme heat of the summer there can be very uncomfortable. The Biblical prophet Nehemiah also served at Shushan the citadel as cup bearer to King Artaxerxes, son of Ahasuerus (Xerxes I).
The walls that you can see in the image above were built on top of the ancient foundations in modern times to help visitors see the original layout of the palace. Bible readers can easily see for themselves the features of the palace described in detail in the book of Esther. Let’s take a closer look.
1 – The Courtyard of the Garden
“And when these days were completed, the king held a banquet for seven days for all the people present in Shushan the citadel*, from the greatest to the least, in the courtyard of the garden of the king’s palace.” (Esther 1:5) *footnote: Or “Shushan the Palace”
The location of the great courtyard may be seen in the upper part of the photo. Here King Ahasuerus holds a massive sumptuous feast for his nobles, his governors and palace officials “from the greatest to the least“. During this feast, his wife Queen Vashti angers the Persian “King of Kings” by refusing to come when she is summoned. She is deposed as Queen. Esther 1:6 mentions the courtyard had “pillars of marble“. This grand audience hall had 36 Persian columns each topped with colossal ornamental pillar tops called capitals carved into the form of two kneeling bulls. The capital alone is 4 meters tall. A carefully reconstructed capital from this room may be seen at the Louvre in Paris. The columns beneath it stood 17 meters meaning the ceiling was 21 meters high (70 feet)! The room would have been an impressive location for the king’s feast.
2 – The Courtyard of the House of the Women
“Day after day Mordecai would walk in front of the courtyard of the house of the women* to learn about Esther’s welfare and about what was happening to her.” (Esther 2:11) *footnote: Or “of the harem”
This part of the site has been badly eroded and damaged by the ravages of time as well as early, more primitive archeological technique. The King’s harem, or the house of the women is believed by some to have been on the far left of the picture. The courtyard of the House of the Women is partially obstructed by trees. Beneath it and completely obstructed by the trees was the House of the Women (the harem). Here a series of apartments have been found, each with a small courtyard. Appropriately these are near the king’s apartment. The beautiful Hebrew woman Esther along with some other beautiful women from various parts of the empire were taken here for 12 months of massage, beauty treatments and a specialised diet in preparation for the king’s final selection of Queen to replace Vashti. With the exception of the king and a trusted eunuch, no man could enter the house of women on pain of death. For this reason Esther’s Uncle Mordecai waits anxiously outside the House of Women in the courtyard for any news concerning his niece. This courtyard is also the probable location of Queen Vashti’s banquet for noble women which was held at the same time as the Kings banquet (Es 1:9).
3 – The Second Courtyard, one of two outer courtyards
“Later the king said: “Who is in the courtyard?” Now Haman had come into the outer courtyard of the king’s house to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the stake that he had prepared for him.” (Esther 6:4)
This large outer courtyard, seen to the right of the picture, was separated by a considerable distance from the inner courtyard. This area was where supplicants who had come to see the king had to wait until they were summoned. On entering the massive palace at Shushan one would have had to pass though a series of courtyards, each more impressive than the last. The waiting area was designed to awe those who entered it and to impress upon them their relative smallness and the greatness of the king that they had come to call upon.
4 – The Inner Courtyard
“On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner courtyard of the king’s house, opposite the king’s house, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the royal house opposite the entrance.” (Esther 5:1)
Entering the Inner Courtyard without having been invited to enter was punishable by death. Esther took her life into her hands entering here without permission. Forgiveness could come only from the king who Esther knew would be able to her see from his throne room.
5 – The Throne Room
“… while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the royal house opposite the entrance. As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the courtyard, she gained his favor, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Esther then approached and touched the top of the scepter.” (Esther 5:1.2)
The throne room was reached from the inner courtyard by means of a long ramp. The throne is on a raised platform. From his elevated position, the king could see from his throne that Queen Esther was waiting for an audience. Although Esther had broken the law, Ahasuerus extends his royal sceptre in symbol of his pardon which she gratefully accepts by touching.
The King’s Gate
The book of Esther also mentions the King’s Gate (Esther 2:21) which is unfortunately is just outside the right of the picture. Here while yet a humble servant, Mordecai performs his duties to the king. The massive Gate which was separated by a distance from the palace complex was only discovered and excavated in the 1970’s. Inside the gate was a large statue of Xerxes father, Darius I (also known as Darius the Great). As the book of Esther states, there was a large public square in front of the gate (Esther 4:6).
The palace ruins confirm the details described by the writer of the book of Esther and demonstrate that the writer had first-hand knowledge of the palace. The French archeologist Jean Perrot was the world’s foremost authority on the ancient palace at Shushan. Perrot served as director of the French archaeological mission to Susa and worked at the site from 1968 till 1979. Commenting on the palace at Shushan (Susa), Perrot wrote: “One today rereads with a renewed interest the book of Esther, whose detailed description of the interior disposition of the palace of Xerxes is now in excellent accord with archaeological reality.”
Photo by Darafsh Kaviyani (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons. Numbering by Author.