The Persian Period

The Babylonian Collections of the University Museum

By: Leon Legrain

Originally Published in 1944

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The capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 B.C., almost a century after the ruin of Nineveh, sealed the destiny of the Semitic emperors who had ruled over the four corners of the world. Henceforth Mesopotamia became a mere province of the Persian, the Greek, the Roman empires, of the Parthians and the Sassanians, until centuries after Christ it passed under the domination of the Moslem conquerors. A list of the tribes and nations assembled by Darius on the Hellespont before his invasion of Europe, gives a good illustration of the new conditions of life in the Oriental world. Cyrus put an end to the captivity of Babylon and let the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem. His inscription stamped on a brick from Ur, now in the University Museum, reads like a part of his proclamation: “The great gods have delivered all the lands into my hand. The land I have made to dwell in a peaceful habitation.” (Ur excavations, Royal Inscriptions, Vol. I, no. 194.) The brick was built into the socket box of the so-called Cyrus gate.

Alabaster vase with with quadrilingual inscription written in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian and Egyptian hieroglyphs with the name Artaxerxes I
Figure 43. Alabaster vase of Artaxerxes I with his name in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian and Egyptian
Museum Object Number: B9208
Image Number: 6478

Aramaic endorsements scratched or painted on the edges of a number of cuneiform tablets are another sign of changing times. (Business Documents of Murashû Sons of Nippur, B.E., Vol. IX and X.) Aramaic was the language employed by the Persians in their official relations with their subject nations. It was written, not with syllabic signs, but with the letters of an alphabet. That great Semitic innovation originated on the shore of the Mediterranean. (cf. Fouilles de Ras-Shamra by Prof. Claude F. A. Schaeffer and Charles Virolleaud.) The simple signs were eventually to replace the complicated cuneiform characters, as the parchment would be preferred to the cumbersome clay tablets. The Phoenician signs may have been derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, but there were already in the second millennium in upper Syria cuneiform alphabets in use to write the language of Pre-Israel Canaanites. Cuneiform signs with alphabetical values were adopted by the Persian kings in their official inscriptions at Persepolis and on the famous rock of Behistun. On the latter Darius I ordered the history of his conquests to be engraved, in three versions, all in cuneiform characters, but representing three different languages: old Persian, Elamite and Assyro-Babylonian. In 1837 to 1846 Rawlinson deciphered the old Persian version, and thus supplied the key to an understanding of the others. By the unlocking of the mysterious Assyro-Babylonian writing, he revealed a wonderful treasure of ancient history and well deserved his name of “Father of Assyriology.” There is in the Babylonian Section a good example of a trilingual cuneiform inscription in the Persian, Elamite and Babylonian languages. It is engraved on a large alabaster vase of Xerxes I, probably found at Babylon, and bought in London in 1888. It reads “Xerxes the Great King.” The same is repeated in Egyptian hieroglyphs enclosed in a cartouche. The vase filled with scented oil was part of the royal stores, providing luxury for the bath.

Under Artaxerxes I (Figure 43) and Darius II a large portion of the land around Nippur was in the hands of the Persians. The administration of their estates was left lo a local agent or banker, better known as “The Murashû Sons” from their numerous business documents now in the Babylonian Section of the University Museum (Business Documents of Murashû Sons of Nippur, B.E. Vol. IX and X). They throw a curious light on the conditions of life in southern Mesopotamia in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Cite This Article

Legrain, Leon. "The Persian Period." Museum Bulletin X, no. 3-4 (June, 1944): 63-65. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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