Persian Syria (538-331)

Two Centuries of Persian Rule


By: Adnan Bounni




Syria's fall to the Persians ended two thousand years of Semitic dynasties that are relatively well documented. The history of Syria during the Persian Achaemenid Empire is, however, relatively poorly documented. The lack of epigraphic documentation is the result, probably, of the fact that Persian and local administrations wrote, in Aramaic, mostly on perishable materials. In addition, the refounding of Syrian urban centers in the Greco-Roman periods caused additional destruction. It is only recently that archaeological research has been able to contribute to a better understanding of Syria under the Persians.


Persian Syria (538-331 BCE)

In 538 BCE, Cyrus II, the Great, became master of Mesopotamia and Syria. The annexation of Syria-Palestine was peaceful, except for Gaza, which submitted only trough force (Polybius 16.40). Cyrus the Great allowed the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, where, as sympathizers of Persian rule, their presence in Palestine was likely intended to balance power in a district that was mostly pro-Egyptian. The Babylonian texts of Nerab suggest that deported Syrians also were sent back to the Aleppo region then, or soon after, for a similar purpose.


Cyrus the Great’ son, Cambyses II (529-522 BCE), occupied Egypt. Cambyses probably died in Damascus (Josephus, Antiq. 11.2), then the most important city in Syria (Strabo 16.2.20) and the center of the Persian forces. Darius III stored his treasures and furniture there before his battle with Alexander (Arrianus 2.6.3.


Darius I, the Great (521-486 BCE) divided the extensive Persian Empire into satrapies (provinces - the Greek form of the Persian khshathrapan-"king" in Old-Persian). At his death there were twenty satrapies. Syria constituted one satrapy with Babylonia. Later, Syria alone became the fifth satrapy under the name Ebimari in Babylonian, or Abar-Nahra in Aramaic-Persian, which means "beyond the river [Euphrates]."The province extended from the Amanus to Sinai and included Cyprus. The administrative divisions of the Syrian province were likely the same as during Neo-Babylonian rule (e.g., Damascus, Hama, Hauran) and the capital was probably Damascus or Sidon. Arwad served as a royal residence as well.


Syria's geographic location, its forests, and its navy were of great importance for the Persians' Mediterranean projects, even though its annual tribute was only 350 talents, a relatively moderate sum compared with Egypt's tribute of 700 talents.


Under Persian rule, local Syrian dynasties permitted to govern in different coastal cities (mainly Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre), treated as allied-subjects. Under the Persian freedom-laws, these cities continued to practice their own religions, carrying out their own commercial activities, and establish colonies along the Mediterranean coast. These small Canaanite kingdoms (universally known as Phoenician) refused to help Cambyses, who, while in Egypt, planned to attack Carthage, their ancient colony. However, they sided with the Persians against the Greeks in the wars (490-449 BCE), which were, from the Syrian point of view, a precious occasion for getting rid of the Greek presence in the Mediterranean. Phoenician possessions had extended to the Palestinian coast since the beginning of the fifth century BCE. In the fourth century BCE, Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre constituted a federation, with Tripolis as the center of the federation.


When Xerxes I (486-465 BCE) planned to invade Greece, the Phoenicians built a bridge for him on the Bosporos that enabled the Persian armies to reach the interior. Arwad, then a maritime power, put its fleet at his disposal. He was thus the victor at Thermopilae, but he lost his fleet at Salamis (480 BCE) and withdrew. Artaxerxes 1 (465-424 BCE) also failed in Greece and Egypt, but permitted the return of a second wave of Jews to Jerusalem. In the time of Xerxes II (404-359 BCE), his brother, Cyrus the Younger, satrap of Asia Minor, attempted a revolt. Cyrus mobilized an army and ten thousand Greek mercenaries to attack his brother. The mercenaries crossed northern Syria and the Euphrates River, but after Cyrus's death in battle returned to Greece under the command of Xenophon, whose travelogue Anabasis documents the history and the historical topography of northern Syria during this period. During the reign of Xerxes II, the Egyptian pharaoh Tachos occupied Syria (361-360 BCE), aided by the Spartan king Aegesilaus; however, he evacuated the country when a revolution began in Egypt.


Artaxerxes III (358-338 BCE) repressed the revolutions in Sidon, the most powerful Phoenician maritime city in the Persian period. From the beginning of the fourth century BCE, the iconography of Sidon's coinage showed its redoubtable towering rampart and its navy. Sidon allied with Egypt and with eleven Phoenician cities and, encouraged by the agitation in the empire, moved against the Persian Emperor but was defeated. Diodorus of Sicily reports that Sidon was destroyed and burned with its inhabitants. Egypt also was restored to Persian rule. Artaxerxes III and his son were poisoned, and one of their relatives, Darius III Codomannus, took the throne front 338 to 331 BCE. He would have been able to restore Persian rule if he had not been defeated by Alexander at Issus, on Syrian territory, in 333 BCE.


The satrap of Syria resided at Damascus, Sidon, or Tripolis in the fourth century BCE. Gubaru, an Iranian companion of Cyrus the Great, was the first Persian satrap of Syria and Babylonia, before their separation. The last satrap was Persian Mazdai, satrap of Cilicia, to which Syria was added after the revolution of 345 BCE. In Arwad. Tripolis, and Akko the fortifications were defended by Persian officers. Persian tolerance was a necessity because their numerical presence in the province of Syria was very weak. Tolerance was not only a matter of strategic and commercial interest but also a Persian way of life, as well: the Persian rulers built imperial roads connecting the empire across the Euphrates with the Syrian coastal cities and fortified the coastline. The Persians also created a unique and rapid postal system and an emergency force of about three hundred Phoenician military boats.


In the Persian period, Syrians spoke mostly Aramaic, but Canaanite was used in the coastal cities. Aramaic was also dominant in southern Syria. Hebrew, a Canaanite dialect, was limited to religious use after the fourth century BCE. The northern Arabic dialect was the language of desertic Syria but was not yet written. The Persian administration used Aramaic as an official language in the western provinces and Aramaic script was used to transcribe Persian.


Under Persian rule Syria's ancient local cultures were allowed to develop; the administration oriented its efforts mostly toward the duration and the integrity of the regime that is, the Achaemenid state was a power of conquest, administration, and military organization, which never imposed their Iranian culture on their subjects, and gave them permission to practice their own religion and beliefs.


Zoroastrian religion and Persian beliefs in general found few sympathizers among the Syrians, while Judaism and Christianity adopted some fundamental elements of Persian religious doctrine. Persian paganism was represented in the Syrian pantheon by only two deities, Anahita and Mithra. Persian onomastica and toponyms are rare. Religious banquets (Gk., thiases) may be of Persian origin. Zoroastrian religion was not permitted to be practiced by non-Iranians, and in case of disobedient and conversion, the punishment was severe.


Persian rule encouraged agriculture in Syria. Official and private projects existed in different places: a renowned orchard was located near Sidon and cedar was exploited near Tripolis. A vast agricultural domain was created in the northern Biqa' and one belonging to the wife of Darius II existed between the Qweiq River in Aleppo and the Euphrates. A species of grape was introduced to Damascus and the pistachio but to Aleppo by the Persians.


During the two hundred years of Persian rule, Persian influence on material culture was slight. The predominant architecture and arts were Syro-Babylonian in inner Syria. A Greco-Egyptian impact was, however, clear on the coast and in the south. Along the eastern Mediterranean coast, at nearly every site or level of the Persian period, Attic ceramics dominate, with Canaannite jars and some East Greek and Cypriot pottery. The Cypriot style was also often adopted for sculpture.


In modern Lebanon, vestiges of Apadanas have been found at Sidon and at Umm el-`Amad, but none have yet been excavated at sites in Syria-nor have fire towers or any glazed bricks. Almost the only examples of characteristic Persian architecture area Persian column base at Tell Denit and at Tell al-Kazel, a merlon at Ras Ibn Hani, and a Persian capital found in ancient Damascus. At Tell Mardikh/Ebla (level VIA 1-3) a building in a settlement from the Persian period, which served a military and commercial function, may resemble contemporary buildings in Palestine, but all lack a typical Persian architectural plan and decoration. The rocky temple at `Amrit, south of Tortosa, is also dated to this period, but both as a whole and in detail it has a Canaanite (Phoenician), Egyptianized style with little Persian influence.


In the domain of art, the Achaemenid influence is limited mostly to terracotta figurines representing horsemen. Metal weapons and bowls have been found in cemeteries at Nerab, Sarepta, and Kamid el-Loz. Some scholars find a probable relationships between the tower tombs at Palmyra, Zenobia, and `Amrit and the monumental altar with stairs in Syrian temples (e.g., Palmyra, Baalbek) and the fire towers of Persia, however.





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