In the palace of Shushan

The Book of Esther is a wonderful story of the triumph of good over evil, as exemplified by the beautiful Queen Esther and the wicked minister Haman, but it is no fairy tale.

Children dressed up for Purim (photo credit: REUTERS)
Children dressed up for Purim
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was in the palace of Shushan that the beautiful Queen Esther outmaneuvered the wicked minister Haman; and it was thanks to her scheming that the Jews of the Persian Empire were saved. The account in Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, which reads like a fairy tale of the triumph of good over evil, nevertheless goes into what looks like much unnecessary detail about the palace where it all took place.
It was at the entrance to the palace, at the King’s Gate, that Haman entered and Mordecai, Esther’s cousin (some say uncle) refused to bow down to him. The king held a major, half-year-long feast for all his officials and nobles, and then another feast of seven days, all in the king’s garden. Where was the king’s garden? Was it behind the palace, to one side or in front of it? When Esther wishes to approach the king, she has to be careful not to expose herself to the public on her way to his throne; why does she have to go via a public courtyard on her trip to appeal to the king on the throne? Having seen him and been welcomed, Esther invites the king and Haman to a drinking party in her rooms, and when the king is told by Esther the horrible truth about Haman, he rushes into the garden to gather his thoughts and make his decision about what to do. Did Esther really have a garden alongside her quarters? Are all these details of the palace layout imaginary locations dreamed up by the author of Megillat Esther? Not at all: we now have an accurate plan of the palace and can see that the locations bear out the facts of the account.
The site of Shushan was first located in 1851 by the British geologist William Loftus, who saw the extensive mound next to the Persian city of Shush and recognized it as the biblical city of Susa or Shushan. But it was the French who secured the excavation rights from the government of the Shah, and they dug through the mound, the Acropolis and the Apadana or palace area, from 1884 until the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Originally, explorer Jacques de Morgan cleared much of the area and his colleague Roland de Mecquenem excavated the palace of Darius and Xerxes (Esther’s consort Ahasuerus) with its many courtyards, royal apartments and gardens, while his work was continued by the archaeologist Roman Grishman from 1946 to 1967. They all dug great trenches across the mounds and revealed its ancient secrets.
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The 90 years of French work rescued many exquisite pieces of pottery and statuary, that are now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, but also produced a detailed plan of the palace, which confirms and supplements the original descriptions in the Book of Esther. We can see the King’s Gate through which Haman had to come to the palace from his residence in the city; the queen’s garden where the king ran to contemplate what to do with Haman; and the public inner court through which Esther would have had to pass to approach the king on his inner throne. We can observe that she had a garden next to her quarters by the harem, and the king had a large garden by the entrance, so that his courtiers and nobles, though controlled by the King’s Gate, did not have to pass through the palace itself on their way to the national feast.
The medieval commentators to Megillat Esther recognized the features of the palace and tried to describe it. Abraham Ibn Ezra of 12th-century Spain analyzed the differences between descriptions of the city and descriptions of the palace, and Shemariah ben Elijah, of 14th-century Crete, described the features of the palace, but could not verify the details. Of course neither of them had the benefit, as we do, of the plans drawn up in the 20th century, but they did believe that the Book of Esther was giving realistic descriptions of the locations and in this they were right, as we can now see from the layouts drawn up by the French archaeologists.
The entry to the palace grounds was by an elaborate roofed gatehouse to the east, facing the residential area of the city, where Haman lived. When Esther wanted to approach the king, she had to pass through the public inner court on her way from the harem or the royal apartments to the king sitting on the inner throne, and so she could have been seen in the inner court. After her drinking party with the king and Haman in the harem area, the king could easily rush into her garden, which was planted alongside the harem. As for the king’s garden, that was a large open area outside the palace, between the gatehouse and the public outer court, and thus ideal for the lengthy feast the king was providing for his courtiers and officials. All this is clear from the French plans of the palace.
The Book of Esther is a wonderful story of the triumph of good over evil, as exemplified by the beautiful Queen Esther and the wicked minister Haman, but it is no fairy tale. Its descriptions are founded in facts on the ground, as discovered by the French archaeologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and still visible today in the remains of their excavations in the city of Shush in central Persia, now known as Iran.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.