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Levantine Epigraphy and History in the Achaemenid Period (539-322 BCE)$

André Lemaire

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265895

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265895.001.0001

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(p.123) Conclusion
Levantine Epigraphy and History in the Achaemenid Period (539-322 BCE)

André Lemaire

British Academy

At the end of this survey of the main advances in the field of West Semitic epigraphy of the Achaemenid period in connection with the Levant since about 1980, let us state again the main results.


The clearest progress concerns the history of Achaemenid Phoenicia, perhaps because it was one of the darkest fields. If the gain for the history of the kingdom of Aradus is very limited and concerns mainly Marathus, it is more important for the kingdom of Byblos: a 22-line inscribed silver amulet dedicating a house to ‘῾Ashtart Lady of Byblos’ mentions ‘a chief of the priest of the temple of the deity ῾Ashtart’, as well as the protector of this temple, ‘Shipitbaal king of Byblos’. This king apparently reigned at the end of the 6th century and must be called Shipitbaal III. Shipitbaal III allows us to propose a tentative succession of the Byblian kings in the first part of the Persian period, while the succession of the last four kings is now indicated by a new numismatic study that also corrects the name of the penultimate king of Achaemenid Byblos: ‘Urimilk’ instead of Addirmilk.

The kingdom of Sidon was apparently the main Phoenician kingdom till Tennes’ revolt, the precise date of which is still debated, about the middle of the 4th century BCE. New epigraphic and archaeological research reveals an early chronology, in the 6th century, for the monumental funerary inscriptions of kings Tabnit and Eshmun῾azor II, as well as for the numerous monumental building inscriptions of king Bod῾ashtart (and ‘his lawful son Yatonmilk’); it includes also a new rock inscription engraved in the river Nahr al-Awwali. The excavations of the sanctuary of Bustan esh-Sheikh revealed a new and totally unexpected kind of monumental inscription of the first half of the 4th century: the ‘magic’ ῾Ashtart- or, rather, deities-square. Furthermore, Sidonian control of the Sharon, clearly indicated in the Eshmun῾azor inscription, explains the presence of a Phoenician inscription in the Eliachin sanctuary of the Central Sharon plain, apparently dedicated to the (p.124) god ‘῾Ashtarum’. Finally, because of the practice of dated coinage from the first half of the 4th century, the legends of the Sidonian coins allow us to propose the succession and an approximate chronology of the last kings of Sidon from the middle of the 5th century until the entry of Alexander (333).

The history of the kingdom of Tyre during the Achaemenid period was largely unknown but for a few lines in Josephus Flavius on the Neo-Babylonian period and a few indications in Greek historians connected with Xerxes’ and Alexander’s expeditions. This history now receives more light from two new Phoenician inscriptions: a dedication of a votive boat mentions Ittobaal (IV) son of Ḥirom III, both kings reigning in the second half of the 5th century, and it allows us to propose the succession: Ḥirom III (c.551–532), Ittobaal IV (532–?), Ḥirom IV and Mattan III (c.480). Another new monumental inscription on a sphinx/kerubim throne dedicated to Milqart mentions two kings: Ḥirom (probably Ḥirom IV) and Maharba῾al (II: probably c.475–450?). Thus we have now the probable succession of the Tyrian kings up to the beginning of Tyrian coinage (c.450). The first abbreviations of kings on the first Tyrian coins are still obscure to us but the importance of the Tyrian king’s reign at the arrival of Alexander, ῾Azzimilk/Azemilkos, is now manifest. His long reign probably started in 348/7 and went on after the famous conquest of Tyre by Alexander. Several fiscal bullae reveal a well-organised administration and apparently a prosperous economy. A small votive inscription from Mizpe-Yammim and the circulation of Tyrian coins seem to indicate that, at that time, the kingdom of Tyre probably controlled the whole of the Galilee, while Pseudo-Scylax presents Ashkelon as ‘a city of Tyrians’. After the fall of Sidon and the end of Tennes’ revolt, the Tyrian king may also have controlled the Sharon plain.

More generally, Phoenician epigraphy and numismatics seem to confirm the importance of (mainly Sidonian and Tyrian) Phoenician cultural and economic influence on Persian-period Palestine.


One of the clues for understanding the history of ancient Israel, the birth of monotheism and the Bible is awareness of the interaction between the Judaean/Jewish diaspora and the Israelite people in Palestine. As might be expected, besides the biblical tradition, the main documents of use to tell us what happened to the exiles in Babylonia, after the fall of Jerusalem in 597 and 587, are tablets written in Neo-Babylonian cuneiform. Until now, we had mainly the so-called Weidner tablets mentioning the deported Judaean king Jehoiachin and his sons for the first generation of the exiles, and later the so-called Murashu tablets from Nippur containing several Judaean names (c.454–404), but in this last documentation they are only a very small minority. A new and important group of more than one hundred cuneiform tablets appeared in the 1990s and covers about a century (p.125) (572–477): they contain sometimes about as much as 80 per cent Judaean names and were mainly inscribed in three places: Al-Yahudu, (Bît)-Našar and Bît-Abīrâm. The place name Al-Yahudu is practically the equivalent of ‘(New) Jerusalem’ and means that group(s) of exiles from Jerusalem were settling there and the place was recognised officially as such. These tablets confirm that Judaean exiles were settled together and could keep a certain community life. At the same time they were well integrated into contemporary Neo-Babylonian society. Some of the tablets bear Aramaic and a few others Palaeo-Hebrew labels, revealing that, besides Hebrew (at least during the first generation after the Exile), they were probably practising Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Neo-Babylonian melting pot, and were aware of cuneiform Akkadian culture, at least for their deeds. More than 100 of these tablets are already published and we still await the publication of the others: they will throw light on the Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian culture of the Babylonian exiles.

The Bible also contains several references to Judaeans in Egypt, and the presence of groups of Judaeans/Jews in Egypt is well known from inscriptions, especially manuscripts, found on the island of Elephantine at the southern border of ancient Egypt. Besides a general revision of the reading of these documents by B. Porten and A. Yardeni, the publication of the whole Clermont-Ganneau collection of Aramaic ostraca (some 300 items) by H. Lozachmeur in 2006 throws a new and different light on the life of the Judaean groups in the first half of the 5th century. Among various items of practical information, they invite us to revise the description of their religion as ‘syncretist’: it seems to be best described as a type of ‘First Temple religion’ and this fits the probable date of the beginning of the Judaean settlement in Elephantine about the middle of the 7th century. These ostraca also confirm that these Judaean mercenaries were using Aramaic in their daily life. We have no Hebrew inscription; Aramaic seems their only language and culture except for their religion. This may be partly explained by the existence of some kind of Aramaic school in Elephantine.

Besides Elephantine, the presence of Judaeans in Egypt seems to be epigraphically attested by a few names. Such Judaean names were sometimes also read in monumental funerary Aramaic inscriptions from Asia Minor: a detailed examination reveals that this interpretation is not likely when compared with a few monumental funerary Phoenician inscriptions from Cyprus (4th century) with at least two typical Judaean names.


The Achaemenid period has for a long time been considered a very obscure period for the archaeology and history of ancient Palestine, and the biblical tradition itself has been the object of different historical interpretations. The epigraphic discoveries have changed this appreciation, at least for the 4th century.

(p.126) The existence of a province of Samaria is now epigraphically attested by the finds from Wadi Daliyeh, north of Jericho. The remains of some thirty-seven papyri and several tens of bullae are now well published and it appears that they come from the capital of the province, Samaria. Mainly deeds of slaves, they reveal names belonging to different onomastics but mainly Yahwist. The interpretation of the succession of the governors of Samaria mentioned in the papyri, bullae and coins has been debated, but the most likely succession from the second half of the 5th century appears to be: Sanballat the Horonite (contemporary of Nehemiah, after 445), Delaiah, his son (from c.407 and in the first third of the 4th century), (perhaps Shelemiah son of Sanballat?) and [Ḥa]naniah (second third of the 4th century).

We still lack any papyrus from Persian-period Judaea since the older Ketef Jericho papyrus probably dates to c.312. It is apparently a list of payments of a half-shekel/didrachm capitation, as indicated in the Torah (Exodus 38:26). This amount is different from the capitation of ‘the third of a shekel’ at the time of Nehemiah (10:32), a new argument for the anteriority of Nehemiah in comparison with Ezra, which seems also implied by the Elephantine documents. Besides a few ostraca, the main group of Judaean Persian-period inscriptions is the Yehud stamps (several hundred) which have been compiled by O. Lipschits and D. Vanderhooft. They reveal that Ramat Raḥel was an important Persian-period administrative centre, as were possibly Jerusalem, Tell en-Nasbeh, Nebi Samwil, Jericho and En-Gedi. The places of discovery of these stamps and of the Judaean coins help to specify the extent of the Persian-period Yehud province and they apparently give us the names of three governors as well as of a (great) priest.

From 600 to 300, the political history of Southern Palestine seems to have been complicated. Following the Neo-Babylonian campaigns of 597, 587 and 582, the Negev and the southern Shephelah and Mountain of Judah became part of the kingdom of Edom. This kingdom disappears during Nabonidus’ campaign against Arabia in 553/2. The country was then probably tied to Babylonian Arabia with its capital at Tayma᾿ (552–543). During the Persian period, Arabia was not part of the Achaemenid empire, but its king, probably ‘king of Qedar’, was an ally and controlled Southern Palestine as far north as Lachish and Hebron. When the king of Qedar became hostile to the Persian empire, allying with independent Egypt and Evagoras (c.387/6), Southern Palestine was reorganised as a Persian province controlled by the army, especially in the Negev (Arad). One may connect some 2,000 Aramaic ostraca found in the Negev and in the southern Shephelah (Khirbet el-Kom/Makkedah and Maresha) with the Persian administration of this province. More than half of these ostraca have been published and the others should be published very soon. This new documentation reveals a well-organised administration and collection of taxes. Maresha and Makkedah were probably administrative centres with a storehouse to collect mainly wheat and barley. There was also apparently a capitation of half a shekel. Idumaean society seems to have been (p.127) multicultural, with Arabic, Edomite, Aramaic, general West Semitic, Hebrew, Phoenician etc. names. There were apparently several sanctuaries in Makkedah: among them a temple of Yaho and a temple of the Arabic deity Al-῾Uzza. Among these ostraca the presence of scribal exercises probably reveals the existence of some kind of Aramaic school in Makkedah as well as in Maresha.

Except for Phoenicia and Cyprus, most of these inscriptions are not monumental: most of them (papyri, ostraca, inscriptions on jars) are written in ink and reveal the importance of the Aramaic scribal tradition in the whole Achaemenid empire, as indicated by the recent discovery of Aramaic manuscripts in ancient Bactria.1 This general use of Aramaic within the Persian empire should also take into account the use of local languages and scripts, especially when the country was still a kingdom, as in the four Phoenician kingdoms. Except for the coins of Mazday at Sidon, it seems that the local administrative language of the kingdoms of Aradus, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre was still Phoenician. In Elephantine and Idumaea we have so far no trace of Hebrew or Edomite writing, but Hebrew writing is sporadically attested in Samaria and Judaea on a few seals and coins. The expansion of Aramaic was probably connected with the development of Aramaic schools.

The historical interest of the Phoenician, Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions is uneven: papyri and ostraca are often fragmentary and the reading of the ostraca is sometimes uncertain. Their meaning and historical interest become clearer when they are studied as a whole, for instance because of their numerous personal names. Some of these documents may also reveal important aspects of the culture, religion and life of these people: they are all the more useful for the historian in that this information is contemporary and given in passing, obviously not the result of a later ideological revision. At the same time, to be correctly interpreted, they need to be studied first of all for themselves, taking into account the archaeological and textual context. Methodically studied, they may have much to teach to us.

The number of epigraphic discoveries and their unexpected character reveal clearly that we have always to be very cautious in using the argument a silentio. The proposed interpretation must always be presented ‘in the present state of the documentation’ and we have to be aware that it may be completed and/or corrected with new discoveries. This word of caution is all the more necessary in the interpretation of groups of inscriptions which are only partially, sometimes very partially, published. At the same time, the delay in the publication of newly discovered inscriptions is sometimes abnormally long: for instance, there is no scientific justification for the fact that the Clermont-Ganneau ostraca had to wait for a century to be published. It is the responsibility of the epigrapher not only to (p.128) read and interpret the inscriptions as well as possible but also to publish them as soon as reasonably possible, at least with good pictures so that other scholars will be able to check and possibly correct the proposed reading and interpretation. Hopefully this will not fail to be done for the new epigraphic discoveries that lie in the future.


(1) For a recent general survey, see J. Dušek, ‘Aramaic in the Persian Period’, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, 2 (2013), 243–64.