Extent of Jewish settlement in the Persian Empire circa 500 B.C.E.
15. The Achaemenian Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and his successors, which lasted from about 550 to the conquests of Alexander in 325 B.C.E., was a realm of vast extent, covering an area in excess of 4,000,000 square miles. Its eastern boundaries were in the Indus River Valley of northwest India and its western limits were in Greece and Ethiopia. It was also an ecumenical empire; that is to say, it incorporated many nations, each with its own language, culture, and religious traditions. It is clear from the declarations of the Persian emperors and the languages of their imperial decrees that each nation’s language was recognized and accepted as official, and each religion was acknowledged, respected, and granted full freedom of expression.
18. Herodotus, in his historical masterpiece, Historia, which was his account of the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth pre-Christian century, takes note of the fact that freedom of movement and travel within the vast extent of the Persian Empire was enjoyed and many took advantage of it. The roads were patrolled by imperial officials and by carriers of official communications, so that merchants traveling from one town to another could travel in relative safety.
In the course of time Jews managed to extend their commercial activities to the very ends of the empire and to organize communities in these areas, so that by the middle of the 5th century before the Common Era Jewish communities were established in 127 urban centers throughout the empire, from India to Ethiopia. The Scroll of Esther records this historical fact on several occasions in the course of the narrative which we know from the Megillah of Esther which we read in celebration of the holiday of Purim. Incidentally, excavations on the Island of Elephantine in the Nile near Aswan have uncovered remains of a Jewish community which flourished there during this period. The mass of papyrus documents discovered there written in Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic reveal the normal life of a Jewish community in the service of the Persian Empire at the peak of its imperial rule.
19. The conquests of Alexander the Great imposed Hellenic power over all the lands of the Near and Middle East, the ancient centers of western civilization. Although he had far-reaching idealistic visions and planned to create a unified humanity incorporating all the nations of the earth, his ideas and ideals, like those of many others in the course of history, “gang agley,” with his sudden death at the very start of the implementation. The result of this unforeseen disaster was the dismemberment of his ecumenical empire and its division among the military commanders who had served under him. The period that followed is that of the Hellenistic Empires of Alexander’s successors.