Ecbatana, located in the midst of the Zagros mountains and on the strategic Silk Road caravan route from Mesopotamia to the Persian plateau, was once the capital of the Median Empire. With its pleasant summer climate, it was known as a resort city but in early January we found it heavily covered in snow with temperatures well below freezing. Over the ages it has been known by various names such as the old Persian Hagmatana meaning “the place of assembly”(in Ezra 6:2 we find the Aramaic form Achmetha), but its most common historical name is the Greek Ecbatana.

Today we find the ruins of Ecbatana on the outskirts of the modern Iranian city of Hamadan, believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world. At the centre of the city stood the legendary palace built by the first Median King, Deioces, ostensibly defended by seven circles of coloured walls, one inside the other.

In 522BC, Gaumata reigned briefly over the Achaemenid Empire for a short seven months, impersonating Smerdis the brother of Cambyses II (son of Cyrus the Great). During this time, he issued a decree to prohibit the restoration of Jerusalem and of the Temple. He is the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7 of whom it was written: “And I commanded, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein… Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me.” (Ezra 4:19-22).

After the defeat of Gaumata, Darius the Great came to the throne with policies more in harmony with those of Cyrus the Great, having married two of Cyrus’ daughters – Atossa (previously sister-wife to King Cambyses and also then wife to Gaumata) and Artystone.

When the right of the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem was contested (Ezra 5:6-17), Darius issued an order to search the archives of the treasury in Babylon for the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6:1). As Cyrus had made this decree soon after taking Babylon, it was expected his decree would be found in the Babylonian treasury amongst the documents of value and precious vessels (cp Isa 45:3; Dan 1:2, 5:2-3). The official record could not be found there but it was finally discovered in the citadel of Ecbatana, his Persian capital (Ezra 6:2 mg), whereupon Darius endorsed and extended the decree that Cyrus made to the Jews. God’s providence was unmistakeable in preserving the decree of Ezra 6:3-5.

The work of building the house of God had ceased until this discovery of Cyrus’ decree at Ecbatana in the second year of the reign of Darius, King of Persia in 520BC (Ezra 4:24). It was completed on the third day of Adar in the sixth year of his reign, 516BC (Ezra 6:14-15) under Zerubbabel, nearly 21 years after the Jews’ return to the land!

Thus ended two very significant 70-year time periods (see list).

  1. 70 years Captivity of Judah 606-536BC Jer 25:8-14; 29:10; Dan 9:2
  2. 70 years Desecration of the Temple 590-520BC 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar to the 2nd year of Darius: Ezra 4:24; Zech 1:12; Hag 2:10,15,18-20; Ezek 24:1-14
  3. 70 years Desolation of the Land 586–516BC 23rd year of Nebuchadnezzar to the 6th year of Darius: Jer 52:30; Ezra 6:15; 2 Chron 36:20-21; Dan 9:12; Zech 7:5

Extending to the Nile and Danube, the Persian Empire reached its peak under Darius the Great, who reigned over nearly half the population of the then-known world. How amazing it is to have a glimpse of the capital of the Median Empire and the power of that ancient empire.