The territory of the Medes and the Persians lies to the east of Mesopotamia (although at the height of the Persian Empire they occupied lands further west). It is a huge plateau between the Tigris and Euphrates in the west and the Indus in the east. On the north are the Alborz (Elburz) Mountains, south of the Caspian Sea, and further east are the mountains of Koppeh Dagh. On the south‐west lie the Zagros Mountains and their extension, running parallel to the Tigris–Euphrates and the Persian Gulf and then turning eastward. The Persian plateau is a region of mountains, deserts, and some fertile areas. There are swamps and dry saline areas in it, such as the major depression, the Dasht‐e Kavir. The average height of the plateau has been estimated at about 4,000 feet (1,220 m) with the greater elevation towards the rim. There is little rainfall, except in the Alborz Mountains, and the region experiences wide extremes of climate.
It was not until the time of Cyrus the Great that the Persians had an impact on the story of the Jews. It seems that it was the meteoric rise of Cyrus and his conquests that raised hopes among the Jewish exiles in Babylon that deliverance was at hand (Isa. 44: 24–45: 7 ). The biblical account records that it was in the very first year of his reign over Babylon (538), that Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Jewish exiles to return to Judah and authorizing the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1: 1–4; 6: 3–5 ). The first group of Jews presumably returned soon afterwards. The Hebrew Bible hints at the possibility that, during the period of rebellion and instability which followed the accession to the throne of Darius I (522–486), whilst he was seeking to establish his position, there was intrigue in Judah, planning to throw off the Persian yoke and make Zerubbabel, Jehoiachin's grandson, king, alongside the high priest Joshua (Hag. 2: 23; Zech. 4; 6: 9–14 ). But such plots must have come to nothing, and Zerubbabel disappears from the scene; it is possible that he was removed by the Persian authorities if they got wind of the plans associated with his name. Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River (Trans‐Euphrates), and his associates reported to Darius that the Jerusalem Temple was being rebuilt, perhaps suspecting that this was an act of revolt. But confirmation of Cyrus's decree was found at Ecbatana, and a new directive was issued that the work should proceed (Ezra 5: 3–6: 12 ).
The Book of Ezra also suggests that there had been an attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in the earlier years of the reign of Artaxerxes I (465–424), but that this too was viewed with suspicion by the officials in Samaria and the rest of the province Beyond the River. They sent a letter to Artaxerxes, as a result of which instructions were given that the work should cease (Ezra 4: 7–23 ). The completion of the rebuilding of the walls is credited to Nehemiah, a Jew serving in the Persian court who, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, sought and was granted permission to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls (Neh. 2: 1–9 ). Despite opposition, the task was completed (Neh. 3–4 ). It seems that it was also in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes that Nehemiah was appointed governor (Neh. 5: 14 ). He returned to Persia in the thirty‐second year of Artaxerxes but was subsequently given permission to return to Judah (Neh. 13: 6–7 ).
The biblical account suggests that Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, in order to ‘study the law of the LORD and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel’ (Ezra 7: 1–10 ). But the writer does not make it clear to which Artaxerxes reference is being made. There are grounds for believing that the reference is to Artaxerxes II (405–359) and the year 398, and that Ezra was envisaged as supplementing and reinforcing the reforms made by Nehemiah.
Although biblical references to contacts with the Persians are relatively limited, it has increasingly been thought likely that the Persian period may have been a highly formative one for the Jewish people. While the time of the Exile in Babylon may have seen some literary activity, as attempts were made to preserve traditions in danger of being lost and to reflect on what might have brought such a disaster upon Judah and Jerusalem, it was perhaps in the Persian period that the newly restored community needed to establish the story of its past and the criteria for its future life.