The King’s Chronicles – What Language?

Esther 6:1 records that Xerxes (Ahasuerus) could not sleep, so he called for the court records to be brought and read before him. What exactly did they bring, and in what language were such records kept?

There are several places in the book of Esther where proclamations are made throughout the Persian empire, and it seems to have been standard procedure that they were issued “to every people according to their language” (Esth 1:22; cf. 3:12, 8:9). But what language and script was used in the royal palace for the official records? What kind of records would the scribes have carried in? Would they have been leather or papyrus scrolls written in ink, or a pile of clay tablets impressed with cuneiform signs?

Although official records from the royal court (chronicles) have been found at many sites and from many time periods, none has yet been found at Susa. However, two hoards of such documents were found at Persepolis, a palace complex largely built by Xerxes. The first, known as the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, was an archive of at least 20,000 tablets that dated to the reign of Darius the Great, father of Xerxes. The second, known as the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, is a smaller group (about 140) that come from the reigns of Darius the Great, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes I. They record a variety of daily events, including things that happened, transactions that took place, payments made to associates of the king, and allotments given to various persons connected to the royal household.

Interestingly enough, the vast majority of these tablets are written in the language known as Elamite. A small number are written in other languages such as Greek, Aramaic, or Old Persian, but these are the exceptions. It seems quite clear, then, that Xerxes’ scribes brought out clay tablets and read to him in the Elamite language. The photo that accompanies this post is one such chronicle, written in Elamite, that comes from the Persepolis Fortification Tablets.

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