Archaeologists Discover 2500 Year-old Achaemenid Military Base in Northern Israel

The article “Archaeologists May Have Found 2,500-year-old Persian Military Base in Northern Israel” written by Phillipe Bohstrom was originally published on December 23, 2018 in Haaretz. Excepting images that appear in the original Haaretz publication, all other images and accompanying captions are unique to the version printed below (and do not appear in Haaretz). Kindly noted that version printed below has been edited.

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Around 2,500 years ago, the Achaemenid king Cambyses II (r. 530 to 522 BCE) mounted an all-out assault on Egypt, basing the campaign in Palestine. Now archaeologists believe they may have found a camp in northern Israel from which the Achaemenid emperor launched his invasion of the Nile Kingdom.

The Achaemenid Empire had been founded by Cyrus the Great (having united the Medes and the Persians) in the 580s BCE, overcoming the Lydian and Neo-Babylonian empires as it expanded. Cambyses was his son.

A map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) of the book Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-:

Among the findings at Tel Keisan, a hill rising 28 meters from the coastal plain near the city of Acre (aka Akko) in northern Israel, were ruins dated to the Persian period by ceramic jars and cooking pots in Greek and Phoenician styles typical of that time.

The Phoenicians on the Palestine coast and their fleet had been subjugated by the Assyrians and then by the Persians; and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said that Greek mercenaries fought in the Persian emperor Cambyses’ army. The Greek and Phoenician ceramic finds in the Persian layer of Tel Keisan suggest that this area was part of  the base camp of the great Achaemenid campaign. As noted by Prof. Gunnar Lehmann of Ben-Gurion University, who has been codirecting the Tel Keisan excavation:

“Under Cambyses, the Persians wanted to prepare for war with and conquest of Egypt. They did that in Palestine”.

Reconstruction in 1971 of elite Achaemenid army infantryman (Source: Ancient Origins).

It was on the Acre plain that Cambyses assembled his army that would sweep down to Egypt,  in the 520s BCE. The excavations at Tel Keisan are being carried out by Lehmann and David Schloen from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. In the two seasons of excavations, in 2016 and 2018, the archaeologists exposed levels dating to the Hellenistic period (3rd and 2nd century BCE), the Persian period (5th-4th centuries B.C.E.) and the Iron Age IIC (7th century BCE). The archaeologists have also found earlier levels, dating to the Late Iron Age IIA around 3,000 years old, but these have yet to be thoroughly explored.

Tell Keisan means “hill of treachery” in Arabic, though why it got that name is no longer known. Mentioned from the 12th century onward by Arabic chroniclers, it presumably refers to an embarrassing military event now forgotten. Nor is the settlement’s name in antiquity known.

Tell Keisan (Source: Ivgeni Ostrovski – Haaretz). The Persian camp on the Acre plain seems to have been a base camp for King Cambyses’ all-out attack on Egypt in the 520s BCE.

Basket handle cases

Keisan sits on an imposing hill rising 28 meters above the ground in the heart of the Acre plain. The site, which has been occupied for at least 6,000 years, is strategically positioned overlooking the approach to the fertile Plain of Jezreel (Esdraelon), as well as commercial trade routes between the Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and other points to the east.

Previous surveys and excavations have exposed massive systems of fortifications from the Iron Age II, around 1,000 to 587 BCE, on the Acre plain.

Based on the archaeological layers, it seems that the serial conquerors of Palestine found the settlement’s strategic location irresistible: the locals, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Persians under Cambyses II, who seem to have used it as their administrative center and military base of operations in the 5th century BCE, and later as well.

Keisan was one of several Egyptian strongholds along the Acre coastal plain during the time they controlled Palestine, from around 637 to 605 BCE, says Lehmann. Two other known ones were at Achziv and Tel Kabri, and there may have been more.

Jar found at Tel Keisan (Source: Ivgeni Ostrovski – Haaretz).

At Keisan itself, immediately beneath the Persian level, the archaeologists exposed a large building with storage rooms dating to the earlier Egyptian empire of the 26th Dynasty. The building apparently began its career in the 7th century B.C.E. and seems to have served as a governmental or administrative building, which among other things provided food for its personnel.

The building also contained Phoenician, Cypriot and East Greek pottery, but of an earlier type, typical of that pre-Persian time. The storage rooms contained numerous complete storage jars, mostly of Phoenician origin, and also also Cypriot  “basket-handle” amphoras typical of the 7th century BCE. Among the people using the facility may have been Greek mercenaries serving under Egyptian command since the pottery included Greek cooking pots.

Cambyses assembles the Achaemenid Army

Under the Persians, the Mediterranean coastal city of Acre expanded to encompass the settlement at Keisan as well, and the peninsula that forms the northern end of the Bay of Haifa, with its ancient harbor Tell Abu Hawam.

Cambyses II’s campaign to conquer Egypt, assembling forces to “cross the waterless deserts” apparently in 525 BCE was described by Herodotus. Cambyses II thrashed Pharaoh Psamtik III at Memphis, and won “Egypt and the sea” (Herodotus 3.34) Consequently, Cambyses II became the first Persian king to rule ancient Egypt.

Scholars cite two other ancient sources aside from Herodotus that locate Cambyses II’s army and fleet in the Acre plain in the 520s B.C.E. The first is another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, when telling of the preparations made in 374 B.C.E. by the Persian monarch Ataxerxes II towards subordinating Egypt:

The Perisan army gathered at the city of Ake, numbering two hundred thousand barbarians led by Pharnabazus, and twenty thousand Greek mercenaries under the command of Iphicrates. Of the fleet, the triremes numbered three hundred and the thirty-oared ships two hundred. And great was the number of those carrying food and other supplies – Diodurus Siculus, Bibliotheke 15.41.3 (Translated by Peter Green, 2010)

The second source is the Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo:

“Then follows Ptolemais, a large city, formerly called Ace. It was the place for rendezvous for the Persians in their expedition against Egypt”  – Strabo Geography 16.2.25-27 (Translation by H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, 2010)

These sources, combined with Herodotus, suggest that Artaxerxes was not the first to have used the Akko plain to launch a campaign against Egypt, which lies to the southwest of  Israel, then Palestine. In fact, it seems that from the 520s B.C.E. onwards, that several sites along the Palestine coast –  Tell al-Fuhkhar (Acre itself), Tell Keisan, Tell Kurdana (Tel Aphek), and Tell Abu Hawam (Haifa) were used for anchoring the fleet and as a rendezvous point for the Persian army and fleet. As noted by Barry Strauss, professor of History and Classics at Cornell University:

“Nimbleness was not the trademark of the Achaemenid way of war … Big and slow was how they liked their military, both to overwhelm the enemy and to impress their own subjects. A massive expeditionary force needed a big base of operations.”

Why were the Persians so adamant about conquering Egypt? One reason is because the various empires in the Levant and Middle East considered Egypt to be a major threat. That is just one more reason for their desire to control Palestine – a fertile land with a long coast, and a convenient origin for attacks on Egypt. Or, at least, to contain Egypt’s influence over the Levant.

So not only were the Mediterranean plains fertile, with plenty of space and grasses for horses: it was close to Egypt and was relatively safe ground for Cambyses to slowly prepare for his invasion, Lehmann sums up.

The forces Cambyses massed on the coast would have needed a huge apparatus and an incredible amount of resources. Tel Keisan would have been only one of a series of supply points along the Acre plain, Indeed the archaeologists found remnants of storage jars and cooking pots in large quantities that may have been used Cambyses’ armies. A key bit of evidence was a large pit with organic debris and substantial quantities of pottery, some of which was Phoenician pottery some imports from Greece, mainly from Athens.

After the Achaemenids

Sadly, the architecture of the Persian period at Tel Keisan was severely damaged when the armies of the Hellenistic ruler, Alexander, ravaged the land as they drove out the Persians (under King Darius) in the second half of the 4th century BCE.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his kingdom was divided up among his generals. This fine company of generals is usually referred to as the diadochi, simply meaning successors, in plain English. War among the diadochi broke out almost immediately. As the great German historian Niebuhr once put it:

“It is simply a matter if one or the other bandit will get the upper hand.”

Over the next century, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria would be interlocked in a sweaty struggle over Palestine. It is highly probable that Alexander and subsequent Hellenistic rulers of what would become the Holy Land simply took over the infrastructure of the Persian Empire in the Acre plain. As noted by Strauss:

“Alexander and his successors were generally more interested in war than administration … It was cheaper and easier to take over the infrastructure of the Persian Empire. They demonstrably did so elsewhere and surely did in the Akko Plain as well.”

The Hellenistic levels represent what appears to be an industrial area with refuse pits and installations that yielded large quantities of pottery. The ceramic finds indicate that the link with the Mediterranean remained strong, and that trade with the Greek islands and the coast of Asia expanded until the 3rd century B.C.E.

Bust of Seleucus Nicator (“Victor”; c. 358 – 281 BCE), the last of the original Diadochi (National Archaeological Museum & Haaretz).

During the earlier Hellenistic period, Keisan remained a surburb to Acre – whose name had been changed to Ptolemais.

Some time during the later Hellenistic period, the settlement was abandoned. It would remain bereft of life during the Roman era, and afterwards, would be fitfully occupied and deserted. During the Byzantine period, the settlement was reinstated and a church with service buildings were built there. The foundations of the church are well preserved and were excavated and published by the French expedition.

But apparently by the early 8th century C.E. the mound was abandoned again, then resettled during the medieval period. From the 12th to the 16th century CE, the hill sustained a small rural site  – which, in the early Ottoman period, would be abandoned, once and for all.

Sassanian Inscription Unearthed in Ancient Iran Necropolis Being Deciphered

The article Sassanian Inscription Unearthed In Ancient Iran Necropolis Being Deciphered” was posted on Radio Farda (as reported by British-Iranian journalist Maryam Sinaiee) on March 28, 2020.

Kindly note that the version printed below has been edited with two of the images (and accompanying captions) not appearing in the original Radio Farda report.

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Experts are working to decipher a newly discovered inscription unearthed in an ancient necropolis near Persepolis, an official of the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, said on Monday. The inscription which dates from the Sassanian period (224-651 CE) was found in Naqsh-e Rostam and is written in Pahlavi language (also known as Middle Persian) which was the official language of the Sassanian Empire.

Tomb of Darius the Great in Naqsh-e Rustam an ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, Iran (Source: Radio Farda).

Naqsh-e Rostam, the site where the inscription was found, was a necropolis and religious center about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-300 BCE). However, some of the relics on the cliffs may date as far back as the Pre-Iranian Elamite Period (2700-539 BCE).

Four huge tombs from the Achaemenid era (550-300 BCE), including the tomb of King Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) hewn into the cliff face and a square-shaped building made with stone blocks from the Sassanian which may also have had a significance in burial rites are among the most important relics of the necropolis.

Several inscriptions and reliefs of Sassanian kings including a rock relief showing the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, with the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing to him in submission, are among the other significant surviving relics of Naqsh-e Rostam.

Emperor Valerian surrenders to Shapur I (241-272 CE) and Sassanian nobility at Edessa in 260 CE (Source: Kaveh Farrokh, 2005, Elite Sassanian Cavalry).

Despite the huge importance of the ancient necropolis, unlike Persepolis and Pasargadae, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-300 BCE) under Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE), Iran has not been able to list it as a UNESCO Heritage Site due to the failure to meet the requirements of UNESCO as to measures taken for the preservation of the site and documentation.

Officials say the inscription is being deciphered. But reading Pahlavi language texts is no easy task.

Inscription in Pahlavi from Pāikūlī (Image Source: Shapour Suren-Pahlav). The above Pāikūlī block appears as D3 in the academic publication by Dr. Helmut Humbach and Dr. Prods O. Skjaervo (The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli: Restored text and Translation. Reichert Verlag, 1983). Note that five of the above lines are intact with the sixth line damaged. ... For more on this Click Here …

An Aramaic-derived alphabet was used for writing in Pahlavi. The script is very difficult to read due to the use of heterograms. The heterograms were words written in Aramaic but read as their Middle Persian equivalent. It is similar to writing eg in English and reading it “for example”.

In addition to the use of heterograms, the variations of the alphabet between the ordinary script used on parchment and the version used in inscriptions make reading Pahlavi inscriptions which are often badly damaged by exposure to the elements even more complex.

In the past couple of decades, the decline of groundwater tables which has resulted in sinking ground has seriously damaged the relics in  Naqsh-e Rostam or put them in danger of further deterioration. Critics of the Islamic Republic say the government does not put enough effort into the preservation of pre-Islamic relics.

Persian Archery and Tactics

The article “Persian Archery and Tactics” was originally posted by the Legio I Lynx Fulminata outlet on February 10, 2014. The version printed below has been slightly edited. Kindly note that the images displayed below do not appear in the original Legio I Lynx Fulminata posting. readers interested in this topic are also referred to the following article on Sassanian archery published in the prestigious peer-reviewed RAMA (Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas) journal (download in pdf):

Farrokh, K., Khorasani, M. M., & Dwyer, B. (2018). Depictions of archery in Sassanian silver plates and their relationship to warfare, RAMA (Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas). Volumen 13 (2), Julio-Diciembre, pp. 82-113.

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Persian armies had many traits that made them some of the most feared and most successful armies of all time.  The Special Forces of the Persian armies were a huge reason why they were so successful; some of the most important special force soldiers were the archers. Archery was a huge part of the Persian Army, it often times was the deciding factor in wars that were fought. I am going to focus on the tactics that the archers used.

 تندیس آرش کمانگیر در مجموعه سعدآباد تهران – Statue of Arash Kamangir (Arash the Archer/Arash who grasps the bow) at Saadabad Palace in Tehran (Source: Drafsh Kaviani [درفش کاویانی] in Public Domain).

In his Landmarks Herodotus stated:

They used volleys of arrows that darken the sun.” (7.218.3)

Persian archers would shoot thousands of arrows at the same time into the sky.  Archers’ job wasn’t to hit specific targets, but to weaken the line opposing them.  You didn’t necessarily have to have a good shot to be an archer for the Persian army.  In the Landmarks Herodotus it says, “ Persians launch arrows tipped with burning hemp at walls of Athenian Acropolis.”(9.49.1)  So fire arrows were developed to weaken and distract the opposing forces.  These were brilliant tactics to use in war, because oftentimes whoever’s front line broke first would lose the fight. I imagine it would be quite difficult to keep in perfect formation while flaming arrows are setting a blaze to your surrounding and hitting and burning you.

Exhibit of Achaemenid archers (Image Source: Ancient Origins). 

Archers couldn’t just be exposed to enemy fire, so a tactic that the Persians used was  setting up wicker shield walls which sheltered archers as they shot volleys of arrows at their enemies. A Persian archer would not have been very effective on their own. That is why there were lines of archers that all stood in formation and shot at the same time to take down enemies. The arrows they used were often times made out of light wood or reed, so archers actually didn’t have as much range as we think of archers having today.  Also since the arrows were so light, more than one was usually required to kill an opposing Greek.  Tactics were very important for Persian archers. They had to work with each other in order to be effective.

Bactrian Fortress Reveals How Ancient Civilizations of Central Asia Lived

The article Bactrian fortress reveals how ancient civilizations of Central Asia lived” was originally posted on the Archaeology News Network on February 1, 2019. The original source for the Archaeology News Network is from the Akson Russian Science Communication Association. The version printed below has been edited. Excepting one photo, all other images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original reports of the Archaeology News Network and Akson Russian Science Communication Association.

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Scientists from Russia and Uzbekistan found a unified fortification system that on the northern border of ancient Bactria. This country existed in the III century BC. The fortress found blocked the border and protected the oases of Bactria from the nomads raids. During the excavations, scientists revealed the fortress citadel, drew up a detailed architectural plan and collected rich archaeological material indicating the construction, life and death of the fortress as a result of the assault. In the IV century BC, significant part of Central Asia territory belonged to Bactria, which, as a separate satrapy, was part of the Achaemenid Empire.

A map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the book Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-:the Iranian region of Bakhtrish (Bactria) in Central Asia was a part of the Achaemenid Empire.

In 329 BC Bactria became part of the Alexander empire and after his death joined the kingdom of Seleucid: the largest Hellenistic state in the East, created by the commander Alexander Seleucius I Nicator and his son Antiochus I Soter. Gradually, the state became weakened by numerous military campaigns and the struggle for power. As a result, once flourishing Bactria ceased to exist in the II century BC when Iranian-speaking nomads from the northern territories, the Saki and Yuadzhi, broke into the country.

View of the Uzundara citadel from above (Credit: Nigora Dvurechenskaya).

Recently, Russian scientists completed excavations in this area and determined the fortress construction time: about 95-90 years of the III century BC, the time of Antiochus I reign and the very beginning of the formation of the Seleucid state. The fortress was inhabited for about 150 years.

It consisted of a diamond-shaped main quadrangle, a triangular citadel (phylacterion), surrounded by powerful double walls with an internal gallery about nine meters wide, and extension walls, which were fortified with 13 rectangular bastions-towers, three of which were also outboards. Outside the fortress there was a marketplace where local residents brought goods needed by the garrison soldiers.

The archaeologists recorded the location of each item using a total station or GPS, and then made it into a single plan tied to the terrain. As a result, the scientists managed to establish where the marketplace was, ran the road to the entrance to the fortress, and determined the place of the assault: there were more than 200 shooting arrowheads, combat darts and troops. It is curious that the proposed battlefield is located to the east of the fortress, which suggests a possible environment or the breakthrough of the enemy through a system of border fortifications.

Scythian gold artifacts from Bactria (Source: Public Domain). Note figures with Iranian tunics flanked by Iranian-type mythological winged beasts.

The warriors who defended Uzundar wore armor: in the inside-wall room of the south-western fortified wall, archaeologists discovered armor-clad plates and two right-handed iron heads from helmets. So far, scientists can not exactly determine what type of helmets these patches were — a pseudoattical or Melos group, so it is still possible that these are the same helmets that Alexander wore during Antiochus I Soter period.

As noted by Nigora Dvurechenskaya (researcher at the Department of Classical Archeology, Head of the Bactrian detachment of the Central Asian Archaeological Expedition):

“This findings are sensational: direct analogies are known from the Takhti-Sanga temple, but there they were bronze, and we found iron fragments in Uzundar. To date, there are only a few specimens and sculptures with which to compare these cheeks and determine their type. We also found fastening details, which gives important information on manufacturing technology, according to tradition, but to answer these questions requires lengthy research…”

In addition to weapons, archaeologists have collected a large number of ceramics, as well as a rich numismatic collection: today around the fortress found about 200 coins of very good preservation from the coins of Antiochus I and all the rulers of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom from Diodot to Heliocles of very different denominations: from silver drachmas to copper mites. Such a variety proves that Bactria at the very beginning of Seleucid kingdom formation of the was part of developed monetary circulation system. Thus, the materials of Uzundara allow to study and reconstruct all spheres of life of the Seleucidian and Graeco-Bactrian fortresses.

Journal Article: Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran

The HISTORIA I ŚWIAT academic journal has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh, Javier Sánchez-Gracia (HRM Ediciones, Zaragoza, Spain), and Katarzyna Maksymiuk (Siedlce University, Poland):

Farrokh, K., Sánchez-Gracia, J., & Maksymiuk, K. (2019). Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, 8, pp.21-46.

The article discusses the important role of ancient Albania, an ancient country in the Caucasus (in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, first labelled with this appellation in May 1918) in the history of Iran. Albanian cavalry was serving with the later Achaemenid armies of Darius III (r. 336–330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

An Albanian-Scythian cavalry commander from the late Achaemenid era (Source: Pinterest). Cavalry of this type from Albania fought for Darius III against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

Albania was transformed into a Sassanian province by Šāpūr I (c. 253) with the Albanians (notably their cavalry) becoming increasingly integrated into the battle order of the Sassanian Spah (army).

Book cover of “The Siege of Amida” authored by Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia (2018) DC – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu … The above image is a recreation by Ardashir Radpour of a Sassanian Savaran knight of the Hamharzan who were often supplied with the highest quality weaponry. Elite Albanian knights fighting alongside the Savaran would have resembled their comrade in arms with respect to attire, equipment and battle tactics. The above book was displayed at the 2018 ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) Conference’s LSS (Library of Social Sciences) display in Washington DC.

All along the Caspian coast the Sassanians built powerful defense works, designed to bar the way to invaders from the north. The most celebrated of these fortifications are those of Darband in Caucasian Albania.

A view of the Darband Wall (known commonly as Derbent; cited as Krevar in local dialects) in Daghestan, Northern Caucasus (Courtesy of Associates of Eduard Enfiajyan).  The origins of the wall of Darband are generally attributed to Kavad I (r. 488-496, 498-530 CE) who after a two-year war (489-490 CE) ejected Khazar invaders rampaging Armenia and Caucasian Albania (modern Republic of Azerbaijan). Construction of the wall was continued by Khosrow I (r. 530-579 CE) and by the late 6th century CE, this had become a system of walls connecting a series of fortresses. Total length of the Darband wall is nearly 70 km, spanning the territory from the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. The Wall of Darband or Derbent became a major military fortress shielding Iranian territories in the Caucasus and the historical Azarbaijan below the Araxes River from nomadic attackers along the northern Caucasus, most notably the Khazars.

Albania remained an integral part of the Sasanian army well into the empire’s final days as evidenced by the military exploits of Albanian regal prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) and his cavalry who fought against the Arabo-Islamic invaders at the Battle of Qadissiya (637 CE) and after. Javanshir was a member of the Iranian Mehranid family related to the Parthian clans.

A copy of the 7th century CE statue of the Caucasian Albanian Prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) discovered in Nakhchevan, southern Caucasus (the original statue is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – the above copy of the original is in the Republic of Azerbaijan History Museum) (Source: Urek Meniashvili in Public Domain).