Arshama Project

 

Introduction

The parchment letters of the Persian prince Arshama to Nakhthor, the steward of his estates in Egypt, are rare survivors from the ancient Achaemenid empire. These fascinating documents offer a vivid snapshot of linguistic, social, economic, cultural, organisational and political aspects of the Achaemenid empire as lived by a member of the elite and his entourage. The letters give unique insight into cultivation and administration, unrest and control, privileged lifestyles and long-distance travel. Arshama’s letters to Nakhthor, two leather bags and clay sealings, entered the Bodleian Library in 1944. These pages are a result of a collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries and scholars from the AHRC funded project Communication, Language and Power in the Achaemenid Empire: The correspondence of the satrap Arshama.

The Achaemenid Empire

For two centuries (550–330 BC), the Persian Empire was the largest and richest state in the world, extending from Asia Minor (western Turkey) to Baktria (in Afghanistan) and the Indus valley (in Pakistan). It included Babylonia (modern Iraq), the Levant, and Egypt. The political heart of the empire lay in Persia (Western Iran), where the cities of Persepolis, Pasargadae, Ekbatana and Susa functioned as administrative and ceremonial centres. This diverse empire was ruled over with a combination of flexibility and tight control. On the one hand, the Persian empire allowed a degree of local freedom for preexisting customs to continue, and took care to present itself in locally acceptable terms. On the other hand, the empire was united by a complex network of communication, exploitation and administration, which enabled military control and the extraction of taxes. At the top of this imperial system were the Great King and the Persian ruling class who lived off the proceeds of taxation and rent from enormous estates distributed across the empire. One such man was Arshama, prince of the royal house and satrap (governor) of Egypt in the fifth century BC.

 Arshama

Arshama, “son of the house”, is known from his letters concerning a Jewish military colony in Elephantine (Upper Nile). Arshama was also a great landowner, holding estates in Egypt as well as in Babylonia where he also spent time. In Egypt, Arshama’s “house” was administered by his steward (paqyd) Nakhthor. Arshama’s letters to Nakhthor, two leather bags and clay sealings, entered the Bodleian Library in 1944. They were written on leather, folded concertina-wise and closed with string and a lump of clay bearing Arshama’s seal. Once read, they were stored in a bag. The letters are written in Aramaic, a widely diffused Semitic language used for administrative purposes in the Persian empire. Arshama’s instructions would have been spoken in Persian, written down in Aramaic, read by an Egyptian and finally annotated in Egyptian, exemplifying a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empire.

Communication, Language and Power in the Achaemenid Empire:
The correspondence of the satrap Arshama

The essential aim of this project (funded by the AHRC Research Networking scheme) was to provide the opportunity for detailed, hands-on involvement with one of the most exciting fields in ancient history, Achaemenid Studies with the goal of fostering conversations between archaeologists and philologists, Classicists and Orientalists, graduates and established Achaemenid specialists. More information can be found on the Arshama project website.

 

 Contacts

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