The ancient Near East was the location of several impressive empires. From about 1500 until 1075 BC, Egypt’s New Kingdom spanned from the Levant (modern-day Israel and Lebanon) down through Egypt into most of Nubia (modern-day Sudan). The Assyrians then conquered all of Mesopotamia in the early first millennium BC and ruled over the Levant and Egypt before their empire collapsed in the late seventh century BC. The Neo-Babylonians inherited much of the Assyrians’ empire and were the dominant political force in the region until they were replaced in the sixth century BC by the Achaemenid Persians.
During its height in the fifth century BC, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the most vast than any empire that came before it and comprised the most diverse collection peoples in the world. It stretched from Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) in the east to Egypt in the west and from Anatolia in the north to Arabia in the south. Within that immense geographic area people from scores of different ethnic groups, who spoke different languages and followed different religions, were all subjects to the “Great King” of the Achaemenid Empire. The manner in which the Achaemenid kings were able to pacify such a large and diverse population for so long has been a subject of interest for modern scholars for some time. An examination of the ancient sources, combined with archaeological discoveries, reveals that the Achaemenid kings followed a “hands-off” policy when it came to the cultures of their foreign subjects. The Achaemenids appointed satraps in the conquered provinces to collect taxes and to mitigate rebellious activity, but they left the native religious cults unmolested for the most part and sometimes even participated as a show of good faith. Since religion was of paramount importance in the ancient Near East, this policy ensured that that Achaemenid Empire would be the most enduring until the Romans conquered the Mediterranean and Near East about 500 years later.
====The Achaemenid Empire====
====Three Examples of the Achaemenid Persian “Hands Off” Policy====
[[File: Cyrus_Cylinder.jpg|300px|thumbnail|left|The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, London]]
The basic political theory that governed the Achaemenid Persian policy toward their subject peoples can best be described as “co-operation rather than coercion.” This idea can be seen visually on many of the reliefs from the Achaemenid capital city of Persepolis, where the subject peoples are depicted freely bringing gifts and tribute to the Great King. <ref> Ehrenberg, Erica. “Persian Conquerors, Babylonian Captivators.” In <i>Regime Change in the Ancient Near East and Egypt: From Sargon of Agade to Saddam Hussein.</i> Edited by Harriet Crawford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 95</ref> Although the king is clearly shown in a superior position in these reliefs, the subject peoples are never bound and the king was reliant on his subjects for support, which was different than earlier versions of Mesopotamian and Near Eastern models of kingship. <ref> Walser, Gerold. <i>Die Völkerschaften auf den Reliefs von Persepolis: Historiche Studien über den sogenannte Tributzug an der Apadanatreppe.</i> (Berlin: Akadamie Verlag, 1966), p. 26</ref> The Achaemenid Persians put this policy into effect throughout their empire, but it was most apparent in Babylonia/Mesopotamia, with the Jews, and in Egypt.
“Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into his (i.e. Cyrus’) hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship him (i.e. Marduk). All the inhabitants of Babylon as well as of the entire country of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors (included), bowed to him (Cyrus) and kissed his feet, jubilant that he (had received) the kingship, and with shining faces. Happily, they greeted him as a master through whose help they had come (again) to life from death (and) had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshiped his (very) name.” <ref> Pritchard, James B, ed. <i>Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.</i> 3rd ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 315-6</ref>
How much of the cylinder was historical fact and how much was propaganda is open to debate. But even having the cylinder commissioned shows that the Persians were concerned about how they were seen by the inhabitants of the older Mesopotamian civilization. The evidence shows that the Persians certainly allowed the Marduk cult to continue operating in Babylon as it had for centuries and archaeological excavations from other sites in Mesopotamia indicate that the policy was employed there as well. Brick inscriptions from the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk dated to the reign of Cyrus prove that the Persian king repaired religious temples in that city. A cuneiform inscription dated to Cyrus’ fourth year of the rule states that he also funded efforts to reorganize native Mesopotamian cults in the cities of Eshnunna and Akkad. <ref> Jursa, Michael. “The Transition of Babylonia from the Neo-Babylonian Empire to Achaemenid Rule.” In <i>Regime Change in the Ancient Near East and Egypt: From Sargon of Agade to Saddam Hussein.</i> Edited by Harriet Crawford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pgs. 77-78</ref>