A Bit of World History
The story of Purim takes place at the very end of the era known in Jewish history as the Babylonian Exile. In 422 B.C.E.*, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from the Land of Israel. Scattered, the Jews waited for the end of the 70 year exile prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah.
In the year 372 B.C.E., however, the Babylonian Empire was itself crushed by the combined armies of King Darius of Media and King Cyrus of Persia (both part of current day Iran) and the new Persian Empire was formed under the rule of Cyrus. Unlike his Babylonian predecessors, Cyrus was not interested in destroying the individual cultures of his subjects, unless they were in direct opposition to him. Known as Cyrus the Great, he issued an edict in 373 B.C.E., allowing the Jews to return to the land of Israel. Shortly afterwards, the first group of exiles returned under the leadership of the prophet Nechemiah. In Jerusalem, they began to lay the foundations for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, paving the way for their Jewish brethren who remained scattered across the empire. The enemies of the Jews, however, convinced Cyrus to stop the Temple’s rebuilding.
The rise of King Achashverosh, the king of the Purim story, begins around the year 360. There is much debate as to the exact identity of Achashverosh. Some sources say that Achashverosh was actually Cambys, the son of Cyrus, some say that he was the son of Darius the Mede. Still others say that he was a commoner who usurped the throne through cunning and by marrying Vashti, the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, to give him legitimacy. Regardless of how Achashverosh achieved power, he took over the reign of the Persian Empire in 360 B.C.E., and continued the ban on the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Achashverosh ruled over 127 provinces, a vast empire from Ethiopia to India. His capital was the city of Shushan, known today as Susa. Thinking that the 70 year prediction that the Temple would be rebuilt started with the exile of King Yechonia and the Jewish elite, Achashverosh miscalculated the correct date for the end of the Jewish exile. Secure that the Jewish prophecy had come to naught, he threw a great party. This is opening of the Book of Esther.
Following the defeat of the enemies of the Jews (355 B.C.E.), Achashverosh remained in power with Mordechai as his Prime Minister.
In 352 B.C.E., the Jews in the Land of Israel completed the rebuilding of the Second Temple and the Babylonian exile officially came to an end as Jews streamed home.
* There is a discrepancy of 164 years between the traditional Jewish chronology and secular chronology.