Esther 1:1 says:

Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus -- he was the Ahasuerus who reigned from Hodu to Cush, one hundred twenty-seven provinces.

For historical context, the period of the Persian Empire that forms the historical backdrop for the story of Purim and Megilat Esther, known as the Achaemenid Empire, took place from 550 to 330 BCE (Darius 1, who ruled from 522 to 486 BCE, allowed the reconstruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.) (link). According to the 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, the Achaemenid Empire was divided into 20 districts or provinces called satrapies ruled by Medo-Persian satraps based on the various kings and governors of the conquered lands, and that different provinces would have different taxes imposed on them (link, list of provinces as per Herodotus, map).

Now, 20 provinces and 127 provinces are very different. Could "127" be referring to cities (with a few cities per province, not sure how it might be counted that way)? Or perhaps 127 refers to the more distinct cultures within the provinces (e.g. at the time, Phoenicians, Jews, and people living in Cyprus were ruled as a single province, although I don't know if even this approach would quite reach 127)? Might it been like one of the 20 provinces could have been considered to have a number of smaller counties (just a guess, don't know of any historical support)? Is it possible that the text could have meant something like "7 regions, 20 provinces, and 100 sub-provinces" (the Hebrew is phrased "seven and twenty and one hundred provinces" which seems to traditionally just be taken as an archaic way of writing 127)?

So my question is, what type of "province" exactly does "one hundred twenty-seven provinces" refer to?

  • 3
    Esther 8:17 and Esther 9:28 kinda kills the city theory
    – Double AA
    Jul 1, 2013 at 21:12
  • The UK has 650 parliamentary districts and it is smaller and less diverse than Persia. Nov 28, 2016 at 13:19

2 Answers 2


Regarding the 20 districts division of Achaemenid Empire by Herodotus, David Asheri in the book "A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV" (Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 481) states:

"(...) the twenty satrapies constitued a great administrative network; that many of them were divided into sub-satrapies or districts with subordinate governors, that others were semi-autonomous with local dynasties of vassal-kings, tyrants and sheiks..." (online here)

In the same way Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, (p. 516 n. 20) states:

[O. Leuze] points out that the satrapies cover lesser divisions of up to seventy-one peoples and districts, which is an incomplete figure, lacking (e.g.) such constituent districts or (sub) provinces for the fifth, twelfth, and thirteenth satrapies (if not others also). The final total would not be far off the "127 provinces" ascribed to Xerxes [Ahasuerus] in Esther 1:1, using the same term (medina) that was applied to Judaea (in Persian Aramaic, Yehud) as a local district, as in Ezra 5:8 and Neh. 1:3. (Online here).

According to stated above, sounds very probable that the 'provinces' spoken throught Esther were sub-divisions of Herodotus satrapies which means they included other cultures/pleoples/regions whithin each one of them.

  • I suppose this is the best suggestion, but as I alluded to in my question, it's an uneasy one if you can't get all the way up to 127. Your excerpts cay maybe allow 80 or so divisions?
    – A L
    Mar 8, 2016 at 22:34
  • More than 120. Consider to take the fifth district of Eber-Nari (alone) as an example. We could count six/seven provinces only in its district: Cyprus, Judea, Samarina, Idumea, Phoenicia, Ammom and Moav (the last two are derived from Nehemiah 2:7). If we take 6 as the average number of provinces in each one of the districts divided by Herodotus we reach the number of 120 {20*6=120}. Mar 9, 2016 at 22:14
  • On what basis do you assume Eber-Nari is typical in order to extrapolate that? If you lack information on 3 districts and get up to 71, Eber Nari appears atypical.
    – A L
    Mar 10, 2016 at 1:37
  • I base this on the Empire's size and on the size of each Satrapy. It is more likely that they had (in general) more provinces each one than just 3 or 4. Mar 13, 2016 at 2:30
  • I'm still unclear on what basis you say it's more likely there were so many distinct peoples per province. Also, the Megilla says there were Jewish populations in each of the 127 provinces, which seems an implausible thing unless it means something different, like maybe 127 cities that were specifically with Jewish populations?
    – A L
    Mar 13, 2016 at 5:42

Provinces were smaller than satraps, but were much larger than just city-states. For example, Judea was a province under the Persian Empire, known as Yehud Medinata. However, it was part of the satrap of Eber-Nari.

  • Welcome Michael, Shavua Tov.
    – kouty
    Mar 5, 2016 at 17:45
  • 2
    Michael, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for the answer! MY places a lot of emphasis on sources (after all most of us don’t know you personally). It would be helpful if you could edit your answer with any sources you have
    – mbloch
    Mar 5, 2016 at 18:03
  • Also if you haven’t done so already, you should take a look at the tour
    – mbloch
    Mar 5, 2016 at 18:04
  • Interesting lead, thanks. Do you have additional examples and historical information to this effect, or is there any archeology from the time period referring to about 127 provinces? Just want to flesh out the difference between what 127 is very likely referring to compared with an idea based on an isolated example.
    – A L
    Mar 7, 2016 at 0:52
  • And by the way, as you can see from my question, I already was aware of the individual satraps representing more than one distinct people, just not whether that would get 20 up to 127. This would need to be expanded in your answer.
    – A L
    Mar 7, 2016 at 1:05

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