In 539 B.C., Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians, and a year later he decreed that the Judeans who had been sent into exile were allowed to return home and rebuild the Temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-2). Under the leadership of Zerubbabel a small contingent of Judeans made the long journey and reestablished Judea as a very small district in the much larger Persian province called Beyond the River, which included most of the land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Persian Empire continued to grow until it ruled virtually the entire Near East-–a domain about eight times the size of Texas. This vast empire was the world of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Queen Esther.
The city of Jerusalem underwent many changes throughout Bible times. When King David captured the city from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-10; 1 Chronicles 11:4-9), it was a relatively small fortress positioned next to the Gihon Spring–-a dependable source of water that later enabled the city to withstand various sieges (2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36-37). King Solomon built the Temple of the Lord on a threshing floor north of the city (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21), and the city continued to grow. King Hezekiah eventually expanded the walls to encompass a much larger area and replaced the old Jebusite tunnel with another tunnel (probably called Shiloah) to channel water more securely from the Gihon Spring to the Lower Pool (later called the Pool of Siloam/Shiloah) and the king’s garden. This new tunnel is probably what Isaiah 8:5-8 refers to when it rebukes the people of Judah for rejecting the gently flowing waters of Shiloah to support the Arameans. Many years later in 586 B.C. the Babylonians attacked the city, destroyed the city and the Temple, and sent many Judeans into exile (2 Kings 25:1-21; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21; Jeremiah 39:1-10; 52:1-30).
The Greek cities of Ephesus and Miletus, once prosperous port towns on the west coast of Asia Minor, have long since silted up (see modern shoreline in dark blue). Paul and John both conducted ministries in this region, and John was eventually exiled to the nearby island of Patmos (Acts 19; Revelation 1:9).
Many people don’t realize that roads were as important in Bible times as they are today, many of the events of the Bible took place in towns that lay along main roads. Good roads allowed trade to flourish and people to move throughout the country, including military troops heading to battle. Three primary routes passed through Israel: 1) the Great Trunk Road, connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia and Anatolia; 2) the Central Ridge Route, connecting towns within the heartland of Israel; and 3) the King’s Highway, which passed through the land that lay east of the Jordan River. King Solomon became very wealthy partially because he controlled all these important trade routes during his reign.