In the 5th century BC Nehemiah, governor of the Persian province of Judaea, referred frequently to ‘Tobiah, the Ammonite’, governor of the province east of the Dead Sea.
Two centuries later, in the long conflict between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, the Tobiah family reappears in the archive of Zenon, an agent of Ptolemy II Philadeiphus. In one document, dated 12 May 259 BC and addressed to Ptolemy himself, Tobiah offers a gift of horses, camels, dogs, and slave boys from his country estate in a well-watered valley west of ‘Amman, at today’s ‘Iraq al-Amir (caves of the prince).
According to the historian Josephus, in his account of events between 190 and 175 BC, Hyrcanus, grandson of the Tobiah of the Zenon letters, built ‘a strong fortress.., of white marble to the very roof, and had beasts of a gigantic size carved on it, and he enclosed it with a wide and deep moat…’
The magnificent remains of Hyrcanus’ unfinished mansion, Qasr al-’Abd (palace of the [royal] servant), now stand encircled by cultivated land where once the waters of the moat would have mirrored the walls. The dam is still visible at the south-western end. The family’s Ptolemaic links were a liability when the new Seleucid king, Antiochus IV began to extend his kingdom southwards around 168 BC. To avoid a worse fate, Hyrcanus ‘slew himself with his own hand; and Antiochus seized all his substance’.
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