Cyrus: the Tale of a Cylinder
The famous inscription of Cyrus the Great, recorded on the surface of a clay cylinder in the Akkadian language, is making a grand tour of the United States of America. Its arrival and visit to the various cities of the United States is celebrated by events and talks which attract many audiences, and the object itself is venerated by the visitors. It has been called a unique declaration, a sign of ancient tolerance, and the first declaration of human rights, and of course, the sign of the great wisdom and open-mindedness of Cyrus himself. It is hailed as the foundation text of democracy, the text that affirms and confirms the fact that the ancient king of Iran – nay Persia! – was a forward thinking statesman different from all before him, whose ideas instilled the thoughts of freedom in human beings ever after. For many Iranians, or Persians, it demonstrates that they are a peace loving people, in tune with the beat of democracy and modern civilization, and far from the warmongering zealots that the media and the actions of their government has come to represent them. For the Iranian wealthy class living in various world metropolises – mostly those living in North America – it is also a means of streamlining Iranians and their newly found prominence in their host societies. They are not builders of Beverly Hills “Persian Palaces” anymore, they are heirs of that ideal of “democracy,” what the Americans value the most, which was declared by an absolute monarch. They are Persians, the embodiment of contradiction.
A few years ago, when the Cylinder of Cyrus made a similar journey to Iran – probably the only celebrity in the past 30 odd years who has managed to pull off both of these high profile visits – its journey was hailed as the “return” of the Cyrus Cylinder to its home. This speaks volumes about the formation of national identities, the fact that an item discovered in Mesopotamia, the modern country of Iraq, in 1879, and originally composed, inscribed, and buried there, would then be “returning” to Tehran, a good 1000 kilometers to the east of Babylon, and surely not part of Mesopotamia. It was venerated similarly by the Iranian public, and even by its politicians, the same way as it is being venerated by the expatriate Iranians of the USA and its exiled Queen and ex-heir to the throne. This is probably yet another affirmation of the unique powers of the Cylinder and its talent in bridging gaps of political sensitivities.
A Magical Cylinder
This ability is probably a credit to the fact that all involved parties like to read into this object what they want the object to say. Part of this is based on the false assumptions about what the object’s text actually says, due to many mistranslations, but another part of it is a simple case of reading things in a chosen context and extracting from it what the reader wishes. One could claim that the original effort in advancing a particular reading of the Cylinder belongs to none other than Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last (official) king of Iran. In 1968, the Shah, while opening a Human Rights conference of the UN in Tehran, claimed that the Cyrus Cylinder was the first declaration of human rights in history. Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s sister, then gave a replica of the Cylinder to U Thant, at the time the Secretary General of the UN, as a sign of compassion in war and conflict, and the replica was placed in the UN Building in New York, where it still stands. So, the beginnings were grandiose, although the claims, at least those of Ashraf, were still tolerable. The 1971 Cyrus Year celebrations, of course, did provide the subtext for veneration of Cyrus himself, and by extension his “declaration.” After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, Cyrus was demonized by the Islamic government, while he and the rest of the Achaemenid history were elevated to mythical levels by the Iranian (nationalist) opposition, particularly the European and North American residing expatriates. Cyrus has slowly grown to a mythical figure, which is how most Iranians prefer their historical characters, and has even been called an “Aryan Prophet,” which would have made some unsavory characters very happy a few decades ago.
Today, the myth of Cyrus has expanded even further. In North America, where years of open and covert conflict with Iran have reflected a very negative image of the country to the public, Cyrus and his Cylinder have brought a ray of hope. In a society where “democracy and our founding fathers” hold high places in creation of a collective identity, having a “democratic founding father,” one that hopefully has something to do with the American ones, could be a secure way of carving a right place for an immigrant population. So, pieces of a puzzle have been put together in order to create such founding father. Cyrus’ already existing reputation as a tolerant king – confirmed by the Bible and the Cylinder – have been given a measure of effectiveness by the claims, made by a film maker, that there are two copies of Xenophone’s Cyropaedia in the library of Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential American founding father. Thus, it is said, we can only assume that Cyrus’ exalted ideas were communicated to the American founding fathers. This is a sure way of claiming some sort of foundational right in the forward looking and progressive American democratic ideal.
So, let us scrutinize the claims, and their empirical basis, a bit further. The objective is not to dismiss history, nor to efface a great ancient monarch, one whose achievements indeed left a lasting effect on human history, and as far as we can say, largely for the better. The point is to expose the process of myth making, which by itself can shed light on some aspects of the formation of identity, and to suggest that ultimately, it might be better to feel proud of reality than try to add layers to the myth itself. As a historian, I am a firm believer in that it is best to look at history on its own terms, instead of trying to read into it what we wish it to say. As a good historian, hopefully, I would like to suggest that context and avoidance of anachronism, and teleology, would serve us better in seeing history as a whole, and the story of Cyrus and his Cylinder in particular, in a more truthful light. I also think that a utilitarian view of history, as a narrative set-up to create moments of pride and achievement - which is sadly how it is most often used – is quite counterproductive. Whenever one choses a particular episode in history to highlight and be “proud of,” one always has to ignore certain, often uncomfortable, facts and subtexts, which can then be used to dismiss the original object of pride (think Jefferson’s slave holding!). So, instead of looking at history to find moments, episodes, and characters on which to reflect a sense of pride, it will be best to be proud of who we are now, and then see history as a narrative of how we have become who we are.
The King and His Cylinder
The basic claims about the Cyrus Cylinder are
1) that it is a declaration of tolerance,
2) that it is a unique document unprecedented in history, and
3) that it contains orders by its issuer to leave the conquered people to their own devices and to particularly not prevent them from worshiping any god they want.
Several faulty claims are also made about the object, which hopefully no one believes in any more, and are usually due to fabricated translations. These are assumptions
1) that it is written in Old Persian cuneiform,
2) that is has mentions of Cyrus as the Persian Emperor, and
3) that it attributes his success to the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda.
A look at the circumstances of its existence, and the context of its composition, would then be the basic point of departure for studying some of these characteristics. The following, of course, is not an original research by the writer of these lines, rather a simple repetition of the works of scholars who have done much research, which is publically available, on the actual object and the associated texts.
First, it will be easiest to set the record straight on the matter of false claims. No, the text of the Cylinder is not written in Old Persian, although it is in the cuneiform script. It is written in Akkadian cuneiform, which was the language and script of Babylon at the time of Cyrus’ conquest. It also has no mention of “Persian” or anything close to it, and rather identifies Cyrus as the King of Anshan. Anshan was the most important highland city in the Elamite kingdom, located at the present site of Toll-e Malyan, in the present day Iranian province of Fars, a figurative “stone throw” from the later Pasargadae Palace Complex, founded by Cyrus. Cyrus, whose name is in fact Elamite, and his immediate ancestors, as much as we can deduce from an earlier inscription and a seal, were the kings of this city, but not of Persia, whatever that might mean at the time. Also, there is no mention of Ahura Mazda in the text, nor anything of his assistance to Cyrus. The active deity in the text is Marduk, the high god of Babylon, although Bel and Nabu are also mentioned. Marduk, as we will discuss below, is arguably the most prominent character in the whole of the text, which makes sense considering the actual context of the creation of the Cylinder.
The Cylinder of Cyrus in Context
The Cylinder was discovered in 1879 during the second season of excavations in Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam, who despite his very Persian sounding name, was an Assyrian from Mosul, educated in Oxford. The object was sent to the UK, where it was introduced by Sir Henry Rawlinson – the same man who started the decipherment of the Old Persian cuneiform – to the Royal Asiatic Society. The Cylinder was then put in care of the British Museum, where it still resides. It was discovered under the ruins of Esagila, the temple of Marduk in Babylon, where it was placed as a foundation inscription, and was in fact never meant to be dug up and read! So, you could essentially argue that it was the modern profanity and a disregard for ancient custom that brought it to light. It would never have been read in this format 2500 years ago, when it was composed and inscribed.
This particular fact is important, as it demonstrated that the Cylinder is not a declaration. It was not inscribed, like the later Behistun Inscription of Darius I, on a highly visible, if hard to reach, place where it was obviously meant to be noticed. Nor does it really declare anything. It is simply a narrative of conquest and a justification both for the conquest of Babylon by a foreign king, as well as for the (re)building of Esagila itself. The tone of the text, unlike what is often claimed, is actually quite close to similar inscriptions before it, including those of Nabunid, the very king whom Cyrus has defeated during the same campaign, and Sargon II of Assyria, who had conquered Babylon about 200 years before. In the text, Marduk is the active character initially, being essentially dissatisfied with Nabunid and his preference for other gods – including Sin, the Moon God - instead of Marduk, the traditional god of Babylon, and his displacement of many of these gods from other cities to Babylon. So, Marduk goes on a quest for someone to set the situation right, and thus comes to Cyrus of Anshan. He then walks alongside Cyrus and his soldiers, and enters Babylon. The city is conquered by Cyrus, who then starts talking to us, boasting of his achievement and restoration of the sanctuaries of the right gods, namely that of Marduk, and doing away with the insult that was done to them by Nabunid. The theme of restoration of the old order, as a way of legitimizing one’s rule, was of course quite prominent in the Near Eastern literature and royal ideology. Cyrus himself emphasizes this continuity by mentioning Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king, and likening his actions to that of the Assyrian monarch.
Human Rights Then?
You might ask how all these have resulted in claims of the declaration of human rights and tolerance? How can one make the logical conclusion that this object is suggesting such ideas? This is where context comes to our aid, and where a historical folly exposes itself: the folly of not reading what is there, but knowing beforehand what you want to read. This time, it is where we start with Cyrus that determines what we read into his Cylinder. This is namely the history of our knowledge and familiarity with Cyrus.
It might come as a surprise to many, although it does not take much evidence to prove it, that Cyrus as a historical character was forgotten in most of the lands where he ruled. Prior to the adoption of modern historiography in Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th century, most Iranians did not know of Cyrus or the Achaemenids. While Darius I and III had left some reflections in the characters of Darab and Daray-e Darayan in the Iranian traditional history, as the final kings of the Kayanid Dynasty, Cyrus or the rest of the “Achaemenids” were not represented in a clear way at all. Iranian history, as reflected in sources ranging from the Avesta itself to the Rowzat ul-Safa of Khwandamir, started with the primordial man-king Kiumarth (Av. Gayu-martan) and his Pishdadi Dynasty, then progressed to the legendary kings of the Kayanid Dynasty whose last king, Daray-e Darayan, in a similar fashion to Darius III, was defeated by Alexander. The Arsacid Dynasty was reduced to a few kings, while the history of the Sasanian Dynasty was fully presented. Some might wish to see some of Cyrus’ characteristics in the Kayanid kings Kay Khosrow or Kay Bahman, but his name or his actions were in no way presented in these accounts.
Instead, Cyrus was known to the populations who used the Bible as their holy book. His granting of freedom to the Jewish population of Babylonia, and ending of the Babylonian Captivity, is well recorded in the Old Testament, and he is much praised in the Book of Ezra. He was, then, known to the European historian/archaeologists of the 19th century, indeed as the only major “Achaemenid” character. His act of ending the Babylonian Captivity was reflected in the Bible as a great act of tolerance and granting of freedom. Of course, this event is not recorded anywhere else outside the Old Testament, and most significantly, it is NOT mentioned in the text of the Cylinder. It is, however, the context in which the sections on the restoration of the temples of Marduk and other gods, and allowing people to worship as they did before (meaning to Marduk), is read. Basically, the conjunction gained from the Biblical story is used to read the Cylinder, and then to extend and generalize the claim to suggest a “universal” granting of freedom. In fact, all that the Cylinder’s statement is doing is to give a Marduk-centred account of the events, and assume that the worship of Marduk was the heartfelt wish of the people of Babylon, denied to them by the tyrannical, Sin worshiping Nabunid. This travesty was then reversed by Cyrus, the chosen one of Marduk, who then granted to the people of Babylon what they wished: to worship Marduk, and returned other gods to their own lands and “cleaned” Babylon of their presence. It does not, in fact, leave any space for the worship of other gods, Sin included!
It is also noticeable that unlike what is often assumed, there is no air of “universality” to the statements made in the Cyrus Cylinder. The basic fact that this is a foundation inscription, buried in the foundation levels of a temple of Marduk, and is written in the local language and has a local resonance, is the best evidence for its very limited legacy. This is also noticeable by considering that the Cylinder and its contents were forgotten after they were inscribed. Unlike the laws and decrees of previous Assyrian and Babylonian kings, or those of Darius and Xerxes, the contents of Cyrus’ inscription did not get a large resonance and were not knows. Cyrus, being known as a great king and the ultimate source of authority for the Achaemenid kings who followed him, was associated with many thing, including the foundation of the administrative system of the empire, which in turn did have a lot of resonance in many later empires, but a universal declaration of human rights or freedom of religion was not one of them.
Last Myth: Cyrus and American Democracy
This takes us to the last part of the myths associated with Cyrus, and that is the case of Cyropaedia and its presence in the library of Thomas Jefferson. There are several facts to point out about the suggestion that early American ideas of democracy and human rights might have something to do with the absolute rule of an ancient king, aside from the absurdities engrained in such suggestion, as well as ignoring the contemporary context of the enlightenment episteme in which the American independence took place. First of these is the fact that in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, there is no mention of Cyrus’ ending of the Babylonian Captivity or the restoration of the worship of Marduk in Babylon, nor any other manner of granting of religious or social freedoms. In Cyropaedia, Cyrus is an example of personal strength, kingly vigor, and royal valor, but he is not a social reformer. The second issue is that the presence of Cyropaedia in the library of Jefferson does not logically mean that James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, knew anything about the book, nor does it mean that the ideas of the Cylinder of Cyrus, which was discovered 100 after the American revolution, were known to either gentleman. Cyropaedia, a good example of Attic Greek, was used commonly, alongside Xenophon’s own Anabasis, as a textbook of Ancient Greek for the educated gentlemen of the late 18th century America, including Mr. Jefferson. Its presence barely is an indication that it was a book used for formation of democratic ideas, which is in no way mentioned in the contemporary American political or social thought.
However, beneath this level of reasoning, it is also possible to look at Cyropaedia for what it was and whether there is any chance that it might have even been about Cyrus the Great at all. Xenophon, a great statesman and philosopher, a student of Socrates in fact, lived from 431-355 BCE, a good 150-200 years after Cyrus. Being an officer of the Greek mercenary army that was helping Cyrus the Younger, the second son of Darius II, in the wars of succession against his brother Artaxerxes II, Xenophon was a witness to the great charm and valor of the young prince. Upon the defeat of Cyrus the Younger by the forces of his brother, Xenophon had to lead the Greek mercenaries out of the danger zone which was Mesopotamia, an action which resulted in his famous account of Anabasis. Later, as a lament for Cyrus the Younger and his missed opportunity, Xenophon, probably sometime around 380 BCE, wrote Cyropaedia. The book is in fact a thinly veiled praise of Cyrus the Younger, who was not to be named as he was the great adversary of Artaxerxes II, now the Great King. So, the ideal prince described was made out to be Cyrus II (the Great), and not Cyrus the Younger. This was known well enough in the ancient world, and was no secret in the mediaeval or the early modern and modern periods, and was basically a result of ancient censorship. As such, the information contained in it about Cyrus the Great is quite meager and general, and the whole work in any case is an exercise in literary production and less of a history book or a biography.
Cyrus II, the Great, the King of Anshan, and the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty, was a great conqueror, and even better, a great administrator. He had a vision of creating an empire which went beyond the regular confines of empires such as the Babylonian and Assyrian one, a task which he did not finish, but for which he laid the foundation. His legacy of administration was perfected by Darius I, again the Great, and the rest of the Achaemenids. He was not a pro-democracy revolutionary, he was not a social reformer, and he did not operate in the mindset of a 18th or 19th century enlightenment thinker. He was well placed in his contemporary environment, and made the best use of the experiences before him, which is why he was a successful politician and statesman. It is better to like, honour, and study the real man than to create an unsustainable, idealized view of him which can easily be deconstructed. History, I repeat, is not a tool for forging proud episodes and narrating glories, and a utilitarian use of it is ultimately damaging and counterproductive. So, whatever the good it might bring to the Iranian community in the US and help their full integration in the American “Melting Pot,” in the long run, the creation of unsubstantiated myths will be of negative value. The money, propaganda, and the political agenda that is being spent on promoting the Cyrus’ myth currently, although coming from kind, well-meaning hearts, does little to actually promote the history and culture of Iran as an important part of world history. It only serves the interests of a few at present, while doing nothing for the larger Iranian community both inside and outside Iran.
Some further reading
A reliable translation of the Cylinder of Cyrus
The Cylinder of Nabonidus
… and a translation of it
Mark Garrison, “The seal of Kuraš the Anzanite, son of Šešpeš, PFS 93*: Susa—Anšan—Persepolis”, in: J. Álvarez-Mon & M.B. Garrison (eds.), Elam and Persia, Winona Lake (Ind.), 2011, p. 375-405.
Amélie Kuhrt, “Cyrus the Great of Persia: images and realities”, in M. Heinz & M.H. Feldman (edd.), Representations of Political Power. Case histories from Times of change and dissolving Order in the Ancient Near-East, Winona Lake (Ind.), 2007, p. 169-191.
W. Henkelman, “Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Elamite: a case of mistaken identity”, in R. Rollinger—B. Truschnegg—R. Bichler (eds.), Herodotus and the Persian Empire, Wiesbaden, 2011, p. 577-634.