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The Real Cyrus

I’m forever finding out that the things I once believed were not really cynical enough. Thom Stark corrected many of my romantic beliefs about the Bible and its authors. But it turns out I still had one remaining.

Somewhere I picked up the idea that Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia who allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, was a great example of enlightened rule. In a recent TED talk, Neil Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, spoke about the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cylinder, a triumphal declaration of Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon, explains how Cyrus repatriated displaced people, rebuilt temples to the Babylonian god Marduk, and in general acting like an enlightened and merciful conqueror. MacGregor spoke about it in glowing terms:

The Cylinder bears one of the “great declarations of a human aspiration,” comparable to the American Constitution and Magna Carta. Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire he established (ca. 550-330 B.C.E.) bequeathed to history “a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together.”

Over at HuffPo, Jacob L. Wright … complicates this story:

As most historians who specialize in early Persian history would readily point out, the chief objective of Cyrus and his successors was no different than that of other imperial powers: to maintain control of their vast empire and to exploit the wealth of its subjects. [...]

Influenced in great measure by the biblical image of Jews returning to their homeland under Persian hegemony, many assume that the rule of Persian kings was much more tolerant than that of the Assyrians. But recent research has demonstrated the significant lines of continuity between these two empires. The Persians engaged in the same mass deportations and harsh punishment of rebels for which the Assyrians are famous. The extent to which the Persian court involved itself in the affairs of its subject peoples was determined by concerns for the king’s prosperity. In order to ensure that wealth flowed from the provinces into the imperial coffers, rulers sometimes practiced the politics of benefaction, granting favors to representative groups in return for loyalty and compliance.

Hat tip to Robert Cargill, who sums it up well:

The fact that Persia preferred to rule its provinces, including עבר-נהרה (Avar-Nahara), the Persian province Yehud (known previously as Judah) through temples and religious leaders (and governors, rather than risking the rebellion of foreign kings), should not disguise the fact that it was just as authoritative as Babylonian and Assyrian empires that preceded it. In fact, Persia went the extra step of promoting a single national tongue – Aramaic – an issue that is just as controversial today in the US as it was then in Persia.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    It’s interesting how an atheist can still have erroneous beliefs that he or she got while being religious.

    • FO

      We atheists are full of wrong beliefs just like anyone else.
      Only, we’re more prone to acknowledge it.

  • Ken

    There are so many beliefs we hang on to that have no basis in reality. I occasionally upset Christians with the simple speculation that Christ had body odor and that temples burned incense to mask the smells of the unwashed masses of sweaty people who worked hard physically, and who incidentally tramped through public sewage all day. Or that holding down thrashing terrified animals to disembowel and bleed them for sacrifice is maybe a pretty repellent activity to suck up to a “God of love,” no matter the time and place — sorry all you little fluffy little lambs and unblemished doves. And why did Jesus curse that fig tree so obviously out of season to produce fruit — was it possessed by a demon or had it denied the Holy Ghost or something really awful, like maybe gay? The sanitized, pacifist Renaissance/Hollywood Caucasian Christ is so ingrained that we can’t imagine alternate possibilities of real reality. It is just as likely Jesus resembled Ron Jeremy — now there is a discussion point I must try someday.

  • Lurker111

    Am I the only one who saw that as a petrified ear of corn?

    • UrsaMinor

      No, you are not.

    • Noelle

      I saw corn too.

    • AnAtheistsPhilosophy

      Definitely saw corn.

    • Justice Gustin

      Looks more like the cob.

  • http://fugodeus.com Nox

    Enlightened and merciful might be judged on a sliding scale. Cyrus was probably as power hungry as any monarch. But traditional conquering for the time would mean destroying the conquered nation, and incorporating its land into the conquering nation.

    In the pre-Roman days, the idea of installing a puppet king from among the locals, and letting the people you ruled keep the appearance of self rule, would be maybe not merciful, but at least progressive. Let the locals build their temple, it will keep them pacified. Let them have a Jewish king, as long as he knows who the real king is, it still counts as Persia.

    A couple thousand years later, the British used a system which is basically this with the addition of flags to conquer much of the world. And it isn’t really that different from U.S. foreign policy today.

    • Darwin

      “I claim this land in the name of England.”
      “You can’t claim it. We live here!”
      “Do you have a flag?”

      • UrsaMinor

        Ah, the European doctrine of terra nullius! Which essentially states “If you don’t have a government that we have decided to recognize, your territory is unclaimed, Q.E.D. And we’re just going to take it.”

  • vasaroti

    Interesting to note that the tribes of Iran and Iraq were fighting each other this long ago.

  • RAMESHM2

    more iranophobia and demonizing persia. you are denying the undenyable. you are just speculating cyrus’s intention w/o looking at the facts left behind from him which proves that not only he was a liberator and made people’s life better, but he also was a geneus in terms of government and management. his contribution to the world is undeniable. and you are no one to judge such great inpiration of humanity with your narrow sided vision


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