Recent complaints from Iran that the British Museum is unreasonably delaying the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder reminded me of this old post. Beware everything you ever read about the Cyrus Cylinder.
I have been reading Bruce Feiler’s Where God Was Born. In it, Feiler travels the Middle East in search of the foundational places of the Bible. It’s enjoyable enough if a little preachy — most of the people he meets (rabbis, imams, priests, scholars) seem to have consistently and improbably eloquent defenses of religious universalism on their lips. It’s also very Old Testament-centric, unsurprising given Feiler’s Judaism. Mormons will enjoy his conversation with an LDS soldier on top of the ziggurat in Ur, although he commits the unforgivable “Church of the Latter-day Saints” mistake.
I particularly enjoyed his journeyings in Iran, not least because the Iraq section is depressingly familiar, i.e. bombings, chaos, and death. (Wasn’t it supposed to be better by now? Feiler wrote his book in 2005.) Compared with Iraq, Iran sounds like an oasis in the desert. The situation for Iranian Jews, for example, is not half as bad as one might imagine. Not great, either, but one gets the sense that we in the West have Iranian society pretty much all wrong.
Iran (Persia) occupies a somewhat neglected place when it comes to religious history writing. We tend to see Mesopotamia as the great Cradle, but it is Iran that has given us Zoroastrianism (what some argue to be the most influential religion of all time) and it is Iran that was the home of the first Messiah: Cyrus the Great, who “freed” the Jews from Babylon and who was Deutero-Isaiah’s number one dude.
He’s also had an illustrious role in all kinds of modern Persian propaganda and sadly Feiler falls for it. Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Palavi used Cyrus as the paragon of human (Persian) secular virtue and claimed that the “Cyrus Cylinder” (an ancient cuneiform text written for Cyrus upon his conquering Babylon) was the “world’s first human rights charter.”
Since the time the Shah first began dabbling in Cyrus-propaganda, a fake translation of the Cyrus Cylinder has consistently done the rounds and Feiler quotes some of it:
I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them as long as I shall live. From now on, while Ahuramazda lets me rule, I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I shall never resolve on war to reign.
Here’s the fatal flaw in this text: the real Cyrus Cylinder has Marduk (Babylon’s god), not Ahuramazda, as its patron. The whole thing, in fact, is poo. Here’s the actual translation of the relevant portion, still quite cool, but nothing like the fluff quoted above.
My vast army marched into Babylon in peace; I did not permit anyone to frighten the people of [Sumer] /and\ Akkad. I sought the welfare of the city of Babylon and all its sacred centers. As for the citizens of Babylon, [x x x upon wh]om he [i.e., Nabonidus] imposed a corvée which was not the gods’ wish and not befitting them, I relieved their wariness and freed them from their service.
Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced over [my good] deeds. He sent gracious blessing upon me, Cyrus, the king who worships him, and upon Cambyses, the son who is [my] offspring, [and up]on all my army, and in peace, before him, we mov[ed] around in friendship.
[By his] exalted [word], all the kings who sit upon thrones throughout the world, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, who live in the dis[tricts far-off], the kings of the West, who dwell in tents, all of them, brought their heavy tribute before me and in Babylon they kissed my feet.
From [Babylon] to Aššur and (from) Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.
In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon.
Call it faith promoting fabrication. It’s the Persian equivalent of the fake Lutius Gratus Mormon prophecy. Lame.