Archival dross: Lies, damned lies, and ancient history

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.


  1. Peter LLC says:

    I remember the Lutius Gratus making the rounds during the mish. Didn’t you use it during a zone conference as a motivational teaching tool?

  2. Peter,
    The follies of youth. You are embarrassing me…

  3. Personally I like the way we go from “all the kings…brought their heavy tribute before me and in Babylon they kissed my feet” (real version) to “I will impose my monarchy on no nation” (fake version). What’s amazing is that Feiler and virtually everyone else buys it (it was quoted by Shirin Ebadi when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003). Yes, the Greeks slandered the Persians, but let’s face it, them Persians did go a-conquering. The Shah was a dodgy bloke.

  4. Ronan, can you tell us anything about these clay corn cobs in general? Was it a common record form? Any reasons for this shape? Would it have been used more for routine memos or for special proclamations?

  5. JM,
    It’s a typical Mesopotamian foundation document, the sort put into the foundations of temples. Clearly Cyrus knew what language of propaganda to speak. It’s definitely a special proclamation. And remember: when you resort to propaganda to say how nice you are and how much the conquered people love you, then…

  6. Nick Literski says:

    then….you get elected to a second term as President of the United States?

  7. By the way, you probably already know this, but the church was officially called the “Church of the Latter-day Saints” from 1834 to 1838. There is historical precedent for finding this name unforgivable, though; the change from the original name, “Church of Jesus Christ,” (which did too little to differentiate our movement from many other restorationist churches of the period) is one of the signs that David Whitmer and his family offer to prove that Joseph Smith became a fallen prophet.

  8. Thanks for the coverage, Ronan, on this book.

    I am deep into the oracles against the nations in Isaiah.

  9. Jonathan Green says:

    I have Lutius Gratus’s book in my kitchen cupboard.

  10. Jonathan,
    Bring it to Vienna, man.

  11. I love both hoaxes. I want Lutius to come on a corn cob next time it makes the rounds. Incidentally, that BYUS article is great. But, R, what does this have to do with 300?

  12. The whole thing, in fact, is poo.

    I’m adding this to my repertoire.

  13. The August 2008 National Geographic has an article on the Persian Empire that was a real eye-opener for me. Unfortunately, the article also avails itself of the fake translation (via Shirin Ebadi, if I recall). Now my world is falling apart – can I not believe even National Geographic?!?!

  14. Jason,
    That translation is one of the most successful hoaxes of all time.

  15. Ronan, I now have the Lutius Gratus book (or what is supposedly the book referred to) on the bookshelf by my desk (in micro-film format) thanks to Jonathan Green. Time constraints have still prevented me from reading it to confirm whether it is likely the book referred to and whether there is material in it that could conceivably have led to the paraphrases at issue in the Lutius Gratus story.

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