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Great Monarchs of Persia - Events of Biblical Proportion

Tomb of Cyrus the Great

Tomb of Cyrus the Great (all photos are my own)

“O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.” Quote from Cyrus

Darius the Great and Palace Guard (National Museum, Tehran)

South central Iran, near the new city of Shiraz, is the location of three magnificent edifices, shrouded in mystery, that are treasures of not only Persian culture, but world history as well. They are the purported tomb of Cyrus II, the Great, at Pasargadae; the 4 tombs at the cliffs of Naqsh-e Rostam; and the sprawling palaces of Persepolis founded by Darius the Great, the successor to the legacy of Cyrus.

Pasargadae and the Babylon Cylinder

Lamassu, possible Assyrian origin

Cyrus the Great, also called Cyrus the Elder, is particularly mythical, although the Biblical writers and ancient historians like Herodotus took stabs at elucidating his deeds, usually based on third-party accounts.

“Out of the realm of myth and fable this imposing figure emerges, but history records enough of him to allow his title of ‘The Great’ to stand unquestioned. Croesus, with all his treasure, went down before him, and ‘Great Babylon’ could not withstand his arms. Great as were his achievements as a warrior and ‘a prince', history, though encumbered with the deeds of ages, still finds space to recite his nobility of soul.’” - Preface, Cyrus the Great, Famous Characters of History, Vol. III, by Jacob Abbott, first published about 1850.

An encounter with Cyrus II, first celebrated king of the Achaemenid empire known as Persia, around 550 BCE, can only happen in a virtual sense as the bones of this man are nowhere to be found. (Since Zoroastrian influences were on the ascendant in his time, I suggest that maybe he was turned to ashes, by the Heavenly Fire). His majestic tomb, slumbering on a plain of gravel, amongst some ruins of a place called Pasargadae, is essentially empty. I wandered around the 11-meter high edifice, a World Heritage site, several times feeling both bewilderment and awe at the same time. The gardens of Pasargadae are gone, but the King who was proclaimed Great remains, despite the absence of his body.

An entire book solely dedicated to Cyrus could come from my pen after this encounter. His legacy somehow is still, more than 2,000 years later, a story of how a benevolent monarch should behave.

Pasargadae (tomb is upper left)

According to the famous and rare Cyrus Cylinder, after taking Babylon Cyrus proclaimed himself "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world." That cylinder, unearthed in the 1870s, contained an inscription deposited in the foundations of the Esagila temple dedicated to the Babylonian god, Marduk. The text of the cylinder describes how Cyrus had improved the lives of the people of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples including the Jews to Judea, and restored temples and religious sanctuaries. At the end of Cyrus' rule, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Asia Minor in the west to the Indus River in the other direction.

Cyrus cylinder (replica at entrance to Tehran's National Museum)

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the very few surviving sources of information that can be dated directly to Cyrus's time. The baked clay document inscribed in Arian/Old Persian cuneiform had been buried after the Persian conquest of Babylon in around 539 BC. It is kept today in the British Museum in London, but was displayed in Tehran’s National Museum in 2010.

In the 1970s the Shah of Iran declared the cylinder text to be “the first human rights charter in history”. Since 1971, the United Nations too has declared the relic to be an "ancient declaration of human rights.” Throwing water on such high-mindedness, the British Museum described the cylinder as an instrument of ancient Mesopotamian “propaganda" that "reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.”

With more circumspection, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, stated that the cylinder was "the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths — a new kind of statecraft.” He conceded that while it was never the intention of the document to be a first declaration of human rights, "it has come to embody the hopes and aspirations of many.” HIs remarks preceded the loan of the cylinder to Iran in 2010 amidst great controversy in both the West and within Iran itself, and then later a tour of this small cylinder of five major US museums, debuting at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington in March 2013. The tour was supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

Iran's then President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended the unveiling in Tehran despite a bitter outcry among his political adversaries.

In the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus is variously described in roughly 14 different references in the books of The Chronicles and Jeremiah as the Lord's Shepherd and the Messiah— embellishments by Jewish writers who apparently celebrated Cyrus’ benevolence to the Jews. Not only did he allow the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, but he also returned the temple treasures seized by Nebuchadnezzar and provided royal treasure to pay for the rebuilding of the temple.

“May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily of Bêl and Nâbu that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare. ... The people of Babylon blessed my kingship, and I settled all the lands in peaceful abodes.” Translation from the cylinder

Even Alexander the Great, although his army razed and burned the nearby great capital of Persepolis to the ground, proclaimed great admiration for this King of Kings and set about immediately to restore the stone mausoleum (shown above) to its original stately condition after finding it plundered and abandoned in the desert.

Naqsh-e Rostam (Throne of Rustam)

Cyrus the Elder was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who added more nations to the empire by conquering Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica. Then came Darius I, also named “the Great.” Under Persian law, the Achaemenid kings were required to write their last will and choose a successor before setting out on serious expeditions. Around 487–486 B.C.E., Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rostam and appointed his son Xerxes as the successor to the throne. Darius died shortly after in October 486 B.C.E.

The following inscription appears on the tomb of Darius the Great: “By the favor of the great God I believe in justice and abhor inequity. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty.”

Facades maintained at the National Museum in Tehran

Who can walk in the shoes of Darius - many nations combined into one

The tombs drilled into the imposing rock escarpment not far from Pasargadae and Persepolis remained a royal burial mountain past the Achaemenid dynasty into the period ruled by the Sassanids (Ardashir I, 224 BC). Their significance was appreciated until the Arab Islamic conquests in the modern era. The other three tombs on the cliffside are believed to be those of Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC) respectively. The "Elephantine papyri" mention Darius II as a contemporary of the high priest Johanan of Ezra 10:6. Two more tombs of virtual identical construction overlook the ruins of Persepolis itself.

Who the ghostly inhabitants in these tombs actually are remain a little uncertain to this day. Similar speculation about who is who surrounds many of the rock and stone reliefs that decorate these historical sites. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander.

The facades of this imposing necropolis include large panels over the doorways, each with figures of the king being invested by a god, presumably Ahura Mazda (Zoroaster's boss), above rows of smaller figures bearing tribute, with soldiers and officials. The horizontal beam of each tomb is believed to be a replica of a Persepolitan entrance.

Here the King (presumably Ardashir) and Ahura Mazda are both seated on horses, in a solemn occasion of the passing of the ring, an investiture. The round apex over the King's head is a fine fabric that collects a bunch of hair or "world glob", a distinction allowed a King of Kings. The ring is being passed by a high holy being (presumably Ormuzd, Ahura Mazda).

Of the most famous rock reliefs closer to the ground is the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, with the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing to him in submission. Behind the king stands Kirtir, the high priest considered to be the most powerful of the Zoroastrian Magi in Iran. The word ērān is first attested in the inscriptions that accompany the investiture relief of Ardashir at Naqsh-e Rustam. In this bilingual inscription, the Sassanian king calls himself "Ardashir, king of kings of the Iranians”.

Finally, among several equestrian-dominated reliefs on the rock, one illustrates the dynamic test of battle on horseback, presumably representing the defeat of an Armenian royal by the eighth Sassanian King Hormizd II (303-309 AD).

Casts of the inscriptions on the tomb of Darius I are held in the archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC.

The Universal Man meets The Winged Lion

Frontespiece of Jacob Abbott's book, 1850 (father pardons Cyrus)

The universal man (out of clay to dust)

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