Falling for Ancient Propaganda UN Treasure Honors Persian Despot


Part 2: 'One of the Most Magnificent Documents Ever Written'

The general recuperated from the trials of war at his residence in Pasargadae. It was surrounded by an irrigated garden known as the "paradeisos" and was home to a sumptuous harem.

But Cyrus soon became restless in his palace and returned to the front, this time heading east to Afghanistan. His life ended at 71, somewhere in Uzbekistan, when a spear punctured his thigh. He died three days later.

The Walls of Babylon, now at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

The Walls of Babylon, now at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Courageous in battle and adept in the politics of running his empire, Cyrus, says Wiesehöfer, was a "pragmatist" who attained his goals with "carrots and sticks." But he was no humanist.

Some Greeks praised the conqueror. Herodotus and Aeschylus (who lived after Cyrus's death) called him merciful. The Bible describes him as the "anointed one," because he supposedly permitted the abducted Jews to return to Israel.

But modern historians have long since debunked such reports as flattery. "A shining image of Cyrus was created in antiquity," Wiesehöfer says. In truth, he was a violent ruler, like many others. His army ransacked residential neighborhoods and holy sites, and the urban elites were deported.

Only the Shah, who had his own problems in the 1960s, could have come up with the idea of reinterpreting this man as an originator of human rights. Despite his SAVAK secret police's notorious torture practices, there was resistance throughout the country. Marxist groups carried out bombings while mullahs called upon their followers to resist the government.

In response, the Shah attempted to invoke his ancient predecessors. Just as Cyrus was once the father of the nation, he insisted, "So am I today."

"The history of our empire begins with the famous proclamation by Cyrus," the Shah claimed. "It is one of the most magnificent documents ever written on the spirit of freedom and justice in the history of mankind."

One thing is true, and that is the clay cylinder documents a banal story of political betrayal. When the text was written in 539 B.C., Cyrus found himself in what was probably the most dramatic part of his life. He had dared to attack the New Babylonian Empire, his powerful rival for dominance of the Orient, a realm that extended all the way to Palestine. Its capital, the magnificent city of Babylon, crowned by a 91-meter tower, was also a center of knowledge and culture. The empire itself was bristling with weapons.

Nevertheless, the Persian ruler decided to risk attacking the Babylonians. His troops marched down the Tigris River. After attacking the fortified city of Opis and killing all prisoners, they advanced on Babylon.

Babylonian Betrayal

There, barricaded behind an 18-kilometer (11-mile) wall around the city, sat Cyrus' beleaguered enemy: King Nabonid, an old man of 80.

At that very moment, the priests of the god Marduk were committing treason against their own country. Angry over the loss of power they had suffered under their king, they secretly opened the gates and allowed hostile Persian negotiators to enter the city. Nabonid was banished and his son murdered.

Cyrus' Persian Empire

Cyrus' Persian Empire

The conditions for a complete surrender were then hammered out. Cyrus demanded the release of fellow Persians who had been carried off in earlier wars. He also insisted on the return of stolen statues of gods.

These were the passages that the Shah would later reinterpret as a general rejection of slavery. In truth, Cyrus merely freed his own followers.

In compensation for their treacherous services, the priests were given money and estates. In return, they praised Cyrus as a "great" and "just" man and as someone who "saved the entire world from hardship and distress."

Only after all the arrangements had been made did the king enter Babylon, riding in through the blue-glazed Gate of Ishtar. Reeds were spread on the ground at his feet. Then, as is written in line 19 of the Cyrus proclamation, the people were permitted to "kiss his feet."

There is no evidence of moral reforms or humane commandments in the cuneiform document. Assyriologist Schaudig calls it "a brilliant piece of propaganda."

But the legend of this prince of peace had been born, thanks to the wily priests of Babylon. And since it was placed on a pedestal by the UN, it has become even more inflated.

Iran's mullahs have not escaped the Cyrus cult. In mid-June, the British Museum in London announced that it planned to lend the valuable original cylinder to Tehran. It has become an object of Persian national pride.

"The German Bundestag even recently received a petition to have the proclamation exhibited in a glass case at the Reichstag building," says Gallas.

The petition was denied, and yet the distortion of history continues. With its disastrous tribute, the UN gave birth to a seemingly never-ending rumor.

As the saying from the Orient goes: "A fool may throw a stone into a well which a hundred wise men cannot pull out."


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