Falling for Ancient Propaganda UN Treasure Honors Persian Despot

A 2,500-year-old cuneiform document ceremoniously displayed in a glass case at the United Nations in New York is revered as an "ancient declaration of human rights." But in fact, argue researchers, the document was the work of a despot who had his enemies tortured.


Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was planning a record-breaking gala. First he proclaimed the "White Revolution," a land reform program, and then declared himself the "Light of the Aryans." Finally, in October of 1971, he had taken it upon himself to celebrate "2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy." The organizers of the celebration had promised to deliver "the greatest show on earth."

The Shah had 50 opulent tents set up amid the ruins of Persepolis. Invited dignitaries included 69 heads of state and crowned monarchs. The guests consumed 20,000 liters of wine, ate quail eggs with pheasant and gilded caviar. Magnum bottles of Château Lafite circled the tables.

At the high point of the festival, the Shah walked to the grave of Cyrus II who, in the 6th century B.C., had conquered more than 5 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles) of land in a long and bloody war.

Critics at the time complained that $100 million (€63 million) was a lot of money to spend celebrating the ancient Persian king. "Should I serve heads of state bread and radishes instead?" was the Shah's brusque rejoinder.

Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, still in exile at the time, was also quick to issue his scathing criticism: "The crimes committed by Iranian kings have blackened the pages of history books."

But the Shah knew better. Cyrus, he announced, was a very special man: noble and filled with love and kindness. The Shah insisted that Cyrus was the first to establish a right to "freedom of opinion."^

'Ancient Declaration of Human Rights'

Pahlevi also ensured that his view of history would be taken to the United Nations. On Oct. 14, just as the party in Persepolis was in full swing, his twin sister walked into the United Nations building in New York, where she handed a copy of a cuneiform document, about the size of a rolling pin, to then Secretary General Sithu U Thant. Thant thanked her for the "historic gift" and promptly praised it as an "ancient declaration of human rights."

Suddenly even the UN secretary-general was insisting that Cyrus "wanted peace," and that the Persian king had "shown the wisdom to respect other civilizations."

Then Thant had the clay cylinder (which contains a supposedly particularly humane decree by Cyrus II dated 539 B.C.) displayed in a glass case in the main UN building. And there it continues to lie today, directly adjacent to a copy of the world's oldest peace treaty.

Those were grand gestures and grand words, but in the end it was nothing but a hoax that the UN had fallen for. Contrary to the Shah's claims, the cuneiform degree was "propaganda," explains Josef Wiesehöfer, a scholar of ancient history at the University of Kiel in the northern Germany. "The notion that Cyrus introduced concepts of human rights is nonsense."

Hanspeter Schaudig, an Assyriologist at the University of Heidelberg in the southwestern Germany, says that he too would be hard-pressed to see the ancient king as a pioneer when it comes to equality and human dignity. Indeed, Cyrus demanded that his subjects kiss his feet.

The ruler was responsible for a 30-year war that consumed the Orient and forced millions to pay heavy taxes. Anyone who refused stood to have his nose and ears cut off. Those sentenced to death were buried up to their heads in sand, left to be finished off by the sun.

Did the UN simply believe this historical lie -- concocted by the Shah -- without any further examination?

'The UN Made a Serious Mistake'

Art historian Klaus Gallas, who is preparing a German-Iranian cultural festival to take place in Weimar next summer, has now brought the matter to the public's attention. During his preparations for the festival he discovered the inconsistencies between the Shah's claims and the Cyrus decree. "The UN made a serious mistake," says Gallas.

The limestone tomb at Pasargadae of King Cyrus the Great.

The limestone tomb at Pasargadae of King Cyrus the Great.

Despite having been contacted by SPIEGEL several times, the organization has declined to comment on the incident. Indeed, the UN Information Service in Vienna continues to insist that many still consider the cuneiform cylinder from the Orient to be the "first human rights document."

The aftermath of the hoax has been disastrous. Even German schoolbooks describe the ancient Persian king as a pioneer of humane policies. According to a forged translation on the Internet, Cyrus even supported a minimum wage and right to asylum.

"Slavery must be abolished throughout the world," the fake translation reads. "Every country shall decide for itself whether or not it wants my leadership."

Even Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was taken in by the hoax. "I am an Iranian. A descendant of Cyrus the Great," she said in her speech in Oslo. "The very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that ... he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it."

The experts are now stunned at this example of a rumor gone wild.

If one thing is clear, it is that the figure at the center of this hoax radically shook the ancient Orient like no other ruler. With what German scholar Wiesehöfer calls "military strokes of genius," Cyrus advanced with his armies to India and to the Egyptian border. He is considered the creator of a new kind of country. At the height of his power, he was the ruler of a magnificent empire bursting with prosperity.

But it all began far more modestly. Born the son of an insignificant minor king in what is today southwestern Iran, the young man mounted the throne in 559 B.C.

Even in antiquity, bizarre legends were associated with the king. According to one of them, Cyrus grew up in the wild and was nursed by a female dog. There are no contemporary images of him.

His neighbors to the west soon felt the brunt of this man's determination. After conquering the neighboring Elamite people, he attacked the Median Empire in 550 B.C. with his army's fast combat chariots and soldiers dressed in bronze armor.

After that, the upstart king invaded Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of Greeks lived in colonies. Well-to-do citizens from Priene were enslaved.


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