From conqueror to youth icon: who was Cyrus the Great?

Why has a simple stone tomb in south-central Iran, used by authoritarian leaders to legitimise their hold on power, now become a focal point for disaffected youth? Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones explores the changing public image of an ancient Persian emperor

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Shiraz, Iran

In a nondescript spot some 50 miles north-east of the Iranian city of Shiraz, a solitary, blocky structure rises from a gravelly plain. Six steps lead to a simple oblong box, topped with a pitched roof and built of honey-coloured stone. To casual observers, there’s little to suggest this is a site of any great importance. Yet 23 centuries ago Alexander the Great was driven to seek it out after his conquest of Persia – and today the lonely, elegant tomb of Cyrus the Great, built at Pasargadae in his tribal homeland two centuries before Alexander’s visit, is the focus of a different kind of attention.

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As a professor of ancient history, over the past 20 years I have extensively explored the vast and varied landscapes of Iran, discovering its rich history and meeting its hospitable and cultured people. During those two decades I have witnessed many changes in Iranian society – some good, some not so welcome – but, in spite of its many troubles and the hostile image portrayed in western media, it remains a place to which I compulsively return. There are some sites I am compelled to visit on every trip: the glorious Naqsh-e Jahan (‘Image of the World’, known as ‘Half the World’) Square in Isfahan; the impressive 2,500-year-old site of Persepolis near Shiraz, city of roses and nightingales; and that strikingly simple tomb at Pasargadae.

A winged protective deity wearing a crown of horns depicted in bas relief at Pasargadae
A winged protective deity wearing a crown of horns depicted in bas relief at Pasargadae. The carving’s diverse artistic – Egyptian, Assyrian, Elamite, Syrio-Phoenician – reflect the wide empire over which Cyrus ruled.  (DEA / W. BUSS /Getty Images)

Even stripped of the former splendour of its religious enclosure, Cyrus’s elegant funerary monument is a bewitching, atmospheric site. In the late 1990s, I often stood there quite alone, interrupted occasionally by a handful of locals who stopped by to take a quick photo before heading off just as hurriedly, or by a coachload of tourists who, after 20 minutes of frenzy, abandoned the place to silence again. Over the past six years, though, the number of visitors has swelled. The coachloads of tourists have increased exponentially, as has the number of Iranian day-trippers. It’s rare to find a moment’s peace in Pasargadae these days.

Nothing, though, prepared me for the events of 29 October 2016, which I watched unfold on social media. On that day, crowds numbering 15,000–30,000 (precise figures are difficult to come by) swarmed around the tomb’s rectangular platform, almost like pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca. And these crowds were vocal: “Iran is our country!” they roared. “Cyrus is our father! Clerical rule is tyranny!” These are dangerous words in the Islamic Republic – but ones that are, I think, symptomatic of the times.

Remote from the revolution

An interesting fact: around 70% of Iranians are under 40 years old. Iran has a notably young demographic, the result of a government-backed fertility drive following the protracted and devastating Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s. Much of the youth of Iran are feeling increasingly remote from that war and from the Islamic Revolution that changed the DNA of Iran so drastically. The mullahs who rule Iran do not represent the vibrancy of Iran’s young get-up-and-goers, and Islam has little or no appeal to the majority of the youth in the cities and towns. Islam is being displaced, in fact, by a revitalisation of pre-Islamic Iranian identity. The trend towards displays of nationalism is reflected in a spike in pre-Islamic Persian names (Cyrus, Darius, Anahita) for babies, instead of typical Muslim names such as Hussain, Ali and Fatemeh, and in the ever-present faravahar, the Zoroastrian symbol that is sported on jewellery, T-shirts, tattoos and bumper-stickers. The pre-Islamic Persian past has been awakened in contemporary Iranian consciousness, and Iranians are being galvanised to criticise the ruling regime.

The pre-Islamic Persian past has been awakened in Iranian consciousness, galvanising Iranians to criticise the regime

Iran has a rich history stretching back over 2,500 years to the Achaemenid dynasty (559–330 BC). Cyrus the Great and Achaemenid successor kings have for centuries been regarded by Iranians as heroic figures – men who created an empire built on (or so the Iranians believe) tolerance and respect for all. This ‘history’ has provided a fulsome canon of stories on which Iranian national pride is founded. The tales and legends of Islam have a less-firm hold on the Iranian psyche because they were, of course, foreign imports.

A 'faravahar', the ancient Zoroastrian symbol now sported by young Iranians on T-shirts, jewellery and tattoos
A ‘faravahar’, the ancient Zoroastrian symbol now sported by young Iranians on T-shirts, jewellery and tattoos. (Image by ullstein bild/Getty Images)

The historical Cyrus II (born c590–580 BC) was the ruler of the small south-western Persian kingdom of Anshan, a fertile horse-rearing land in the foothills of the Zagros mountains of Iran. Supported by a coalition of Persian tribes, Cyrus marched to the north of Iran to attack the Medes, a tribe that occupied the north of Persia. He then turned his attention to the lands bordering Media, including the powerful kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor (Anatolia). There, Cyrus’s sack of the Greek-speaking city of Sardis enabled the Persian leader to take other important cities along the Ionian coast. By 540 BC, Cyrus was ready to attack the ancient state of Babylonia, and moved his army into Mesopotamia. He entered Babylon on 29 October 539 BC, having already defeated its king, Nabonidus. Cyrus appointed his son, Cambyses, as the city’s regent, though he maintained the status quo by allowing Babylonian officials to continue in their governmental and religious offices.

Much of our knowledge of the fall of Babylon comes from the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, a clay artefact written in Akkadian and placed in the foundations of Babylon’s city wall. Discovered in 1879 in southern Iraq near the sanctuary of Marduk, chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, it has since been housed in the British Museum. Composed on Cyrus’s orders, the text is written from a Babylonian point of view, but as a work of imperial propaganda: the cylinder attempts to legitimise Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon by representing the king as the champion of Marduk. It is a dazzling piece of self-recreation, wherein Cyrus boldly presents the conquest of Mesopotamia as a kind of ‘Operation Babylonian Freedom’. The cylinder stresses how the Babylonians benefited from Cyrus’s ‘liberation’ of their city, and proposes that they should pay him homage. It is important to note that other cities did not fare so well under Cyrus. The citizens of Opis (another ancient Babylonian city near modern Baghdad) were massacred, while the defeated population of Sardis was later deported en masse.

At Pasargadae, Cyrus constructed an empire-in-miniature: a physical statement of Persia’s ever-growing power

In the years following his conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus built a vast international empire stretching from the west coast of Turkey to Afghanistan. And at Pasargadae he constructed an empire-in-miniature in the form of a lavish formal garden – a pairidaêza (from the Greek paradeisos), an earthly paradise planted with flora from across his conquered lands as a physical statement of Persia’s ever-growing imperial power. The complex included palaces and the barrel-vaulted mausoleum in which, when Cyrus died in c530 BC fighting the eastern Massagetae (a tribe from Bactria, now in Afghanistan), he was laid to rest.

Proud heritage

Pre-Islamic Persian history is taught only superficially at schools so, unsurprisingly, Iranians are relatively naïve about the realities of Cyrus’s empire building (bloodshed and all), but it is nevertheless clear that they are deeply proud of their ancient heritage. Successive leaders of Iran have capitalised on this pride, and have used the figure of Cyrus the Great to further their own agendas.

In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, openly and enthusiastically compared himself to Cyrus the Great. He declared 1971 the Year of Cyrus, and celebrated that empire-builder’s legacy with sumptuous, somewhat hubristic festivals at Persepolis and Pasargadae, where he stood to address the ghost of Cyrus in the empty tomb: “Cyrus, great king, Shahanshah, Achaemenid king, king of the land of Iran, from me, Shahanshah of Iran and from my nation, I send greetings… you, the eternal hero of Iranian history, the founder of the oldest monarchy in the world, the great freedom giver of the world, the worthy son of mankind, we send greetings! Cyrus, we have gathered here today at your eternal tomb to tell you: sleep in peace because we are awake and we will always be awake to look after our proud inheritance.”

The shah also lauded Cyrus for having created the first ever bill of human rights. This is a long-held and shared misunderstanding of the text of the Cyrus Cylinder, in which a single line speaks of the invader’s treatment of the inhabitants of the city: “I relieved their weariness and freed them from their service.” It is hardly a cry for freedom. That Cyrus subsequently liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity (and was bestowed with the title ‘messiah’ – God’s anointed – by the prophet Isaiah) and allowed some, though not all, of them to return to their homeland, has augmented his reputation as a champion of human rights. Far from it: Cyrus was as brutal as any other Near Eastern ruler.

Yet the reputation of Cyrus as the creator of the first bill of human rights has stuck. The last shah was keen to be admired and remembered in the same vein, and he used the Cyrus Cylinder as the official icon of his 1971 celebrations, plastering it on bank notes and coins; he even reformed the Iranian calendar such that it aligned with the reign of Cyrus the Great 2,500 years earlier. To show to the world that he was Cyrus reborn, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi gifted a facsimile of the cylinder to the United Nations; to this day it is displayed in a glass case in a lobby in the UN’s headquarters in New York City.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad used Cyrus to appeal to Iranian nationalist sentiment
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Cyrus Cylinder, lent to Iran by the British Museum, following his disputed re-election as president in 2009. Like the shah before him, Ahmadinejad used Cyrus to appeal to Iranian nationalist sentiment. (Image by ATTA KENARE/Getty Images)

More recently, in the wake of 2009’s disputed presidential election, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – hoping to regain a measure of legitimacy – began to recast himself as a nationalist leading a struggle against foreign foes. He achieved something of a diplomatic triumph when the British Museum agreed to lend the original cylinder to the National Museum of Iran for a special exhibition on Cyrus and his legacy. Thousands of Iranians flocked to Tehran for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to view it; despite the fact that it is a Babylonian-made document written in Akkadian and directed towards a Mesopotamian audience, they nevertheless hailed it as an icon of Iranianness.

“Talking about Iran is not talking about a geographical entity or race,” declared President Ahmadinejad, as he pinned a medal of honour on the chest of an actor dressed in a colourful Cyrus the Great costume at a ceremony in Tehran. “Talking about Iran is tantamount to talking about culture, human values, justice, love and sacrifice.”

The Cyrus craze

Iranians may be poorly informed about the realities of ancient Persian empire-building and, indeed, the content of the text of the Cyrus Cylinder, but that has not stopped the Cyrus craze from spreading. Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American journalist, echoed the feelings of many when she wrote in Time magazine in 2007: “The Achaemenid kings [including Cyrus], who built their majestic capital at Persepolis, were exceptionally munificent for their time. They wrote the world’s earliest recorded human rights declaration, and were opposed to slavery.”

Much of this bogus understanding of the document arises from a plethora of fake translations that have cropped up on the internet over many years. One of the most high-profile victims of the cylinder scam was Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi; accepting the award in 2003, she quoted what she believed were Cyrus’s words: “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… 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.” She was reputedly mortified when she discovered her gaffe.

The latest twist in the tale is the mass adoption of the image of Cyrus by activists, a situation that came to a head at his tomb in 2016. The date of that demonstration, 29 October, is now celebrated by Iranians as Cyrus the Great Day, but this is an unofficial holiday not recognised by the government. In fact, the Islamic regime is befuddled, bewildered and angered by its popularity. One venerable mullah, Grand Ayatollah Noori-Hamedani, raged against the Pasargadae celebrations. “The shah used to say: ‘O Cyrus, sleep in peace as we are awake’,” he said. “Now a group of people have gathered around the tomb of Cyrus and they are circumambulating it, and have taken out their handkerchiefs and cry [as they do for the Shiite Imam Hussein]… These [people] are counter-revolutionaries. I am amazed that these people get together around the tomb of Cyrus. Who in power has been so negligent to allow these people to gather? We are in a revolutionary and Islamic country, and this revolution is the continuation of the actions of the Prophet and the Imams.” His sense of fear is almost palpable. Where will this movement lead? Who knows – but it seems to be here to stay.

The young people of Iran have claimed Cyrus as their own, taking him into the streets in their smartphones and tablets

In the past 60 years Cyrus the Great has been used by two regimes to strengthen their power grip. The shah painted the Pahlavi monarchy’s stance as a natural continuation of Cyrus’s policy of tolerance, though in truth Pahlavi rule was anything but tolerant. Ahmadinejad was willing to overlook the fact that Cyrus was a pagan in order to activate a much-needed nationalism, to divert attention away from his disputed election; in fact, he made Cyrus a sort of Shia saint.

Now the young people of Iran have claimed Cyrus as their very own; separating him from shahs and mullahs, they are taking him into the streets in their smartphones and tablets. The myth of Cyrus is swelling, and his cult is growing. Fact is displaced by a need to cast Cyrus as a new liberator. The Iranian use of the Persian past is a profound demonstration that ancient history is not dead: antiquity is alive, and still vital today.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is professor in ancient history at Cardiff University

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This article was taken from issue 14 of BBC World Histories magazine