The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.

                 How Cyrus Saved the Jews pt. II                  

And so Babylon the Great fell without a fight to the armies of the Medes and Persians, but what happened afterward was even more remarkable. Cyrus tells the 

story in his own words 
(presumably) on the famous Cyrus cylinder.  Again, he has certain obvious biases, but there is a lot of truth between the lines.  First, he accuses King Nabonidus of the most dangerous sort of religious perversions, and of abusing his people with forced labor.

Cyrus Frees the Jews in Babylon
J. Fouquet, 15th Cent.

"A weakling was installed as the king of his country; the correct images of the gods were removed from their thrones, imitations were ordered to place upon them... For Ur and the other sacred cities inappropriate rituals [were ordered?]. Daily he did blabber incorrect prayers. He furthermore interrupted in a fiendish way the regular offerings,...The worship of Marduk, the king of the gods, he changed into abomination, daily he used to do evil against Marduk's city... He tormented its inhabitants with corvée-work without relief, he ruined all...” 

Transliteration and translation: F. H. Weissbach, in Die Keilinschriften der Achämeniden (VAB, III), 2 ff. Translations: Ebeling, in AOT, 368 ff., and R. W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament (New York, 1926), pp. 380 ff." 

Click here for the most complete and up-to-date translation of the cylinder text from the British Museum


These are very serious accusations, for the first responsibility of a Babylonian king was to observe the proper rituals at the proper times, and thereby, ensure the continuity of cosmic order in the kingdom.  There was no separation of church and state in ancient Mesopotamia. The king was the chosen intermediary between the gods and his subjects, and it was his duty to keep the gods happy with appropriate ritual. All of civilization depended upon it, and to do otherwise was to court disaster.  

                     Corroborating the Charges                     
The Chronicles of Nabonidus corroborate these charges; that is, if we can assume they were inscribed by an autonomous source.  They contain a detailed annual account of how Nabonidus repeatedly failed to observe the most important of all Babylonian rituals, the New Year festival at the Vernal Equinox. Year after year, ‘the king did not come to Babylon for the ceremonies of the month of Nissan, the god Nabû did not come to Babylon, Bêl/Marduk did not go out of Esagila in procession, and the festival of the New Year was omitted.’ 

No wonder this kingdom did not survive! Cyrus, on the other hand, had more respect for the traditional duties of kingship and as he records in his famous 'Cyrus cylinder', he immediately addressed the most pressing problems:

"When I entered Babylon as a friend and established the seat of government in the place of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord (induced) the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon (to love me) and I daily endeavored to praise him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize (any of the people) of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his (other) sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon (who) against the will of the gods (had/were I abolished) the corvee (yoke) which was against their (social standing). I brought relief to their dilapidated housing, putting an end to their main complaints..."


Although the cylinder is riddled with lacuna and the resulting incomprehensible bits, the meaning is clear enough.  Cyrus was different. He didn't do things the way other conquerors did.  According to Dr. Darius Jahanian,


"What took place after the victory in Babylon was contrary to the standard of the time. Based on the inscriptions of the neighboring countries (Assyrians, Babylonians), it was customary to destroy the vanquished cities, level houses and temples, massacre the people or enslave the population, replace them with snakes, wolves and even carry away the soil to make the land barren. But here, peace and liberty replaced the massacre and slavery, and construction substituted for destruction."

Other contemporary accounts describe how bad life was under the mad rule of Nabonidus.  The following extract is from a verse account of the acts of Nabonidus and Cyrus, which apparently was inscribed by someone sympathetic to the Persian cause:

[As to Nabonidus:] "... law and order are not promulgated by him, he made perish the common people through want, the nobles he killed in war, for the trader he blocked the road.  For the farmer he made rare the[unintelligible], there is no [lacuna], the harvester does not sing the alalu-song any more, he does not fence in any more the arable territory. [lacuna]
He took away their property, scattered their possessions, the [lacuna] he ruined completely, their corpses remaining on a dark place, decaying. 
Their faces became hostile, they do not parade along the wide street, you do not see happiness anymore..

...The inhabitants became troubled. The brick form and the brick basket he imposed upon them. Through the hard work they[lacuna] he killed the inhabitants, women and youngsters included. Their prosperity he brought to an end...”


The author then goes on to describe how Cyrus made everything better:


[lacuna] for the inhabitants of Babylon, Cyrus declared the state of peace. His troops he kept away from Ekur...incense he put on the censer, the regular offerings for the Lord of Lords he ordered increased, he constantly prayed to the gods, prostrated on his face. To act righteously is dear to his heart. 
To repair the city of Babylon he conceived the idea and he himself took up hoe, spade and water basket and began to complete the wall of Babylon. The original plan of Nebuchadnezzar the inhabitants executed with a willing heart. He built the fortifications on the Imgur-Enlil-wall. 
The images of the gods of Babylon, male and female, he returned to their cellas, the gods who had abandoned their chapels he returned to their mansions. Their wrath he appeased, their mind he put at rest, those whose power was at a low he brought back to life..." Translation: A. Leo Oppenheim. From James B. Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament, 1950 Princeton. 

And you can be sure that the following spring, at the vernal equinox, when the time for that most important annual New Year's festival came around, Cyrus did not neglect its observance.  The king did come to Babylon for the ceremonies of the month of Nissan, and the god Nabû came as well. Bêl/Marduk did go out of Esagila in procession, and Cyrus the Great, imperial mastermind, took this occasion to stage his own magnificent coronation, confirming his kingship with the blessing of Marduk (Jupiter/Zeus), the lord of the city. 


It was in commemoration of this sumptuous occasion that Cyrus published his famous 'Cyrus Cylinder.' Within its text, he not only proclaimed his rule, but in stating his goals and intentions towards the people under his command, he showed an historic sense of justice and magnanimity, especially in the context of his times. 

The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum

A Replica of the Cyrus Cylinder has been enshrined in the UN Headquarters
 in commemoration of this important step in the history of Human Rights

Apocalypse Not?