The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.

The Cyrus Cylinder Tour: Impact & Implications

The Cyrus Cylinder toured the US in 2013, and was displayed coast-to-coast in 5 major museums, along with an exhibition chronicling the major innovations of Cyrus the Great's Persian Empire.  This timely tour inspired much discussion and reflection on the cylinder's impact on both our history and our future.  Perhaps it can also inspire us to revisit and reassess the ancient alliance and timeless ties between the nations of Israel/Judea and Iran/Persia. 

From the Cyrus Cylinder Tour Site...

Cyrus Cylinder Tour 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder is a 2600-year old object of modern importance, and a symbol of multi-culturalism, tolerance, diversity, and human rights.  People from different cultures, backgrounds, and religions take pride in the Cyrus Cylinder, and in that sense the cylinder is beyond a Persian document and artifact. It is one of the key documents portraying the history of Middle East, one of the most important and turbulent parts of the world today.

It talks about how 2600 years ago a ruler decided to treat people with tolerance, and set them free to go back to their own faith, to their own beliefs, and to their own home. A ruler whose teachings were a source of inspiration to the Founding Fathers of the United States: Thomas Jefferson had two personal copies of Cyropaedia.

Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art:

“For thousands of years, philosophers viewed Cyrus the Great as the paragon of the ‘Virtuous Ruler,’ and the Bible refers to him as ‘the anointed’ of the Lord, crediting him with permitting Jews to rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This magnanimous image inspired even the Founding Fathers of the United States. One of the goals of this exhibition is to encourage us to reflect that relations between Persians and Jews have not always been marked by the discord that disfigures the political map of the Near East today.

In Honor of the Cyrus Cylinder Tour:
Excerpts from Chapter 4  'Empire of the Soul' 

The Masters of Religious Propaganda

Even though the Persians fielded the mightiest armies on earth, their greatest conquests lay in the hearts and minds of subject peoples. History teaches an important lesson in the fact that Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great (539 BCE), and Egypt to Darius the Great (c. 518 BCE), with only token resistance, after the skillful onslaught of Persian propaganda. 

As Berquist describes it, "Like Cyrus before him, Darius used religion and native traditions to construct an image of the Persian emperor as beneficent ruler, causing significant portions of the local population to ally themselves with Persia without military expenditures." (1995, pg. 57)

     Upon entering Babylon and Egypt, both Cyrus and Darius were proclaimed the rightful ruler, chosen by the traditional gods. Olmstead remarked on how the famous oracles of Apollo, and their priests, came over to the Persian cause: "...the fact remains that both Apollo of Miletus and Apollo of Delphi for the next half-century remained consistent friends of the Persians." 1

      The two emperors claimed to be restoring the ancient, ancestral ways, in contrast to their vanquished predecessors.2 They were actually establishing something quite new and different, but historiography worked to their advantage. Of course it also helped that their massive armies were waiting in the wings; but contemporary warlords could still learn a lot from these two.

Cyrus the Great built skillful alliances with various interest groups in Babylon long before his troops ever entered the city.  One of his more strategic moves was to enlist the support of the priests of Marduk, the traditional chief god of Babylon.  Nabonidus, the ruling Chaldean king, had alienated this powerful priesthood, and proved to be something of a religious dabbler, more intent upon advancing the cult of the moon god, Sin, over Marduk.  

Cyrus seized the opportunity this presented.

Portraying himself as the friend of Marduk, and as the one chosen by the gods to liberate Babylon from the sacrilegious outrages of mad Nabonidus, Cyrus and his troops were welcomed into the great city.3 By promoting and restoring the traditional religion, and visibly participating in the major festivals and rituals, Cyrus redirected all religious attention his way; fulfilling and remaking the expectations of the priesthood and the faithful at one and the same time.

Cyrus and Darius have been described as religious chameleons; posing as faithful adherents to any set of beliefs that would advance the causes of their empire.  Of course, there are other ways to interpret this behavior, which Thomas M. Bolin describes as "a continual interplay between political motives couched in religious terms and religion used for political ends."4

These two leaders both possessed a remarkably universal perspective on religion and politics; a grand, overarching worldview into which other nations and their gods were easily slotted into place. Tom Thompson has aptly termed it "Inclusive Monotheism,"5 as opposed to the later, "exclusive monotheism" of Judeo-Christianity. This inclusive, all-encompassing ideology led the Persians to conquer and stitch together the diverse nations of the Ancient World into one; embracing all the fractured pantheons of polytheism into a greater global vision of the first truly universal world empire. 

                  The God of Heaven                       

The High God of the Persians, Ahura Mazda, like the emperors, reigned supreme over heaven and earth, but also allowed to each his own. While plainly distinguishing their universal god of spirit from the tribal, regional, and lesser local deities, the Persians initially accepted these other ‘gods’ as manifestations of, or ‘regional refractions’6 of their ‘god of heaven’.

We know very little about Cyrus’s personal beliefs. The evidence is simply lacking. The fact that he had a tomb is evidence that he did not follow the Magi’s unique funerary rituals, while the theological language of the Cyrus Cylinder seems directed at reassuring the priests of Marduk and their traditional Babylonian coreligionists.

However, Darius’s own inscriptions repeatedly declare his personal dedication to Ahura Mazda. In his official biography, he credits Ahura Mazda for all his success; or to be more specific, ‘Ahura Mazda and all the gods.’7 By repeatedly using this phrase, he gives the impression of a new kind of hierarchy; not another Canaanite Divine Council, but something more along the lines of a theological Persian Empire, complete with Divine satrapies. Ahura Mazda was the universal, heavenly creator God, ruling over all, like the Emperor, while ‘all the gods,’ the local deities, had more limited duties in respect of their traditional tribes or regions. These local deities had their proper place in the grand scheme, but they could no more aspire to be GOD, or Ahura Mazda, than the governor of Yehud could hope to be Emperor.

To the extent that the local deities maintained and promoted the good works of Ahura Mazda; protecting the Truth, resisting the Lie, and demonstrating loyalty to the Empire, then they were participating in the grand plan to increase good and destroy evil and all creation would benefit over time. On the other hand, if the local deities and their religious followers did evil and told Lies, especially against the Empire, then they had obviously gone over to the dark side, and like snakes and scorpions, warranted extermination. Consequently, we find the Persians both restoring temples throughout their realm, and destroying temples, even ones they had previously restored. The bottom line was the good behavior of the priests; in other words, their loyalty to the Empire. This was as true in Yehud as anywhere else. 

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