Cyrus the Great, a conqueror or a human rights advocate? 3

Recently an LA local news crossed the wire that I came across: the LA City Council has approved the installation of a bronze statue of Cyrus the Great in LA downtown! Apparently a wealthy Iranian born investor, Ezatollah Delijani, whose family owns several Broadway theaters, will be financing the project. The proposal still has to go through further approvals and the timeline is not set yet. But the idea of this statue in LA should be pleasing to most Iranians. And I think it is a wonderful idea as a tribute to one of the greatest leaders in the history of world civilizations — for more reasons than one.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great, (600 BC – 530 BC), the king of Persia and the founder of the Persian empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, is an important figure in the Iranian history, for more reasons than one. I covered him a bit in the About Iranians page. But in short, Cyrus is considered one of the greatest kings and conquerors by many accounts. During Cyrus’ reign the Persian empire extended from parts of Europe and North Africa to central and southern Asia. He was a great military strategist and a powerful government administrator. But perhaps more importantly, he was an advocate of human rights and racial and religious across his vast empire. In fact he viewed himself more of a liberator than a conqueror. He was way ahead of his time. At one point he declared:

“Today I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate others’ rights.”

Happy about the news of a statue of Cyrus in LA downtown, I shared it on Facebook citing him as “the conqueror and king of ancient Persia”. Philip Grant, a friend who is quite knowledgeable about the Iranian culture, language, and history, commented that:

“Being a conqueror is nothing to be proud of, however magnanimous, you are to the defeated. Cyrus the Great was great for his time, but conquering people has nothing to do with human rights. If only these people invested their energies into bringing about meaningful social change instead of glorifying a long dead imperial past.”

Well said. I totally agree that nowadays being a conqueror is nothing to be proud of and in fact it has negative connotations. There is no doubt that Cyrus the great was a great king and leader. However, being a conqueror might’ve been the ultimate power statement 2,500 years ago, it is nothing to brag about today. Sadly enough though we know that even in the ranks of power in the USA there are people who fancy imperialism and conquering the world.

What I had omitted to cite about Cyrus, was his advocacy of human rights. Cyrus is often remembered and admired not so much as a conqueror but as the one who also declared the first human rights and was proponent of religious and racial tolerance and freedom across the nations and civilizations that he conquered. A replica of his famous cylinder is housed in the United Nations.

Nowadays Iranians remember Cyrus even more, given the dark ages that has cast a shadow across Iran and the region for way too long. I think his remembrance is mostly because of a sense of yearning and longing for freedom and basic human rights than wanting to be a world conqueror. The current leadership in Iran who not only persecutes religious minorities such as Baha’is but also denies basic human rights and freedom to most of its Muslim citizens, should take a lesson or two in Iran’s pre-Islamic history and its leaders such as Cyrus.

In addition to lack of even basic human rights in Iran now, from a nationalistic and patriotic perspective, for us Iranians the decent from a world leader (alas 100s of yrs ago) to a 3rd world nation is also a sore point. Sometimes when I hear talk of our glorious past, I want to ask what we have done in the last 500 years. Iran has pretty much been plagued in mediocrity if not disaster for far too long. Why? Religion, greed (internal and external), wars, weak leadership, nepotism, culture, geography? I am not sure, and this is a whole other can of worms beyond the scope of this short piece. But I suspect many of these have played into our misfortune.

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great Tomb, Pasargdae, by A. Davey

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (aka the Shah) in the extravagant 2,500 year celebration of the Persian empire held in Persepolis in October 1971 in a famous speech in front of the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, (or Pasargad) while apparently he was in tears said, “Cyrus, sleep in peace, for we are awake and we remain to watch over your glorious heritage.” But the Shah was no Cyrus. On the contrary, he was a weak and naive king, though patriotic and nationalistic, who had delusions of being like Cyrus. His rule resulted in not more than a corrupt state and a US-backed dictatorship.

Shah’s oppressive regime and his feared CIA-trained SAVAK (national intelligence and security agency) in support of USA’s anti-communist policies and the cold war with the northern neighbor USSR, imprisoned and tortured thousands of political prisoners for their supposed involvements in a handful of socialist/communist organizations in Iran in the 60s and 70s. Some even got executed. In Shah’s era, you could go to prison for years just for having a copy of Maxim Gorky‘s novel, “Mother”!

As Philip wrote, “I think one of the most disastrous things the Shah ever did was to think of his rule as somehow reincarnating Cyrus the Great’s, leading him to favor grandiose projects, display and ceremony and to act in a very un-Cyrus like way in repressing opposition.”

Shah’s oppressive regime did its own damage and in fact was a catalyst for the 1979 all-out revolution that destroyed his dynasty and sent him to exile, resulting in a short period of relative freedom for all the groups and ideologies — left, right and everything in between. But that short-lived freedom quickly turned into a nightmare as the hardliner clerics took control by eliminating (often murdering) all the opposition and establishing the IRI.

Cyrus needs to wake up and do something about the sad state of affairs in Iran and the misery that most Iranians are now subject to. Or perhaps Philip has a point that we should just leave Cyrus in peace “because thinking this way about the distant past too often ends up in flights of fancy and nostalgia.” We certainly need to be realistic and work towards improving the situation now, instead of reciting how great and glorious our ancestors were over 25 centuries ago.

But doing anything meaningful about the situation in Iran is easier said than done. How can we help bring about a change for the better? If I am a somewhat typical secular, liberal Iranian expat, we occasionally get a jolt of consciousness about all that is going on in Iran, we might share a news about it with others or maybe even write something about it. But then we return to the daily grind. Well, it is time for me to go and check my Facebook and Twitter!

As for Cyrus the Great, regardless of anything else, I think that his legacy is a piece of our history and great past the we should be proud of, remember, and celebrate. In fact October 29th was declared the Day of Cyrus the Great, though it is not widely known and acknowledged. There are numerous references to this if you search for it. Here is a good article on it from Amil Imani. And here is note on that from, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Pasargad archaeological site.

I’d like to thank my friend Philip Grant for his comments that I have used in this piece. Philip is working on his Ph.D. in anthropology at UC Irvine and is well-versed in the Persian language, history and culture.

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3 thoughts on “Cyrus the Great, a conqueror or a human rights advocate?

  • nancy

    Being a conqueror is nothing to be proud of, however after the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, Cyrus himself arrived and proclaimed a general amnesty to all.
    Also, Cyrus the Great issued the decree of liberation to the Jews as he figures in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the patron and deliverer of the Jews. He is mentioned twenty-three times by name and eluded to several times more. In the first year of his reign he decreed that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt and that such Jews as cared to might return to their land for this purpose. he showed his interest in the project by sending back with them the sacred vessels which had been taken from the temple and a considerable sum of money with which to buy building materials.

  • Nyayesh

    Being a conqueror has always been a very appealing and tempting aspect for kings, generals and rulers of ancient and even present time, and wether we like it or not has always been something to be very proud of by ancient and many of contemporary people! What makes Cyrus very different from any other conquerer, like Alexander the great or Napoleon for instance, is his visionary and his methods he uses to keep his conquered lands. It was and still is an unprecedented way of gathering different nations under the same government and keeping all unified for many years to come!