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Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great


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Who was Cyrus in the Bible?

Cyrus is a king mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible and is identified as Cyrus the Great (also Cyrus II or Cyrus the Elder) who reigned over Persia between 539&mdash530 BC. This pagan king is important in Jewish history because it was under his rule that Jews were first allowed to return to Israel after 70 years of captivity.

In one of the most amazing prophecies of the Bible, the Lord revealed Cyrus’s decree to free the Jews to Isaiah. One hundred fifty years before Cyrus lived, the prophet calls him by name and gives details of Cyrus’ benevolence to the Jews: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him . . . ‘I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me’” (Isaiah 45:1, 4 see also 41:2-25 42:6). Evincing His sovereignty over all nations, God says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please” (Isaiah 44:28).

Cyrus’s decree releasing the Jewish people, in fulfillment of prophecy, is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:22&ndash23: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.”’” Other Old Testament books that mention Cyrus include Ezra and Daniel.

King Cyrus actively assisted the Jews in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. Cyrus restored the temple treasures to Jerusalem and allowed building expenses to be paid from the royal treasury (Ezra 1:4&ndash11 6:4&ndash5). Cyrus’s beneficence helped to restart the temple worship practices that had languished during the 70 years of the Jews’ captivity. Some commentators point to Cyrus’s decree to rebuild Jerusalem as the official beginning of Judaism.

Among the Jews deported from Judah and later placed under the rule of Cyrus include the prophet Daniel. In fact, we are told Daniel served until at least the third year of King Cyrus, approximately 536 BC (Daniel 10:1). That being the case, Daniel likely had some personal involvement in the decree that was made in support of the Jews. The historian Josephus says that Cyrus was informed of the biblical prophecies written about him (Antiquities of the Jews, XI.1.2). The natural person to have shown Cyrus the scrolls was Daniel, a high-ranking official in Persia (Daniel 6:28).

Besides his dealings with the Jews, Cyrus is known for his advancement of human rights, his brilliant military strategy, and his bridging of Eastern and Western cultures. He was a king of tremendous influence and a person God used to help fulfill an important Old Testament prophecy. God’s use of Cyrus as a “shepherd” for His people illustrates the truth of Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”


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

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Published: April 16, 2020 at 12:25 pm

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


Dream Visions and Conflicting Chronicles

The Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus, in his first year as ruler (around 556 or 555 BCE), states in his chronicle that he had a dream given to him by the god Marduk:

At the beginning of my lasting kingship they (the great gods) showed me a vision in a dream…. Marduk said to me, ‘The Umman-manda of whom thou speakest, he, his land, and the kings who go at his side, will not exist for much longer. At the beginning of the third year, Cyrus, king of Anshan, his youthful servant, will come forth. With his few forces he will rout the numerous forces of the Umman-manda. He will capture Astyages, the king of the Umman-manda, and will take him prisoner to his country.

Nabonidus had obviously received intelligence reports that Cyrus intended to rebel and declare independence from Astyages. Notice that in the inscription Nabonidus speaks of the Umman-manda as a burden to his own kingdom. However, on the flipside, his dreams were hope and fear of the unknown. Nabonidus was familiar with Astyages but Cyrus was still a mystery.

In Nabonidus seventh year, he had this to say about the conflict between Cyrus and Astyages:

[Astyages] mobilized [his army] and he marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, to conquer…. the army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. They handed him over to Cyrus […]. Cyrus marched toward Ecbatana, the royal city. Silver, gold, goods, property, […] which he seized as booty [from] Ecbatana, he conveyed to Ansan. The goods [and] property of the army of […].

This inscription paints a very different story than that of Herodotus. The difference is Astyages was the one who invaded Anshan to put down the rebellion, but in turn, his army rebelled and handed him over to Cyrus. However, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong. It is just the opposite as to what happened, since Herodotus says Cyrus invaded Media which is partially right—but only after the battle and imprisonment of Astyages did Cyrus march on Media to take the Umman-manda capital, Ecbatana.

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief ( Public Domain )

One must not forget that this was not the end of the war. Even though Astyages was now a prisoner, there were still three more years of bloodshed in store which would not end until around 550 BCE.

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BIBLE HISTORY: Cyrus the Great, the Founder of the Persian Empire and the Conqueror of Babylon

The son of the earlier Cambyses, of the royal race of the Achemenians. His genealogy, as given by himself, is as follows: “I am Cyrus, king of the host, the great king, the mighty king, king of Tindir (Babylon), king of the land of Sumeru and Akkadu, king of the four regions, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city Ansan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, king of the city Ansan, great-grandson of Sispis (Teispes), the great king, king of the city Ansan, the all-enduring royal seed whose sovereignty Bel and Nebo love,” etc. (WAI, V, plural 35, 20-22).

As, in the Babylonian inscriptions, Assan (Ansan, Anzan) is explained as Elam–the city was, in fact, the capital of that country–it is probable that Cyrus’ name was Elamite but the meaning is doubtful. The Greek etymology connecting it with khor, “the sun” in Persian, may therefore be rejected. According to Strabo, he was at first called Agradates, the name by which he was universally known being taken from that of the river Cyrus. This, however, is more likely to have been the reason why his grandfather (after whom he was probably named) was called Cyrus.

Several versions of his birth and rise to power are recorded. Herodotus (i.95) mentions three. In that which he quotes (i.107 ff), it is said that Mandane was the daughter of the Median king Astyages, who, in consequence of a dream which he had had, foretelling the ultimate triumph of her son over his dynasty, gave her in marriage to a Persian named Cambyses, who was not one of his peers. A second dream caused him to watch for her expected offspring, and when Cyrus came into the world Astyages delivered the child to his relative, Harpagus, with orders to destroy it. Being Unwilling to do this, he handed the infant to a Shepherd named Mitradates, who, his wife having brought forth a still-born child, consented to spare the life of the infant Cyrus. Later on, in consequence of his imperious acts, Cyrus was recognized by Astyages, who came to learn the whole story, and spared him because, having once been made king by his companions in play, the Magians held the predictions concerning his ultimate royal state to have been fulfilled. The vengeance taken by Astyages upon Harpagus for his apparent disobedience to orders is well known: his son was slain, and a portion, disguised, given him to eat. Though filled with grief, Harpagus concealed his feelings, and departed with the remains of his son’s body and Cyrus, in due course, was sent to stay with his parents, Cambyses and Mandane. Later on, Harpagus persuaded Cyrus to induce the Persians to revolt, and Astyages having blindly appointed Harpagus commander-in-chief of the Median army, the last-named went over to the side of Cyrus. The result was an easy victory for the latter, but Astyages took care to impale the Magians who had advised him to spare his grandson. Having gathered another, but smaller, army, he took the field in person but was defeated and captured. Cyrus, however, who became king of Media as well as of Persia, treated him honorably and well.

According to Xenophon, Cyropedia i. section 2, Cambyses, the father of Cyrus, was king of Persia. (NOTE: He may have added Persia to his dominion, but according to Cyrus himself, he was king of Ansan or Elam.) Until his 12th year, Cyrus was educated in Persia, when he was sent for, with his mother, by Astyages, to whom he at once manifested much affection. Astyages is said to have been succeeded by his son Cyaxares, and Cyrus then became his commander-in-chief, subduing, among others, the Lydians. He twice defeated the Assyrians (= Babylonians), his final conquest of the country being while the Median king was still alive. As, however, the Cyropedia is a romance, the historical details are not of any great value.

Nicolaus of Damascus describes Cyrus as the son of a Mardian bandit named Atradates, his mother’s name being Argoste. While in service in the palace of Astyages, he was adopted by Artembarks, cupbearer, and thus obtained prominence. Cyrus now made his bandit-father satrap of Persia, and, with base ingratitude, plotted against his king and benefactor. The preparations for a revolt having been made, he and his general Oibaras were victorious at Hyrba, but were defeated at Parsagadae, where his father Atradates was captured and later on died. Cyrus now took refuge in his mountain home, but the taunts of the women sent him and his helpers forth again, this time to victory and dominion.

Ctesias also states that there was no relationship between Cyrus and Astyages (Astyigas), who, when Cyrus conquered Media, fled to Ecbatana, and was there hidden by his daughter Amytis, and Spitamas her husband. Had not Astyages yielded, Cyrus, it is said, would have tortured them, with their children. Cyrus afterward liberated Astyages, and married his daughter Amytis, whose husband he had put to death for telling a falsehood. The Bactrians are said to have been so satisfied at the reconciliation of Cyrus with Astyages and his daughter, that they voluntarily submitted. Cyrus is said by Ctesias to have been taken prisoner by the Sacae, but he was ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Derbices, assisted by the Indians.

In the midst of so much uncertainty, it is a relief to turn to the contemporary documents of the Babylonians, which, though they do not speak of Cyrus’ youth in detail and refer only to other periods of his career in which they were more immediately interested, may nevertheless, being contemporary, be held to have an altogether special authority. According to the inscriptions, the conflict with Astyages took place in 549 BC. From the cylinder of Nabonidus we learn that the Medes had been very successful in their warlike operations, and had gone even as far afield as Haran, which they had besieged. The Babylonian King Nabonidus desired to carry out the instructions of Merodach, revealed in a dream, to restore the temple of Sin, the Moon-god, in that city. This, however, in consequence of the siege, he could not do, and it was revealed to him in a dream that the power of Astyages would be overthrown at the end of three years, which happened as predicted. “They (the gods Sin and Merodach) then caused Cyrus, king of Anzan, his (Merodach’s) young servant, with his little army, to rise up against him (the Median) he destroyed the extensive Umman-manda (Medes), Istuwegu (Astyages), king of the Medes, he captured, and took (him) prisoner to his (own) land.” The account of this engagement in the Babylonian Chronicle (which is, perhaps, Cyrus’ own), is as follows: “(Astyages) gathered his army, and went against Cyrus, king of Ansan, to capture him, and (as for) Astyages, his army revolted against him and took him, and gave him to Cyrus.

Cyrus went to the land of Ecbatana, his royal city. He carried off from Ecbatana silver, gold, furniture, merchandise, and took to the land of Ansan the furniture and merchandise which he had captured.”

The above is the entry for the 6th year of Nabonidus, which corresponds with 549 BC and it will be noticed that he is here called “king of Ansan.” The next reference to Cyrus in the Babylonian Chronicle is the entry for Nabonidus’ 9th year (546 BC), where it is stated that “Cyrus, king of the land of Parsu (Persia) gathered his army, and crossed the Tigris below Arbela,” and in the following month (Iyyar) entered the land of Is- …., where someone seems to have taken a bribe, garrisoned the place, and afterward a king ruled there. The passage, however, is imperfect, and therefore obscure, but we may, perhaps, see therein some preparatory move on the part of Cyrus to obtain possession of the tract over which Nabonidus claimed dominion. The next year (545 BC) there seems to have been another move on the part of the Persians, for the Elamite governor (?) is referred to, and had apparently some dealings with the governor of Erech. All this time things seem to have been the same in Babylonia, the king’s son (he is not named, but apparently Belshazzar is meant) and the soldiers remaining in Akkad (possibly used in the old sense of the word, to indicate the district around Sippar), where it was seemingly expected that the main attack would be delivered. The reference to the governor of Erech might imply that some conspiracy was on foot more to the south–a movement of which the native authorities possibly remained in ignorance.

After a gap which leaves four years unaccounted for, we have traces of four lines which mention the goddess Ishtar of Erech, and the gods of the land of Par …. (?Persia) are referred to. After this comes the long entry, which, though the date is broken away, must refer to the 17th year of Nabonidus. A royal visit to a temple is referred to, and there is mention of a revolt. Certain religious ceremonies were then performed, and others omitted. In the month Tammuz, Cyrus seems to have fought a battle in Opis, and succeeded in attacking the army of Akkad situated on the Tigris. On the 14th of the month, Sippar was taken without fighting, and Nabonidus fled. On the 16th Ugbaru (Gobryas) governor of Media, entered Babylon, with the army of Cyrus, without fighting, and there Nabonidus was captured with his followers. At this time E-saggil and the temples of the land seem to have been closed, possibly to prevent the followers of Nabonidus from taking sanctuary there, or else to prevent plotters from coming forth and on the 3rd of Marcheswan (October), Cyrus entered Babylon. “Crowds collected before him, proposing peace for the city Cyrus, command the peace of Babylon, all of it.” Gobryas, his vice-regent, then appointed governors in Babylon, and the gods whom Nabonidus had taken down to Babylon, were returned to their shrines. On the night of the 11th of Marcheswan, Ugbaru went against (some part of Babylon), and the son of the king died and there was mourning for him from the 27th of Adar to the 3rd of Nisan (six days). There is some doubt as to whether the text speaks of the king or the son of the king, but as there is a record that Nabonidus was exiled to Carmania, it would seem most likely that the death of Belshazzar “in the night” is here referred to. The day after the completion of the mourning (the 4th of Nisan), Cambyses, son of Cyrus, performed ceremonies in the temple E-nig-had-kalamma, probably in connection with the new year’s festival, for which Cyrus had probably timed his arrival at Babylon. According to Herodotus (i.191), Babylon’ was taken during a festival, agreeing with Dan. 5:1 ff.

The other inscription of Cyrus, discovered by Mr. H. Rassam at Babylon, is a kind of proclamation justifying his seizure of the crown. He states that the gods (of the various cities of Babylonia) forsook their dwellings in anger that he (Nabonidus) had made them enter within Su-anna (Babylon). Merodach, the chief divinity of Babylon, sought also a just king, the desire of his heart, whose hand he might hold–Cyrus, king of Ansan, he called his title–to all the kingdoms together (his) name was proclaimed.

The glory of Cyrus’ conquests probably appealed to the Babylonians, for Cyrus next states that Merodach placed the whole of the troops of Qutu (Media) under his feet, and the whole of the troops of the Manda (barbarians and mercenaries). He also caused his hands to hold the people of the dark head (Asiatics, including the Babylonians)–in righteousness and justice he cared for them. He commanded that he should go to his city Babylon and walked by his side like a friend and a companion–without fighting and battle Merodach caused him to enter Su-anna. By his high command, the kings of every region from the upper sea to the lower sea (the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf), the kings of the Amorites, and the dwellers in tents, brought their valuable tribute and kissed his feet within Su-anna (Babylon). From Nineveh(?), the city Assur, Susa, Agade, the land of Esnunnak, Zamban, Me-Turnu, and Deru, to the borders of Media, the gods inhabiting them were returned to their shrines, and all the people were collected and sent back to their dwellings. He finishes by soliciting the prayers of the gods to Bel and Nebo for length of days and happiness, asking them also to appeal to Merodach on behalf of Cyrus “his worshipper,” and his son Cambyses.

Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos,

Inscriptions. The famous cylinder of Cyrus found by Hormuzd Rassam in the nineteenth century is in remarkable agreement with the royal edict as set forth in the Bible. “From … Ashur and Susa, Agade, Ashnunnak, Zamban, Meturnu, Deri, with the territory of the land of Gutium, the cities on the other side of the Tigris, whose sites were of ancient found—the gods, who dwell in them, I brought back to their places and caused them to dwell in a habitation for all time. All their inhabitants I collected and restored them to their dwelling places … may all the gods whom I brought into their cities pray daily before Bel and Nabu for long life for me” (R. W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament [1912], p. 383). This royal edict shows that Cyrus reversed the inhumane policy of displacing whole populations, as practiced by Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors. Thus his clemency and religious toleration with regard to the Jewish captives are readily understood. Further, it is clear how the Hebrew prophet sang of Cyrus as the deliverer whom Jehovah would raise up (Isa. 45:1–4). Although the Hebrew prophet spoke of the great conqueror as anointed by the Lord for the particular task of restoring the Jewish captives, Cyrus claimed to be commissioned by the god Marduk. The famous inscription of the victor, preserved on a clay cylinder, contains the amazing story of triumphs of one who plainly saw himself as a man of destiny and gives background to the prophetic message of the Hebrew seer. “Marduk … sought a righteous prince, after his own heart, whom he took by the hand, Cyrus, king of Anshan, he called by name, to lordship over the whole world he appointed him … to his city Babylon he caused him to go … his numerous troops in number unknown, like the water of a river, marched armed at his side. Without battle and conflict he permitted him to enter Babylon. He spared his city Babylon a calamity. Nabunaid, the king, who did not fear him, he delivered into his hand” (Rogers, op. cit., p. 381). [1]

It was probably between the defeat of Astyages and the capture of Babylon that Cyrus defeated Croesus and conquered Lydia. After preparing to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor, he returned to Ecbatana, taking Croesus with him. The states which had formed the Lydian empire, however, at once revolted, and had again to be reduced to submission, this time by Harpagus, his faithful general, after a determined resistance. It was at this period that Cyrus subdued the nations of Upper Asia, his next objective being Babylonia (section 9 and the two preceding paragraphs). In this connection it is noteworthy that, in the Babylonian official account, there is no mention of his engineering works preparatory to the taking of Babylon–the turning of the waters of the Gyndes into a number of channels in order to cross (Herod. i.189) the siege of Babylon, long and difficult, and the final capture of the city by changing the course of the Euphrates, enabling his army to enter by the bed of the river’ (Herodotus i.190-91). There may be some foundation for this statement, but if so, the king did not boast of it–perhaps because it did not entail any real labor, for the irrigation works already in existence may have been nearly sufficient for the purpose. It seems likely that the conquest of Babylon opened the way for other military exploits. Herodotus states that he next attacked the Massagetae, who were located beyond the Araxes.

One-third of their army was defeated, and the son of Tomyris, the queen, captured by a stratagem but on being freed from his bonds, he committed suicide. In another exceedingly fierce battle which followed, the Persian army was destroyed, and Cyrus himself brought his life to an end there, after a reign of 29 years. (He had ruled over Media for 11, and over Babylonia (and Assyria) for 9 years.) According to the Babylonian contract-tablets, Cambyses, his son, was associated with him on the throne during the first portion of his 1st year of rule in Babylon.

According to Ctesias, Cyrus made war with the Bactrians and the Sacae, but was taken prisoner by the latter, and was afterward ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Berbices. Diodorus agrees, in the main, with Herodotus, but relates that Cyrus was captured by the Scythian queen (apparently Tomyris), who crucified or impaled him.

It is strange that, in the case of such a celebrated ruler as Cyrus, nothing certain is known as to the manner of his death. The accounts which have come down to us seem to make it certain that he was killed in battle with some enemy, but the statements concerning his end are conflicting. This absence of any account of his death from a trustworthy source implies that Herodotus is right in indicating a terrible disaster to the Persian arms, and it is therefore probable that he fell on the field of battle–perhaps in conflict with the Massagetae, as Herodotus states. Supposing that only a few of the Persian army escaped, it may be that not one of those who saw him fall lived to tell the tale, and the world was dependent on the more or less trustworthy statements which the Massagetae made.

That he was considered to be a personage of noble character is clear from all that has come down to us concerning him, the most noteworthy being Xenophon’s Cyropedia and Institution of Cyrus. The Babylonian inscriptions do not reproduce Babylonian opinion, but the fact that on the occasion of the siege of Babylon the people trusted to his honor and came forth asking peace for the city (apparently with every confidence that their request would be granted) and that the Babylonians, as a whole, were contented under his rule, may be regarded as tacit confirmation. Nabonidus, before the invasion of his territory by the Persian forces, was evidently well disposed toward him, and looked upon him, as we have seen, as “the young servant of Merodach,” the patron deity of Babylon.

It is not altogether clear, however, why the Babylonians submitted to him with so little resistance–their inscriptions contain no indication that they had a real reason to be dissatisfied with the rule of Nabonidus–he seems to have been simply regarded as somewhat unorthodox in his worship of the gods but could they expect an alien, of a different religion, to be better in that respect? Dissatisfaction on the part of the Babylonian priesthood was undoubtedly at the bottom of their discontent, however, and may be held to supply a sufficient reason, though it does not redound to the credit of Babylonian patriotism. It has been said that the success of Cyrus was in part due to the aid given him by the Jews, who, recognizing him as a monotheist like themselves, gave him more than mere sympathy but it is probable that he could never have conquered Babylonia had not the priests, as indicated by their own records, spread discontent among the people. It is doubtful whether we may attribute a higher motive to the priesthood, though that is not altogether impossible. The inner teaching of the Babylonian polytheistic faith was, as is now well known, monotheistic, and there may have been, among the priests, a desire to have a ruler holding that to be the true faith, and also not so inclined as Nabonidus to run counter to the people’s (and the priests’) prejudices. Jewish influence would, in some measure, account for this.

If the Jews thought that they would be more sympathetically treated under Cyrus’ rule, they were not disappointed. It was he who gave orders for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (2Ch 36:23 Ezra 1:2 5:13 6:3), restored the vessels of the House of Jehovah which Nebuchadnezzar had taken away (Ezra 1:7), and provided funds to bring cedar trees from Lebanon (Ezra 3:7). But he also restored the temples of the Babylonians and brought back the images of the gods to their shrines. Nevertheless, the Jews evidently felt that the favors he granted them showed sympathy for them, and this it probably was which caused Isaiah (Isa. 44:28 compare Rom. 4:17) to see in him a “shepherd” of Jehovah, and an anointed king (Messiah, to Christo mou, Isa. 45:1, 2, 5)–a title suggesting to later writers that he was a type of Christ.

God Initiates His Redemptive Program through Cyrus (44:24–45:25). Identifying Himself as the sovereign Creator, who alone controls the events of history, the Lord announced that He would use Cyrus the Persian to restore His people to the land and rebuild the ruined cities. A commissioning account follows, in which the Lord promised Cyrus military success in order that he, and eventually the whole world, might recognize the incomparability of Israel’s God. The mention of Cyrus by name is startling since this ruler did not come on the scene until the sixth century b.c., over a hundred years after Isaiah died. However, such a precise prediction is certainly consistent with the theme of God’s ability to predict and fulfill (see 44:26).

Though God had great plans for His exiled people, some grumbled about their condition and questioned God’s ways. The Lord reminded such individuals that they had no right to question their Creator’s sovereign decisions. To do so would be as absurd as a piece of pottery criticizing the potter who forms it.

The Lord reiterated His plan to use Cyrus as His instrument of redemption. Israel would return from Babylon and rebuild Jerusalem. Foreigners would recognize Israel’s privileged position and the incomparability of Israel’s God.

Once more declaring His sovereignty and superiority to the pagan gods, the Lord exhorted all nations to turn to Him for salvation. It is wise to submit to God now, for He has issued an unchangeable decree that all will someday bow before Him and acknowledge His sovereignty.

Exhorting Israel in Light of Babylon’s Fall (46:1–48:22). Here announcements of Babylon’s fall are coupled with exhortations to the exiles.

Babylon’s idols would be carried away into captivity, unable to rescue themselves, let alone their worshipers. These useless idols were stationary and a burden to the animals that carried them. In contrast, God had always been active in Israel’s history and had, as it were, carried His people. He urged those exiles who remained rebellious in spirit to recall His past deeds and to recognize His sovereign hand at work in the career of Cyrus. For those who were willing to trust His promises, a new era was approaching. [2]

From Persia we do not get any help as to his character, nor as to the estimation in which he was held. His only inscription extant is above his idealized bas-relief at Murghab, where he simply writes: “I am Cyrus, the Achaemenian.” The stone shows Cyrus standing, looking to the right, draped in a fringed garment resembling those worn by the ancient Babylonians, reaching to the feet. His hair is combed back in the Persian style, and upon his head is an elaborate Egyptian crown, two horns extending to front and back, with a uraeus serpent rising from each end, and between the serpents three vase-like objects, with discs at their bases and summits, and serrated leaves between. There is no doubt that this crown is symbolical of his dominion over Egypt, the three vase-like objects being modifications of the triple helmet-crown of the Egyptian deities. The king is represented as four-winged in the Assyro-Babylonian style, probably as a claim to divinity in their hierarchy as well as to dominion in the lands of Merodach and Assur. In his right hand, which is raised to the level of his shoulder, he holds a kind of scepter seemingly terminating in a bird’s head–in all probability also a symbol of Babylonian dominion, though the emblem of the Babylonian cities of the South was most commonly a bird with wings displayed.

Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos,

Conquests. Cyrus II extended his conquests with lightninglike rapidity, defeating Croesus, king of Lydia c. 546 B.C. Babylon fell to him in 539 B.C. Thus he laid the foundations for the vast Persian Empire under whose dominion Judea was to remain a province for the next two centuries. Cyrus established his capital at Pasargadae in the land of Parsa. On a ruined palace there the repeated inscription can still be read, “I, Cyrus, the king, the Achaemenid.” From this palace comes the earliest extant Persian relief, a four-winged genius, perhaps representing the deified Cyrus.

Decree. This edict recorded in 2 Chron. 36:22–23 and Ezra 1:2–3 gave permission to the Hebrew captives to go back to Palestine to rebuild their Temple. “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem … and rebuild the house of the Lord.’”

End. Cyrus was slain in battle 530 b.c. and buried in a still extant tomb at Pasargadae. In the small burial chamber a golden sarcophagus received Cyrus’s body. Plutarch (a.d. 90) says the tomb bore this inscription: “O man, whosoever thou art and whencesoever thou comest, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cyrus and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth which covers my body.” [3]

[1] Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos, “Cyrus,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] Robert B. Chisholm, “The Major Prophets,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 284–285.


Military ability and Statesman

Cyrus had immense military abilities and he was very clever in commanding and conducting wars. But that was only one side facet of this great man. Great trait of Cyrus was the gentle character of his rule. He was very tolerant of local religions and local customs, and he was disinclined to the extreme brutality and cruelty, which characterized so many other conquerors.

Tactic of war of Cyrus is demonstrated in his war with the Lydian king Croesus.


Achievements of Cyrus the Great

Military Conquest

Cyrus took over the leadership of the Persian Tribes after the death of his father Anshan and he ruled as a vassal king for the Medians who controlled the region. Cyrus founded the Achaemenid Empire and even as a subordinate to the Medians, he had ambitions to gain power of the entire region.

The Achaemenian Dynasty was the first Empire of the world and Sorat asserts that this was the largest Empire of the old-Fashioned world and its length spanned from Anatolia from Egypt across western Asia to northern India and center Asia (1). The Achaemenian Empire eventually conquered Egypt and became the most dominate dynasty in the world.

When he took power from his Father, Cyrus was a subject of the Median Empire who lorded over the Persians. While his predecessors had been content to pay tribute to the Medians, Cyrus had greater ambitions. He therefore undertook a revolt that resulted in the defeat of the Medians and a new kingdom that combined the Median and Persians was established. Cyrus was the King of this new Empire but he chose to retain the title of “King of Persia”.

Despite having considerable territorial extent and duration, the Persian Empire did not have nearly as great an impact on history as did such longer-lived empires as the Roman, British, or Chinese empires. However, one should consider that the great accomplishments made by the Persians could never have been achieved without Cyrus’s influence.

A century before the rule of Cyrus no one would have suspected that within a century the entire ancient world would be under the rule of a previously obscure tribe from southwest Iran. In retrospective, historians can appreciate the fact that the rise of Persia into an Empire with worldwide reach could not be attributed to preexisting social or economic factors. It is highly unlikely that Persia would have risen to the great heights it did over time. Therefore, the great military ambitions of Cyrus actually altered the course of history.

Cyrus was an expansionist to the end and history records that he died in a campaign to defend and expand the Northeastern borders of his Empire. After his death while doing battle against the Massagetea, Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II whose rule was short.

Treatment of Subjects

While the military might of Cyrus was unquestionable, this king is best remembered for his extraordinary patience kindly attitude towards those he defeated. Cyrus had great respect for the local practices of the people he conquered and he sought to ensure that local customs were propagated.

When he defeated a province through military means, Cyrus appointed a governor to represent him there. However, he ensured that the management of each province was the responsibility of a satrap who was a local ruler. The satrap knew the cultural and religious views of the conquered and hence made sure that they were respected even as the people became subject to the Persians.

Cyrus in his mercy is also reputed to have abolished forced labor. This was especially the case after his conquest of Babylon which was well known for making slaves from the conquered people. When Babylon invaded and took over the Jewish land in 586, they forced the Jews to go to Babylon where they lived as captives. History records that after conquering Babylon, Cyrus gave the Jewish slaves permission to return to their homeland (Sorat 1).

This was after decades of living as captives in Babylon. If it was not for the mercy exhibited by Cyrus the Great, there is a high possibility that the Jewish people would never have returned to their homeland. While there were some obvious political motivations behind Cyrus’ mercy and generosity, it is undisputed that he was one of the most humane rulers of his time. Sorat notes that even among the Greeks who regarded Cyrus as a big threat to their independence, he was hailed as a great and just ruler and the people admired him.

For all his military ambitions, Cyrus did not have a liking for extreme brutality and cruelty which was the hallmark of other conquests of the time. For example, the Babylonians were renowned for slaughtering entire villages and the made a habit of taking people into exile to avoid rebellions rising against them by the conquered people.

Cyrus took a different approach and treated his subjects with dignity and mercy. Sorat notes that by engaging in a policy of generosity as opposed to repression which was common among many conquerors, Cyrus gained the respect and allegiance of the conquered subjects (1).

The legendary “cylinder of Cyrus the Great” which was discovered by archaeologies at a site in Babylon contains detailed accounts of how Cyrus treated his conquered subjects in a human manner and let them continue with their local customers as long as they paid him allegiance. Sorat declares that Cyrus the great was the most merciful ruler of his times (1). His Empire was characterized by showing charity to the conquered states which in turn made Cyrus’ kingdom greater.


Early Life

Little is known about Cyrus&rsquo early life his date of birth ranges anywhere from 600 to 580 BC depending on the account you read. There is a legend about Cyrus&rsquo early years attributed to the historian Herodotus. Apparently, soon after Cyrus&rsquo birth, his grandfather, the King of the Median Empire, Astyages, had a dream.

His magi interpreted it as a sign that Cyrus would eventually usurp him. Astyages wasted no time in telling his steward to murder the boy, but instead of following orders, the steward asked a herdsman to do it. The herdsman decided to hide the boy and raise him as his own son. After ten years, Cyrus&rsquo behavior was clearly not like that of an ordinary boy, so the suspicious king questioned the herdsman and found out the truth. He tricked the unfortunate man into eating his own son&rsquos flesh but allowed Cyrus to return to his parents.

Bust of Cyrus the Great. Classical Wisdom Weekly


For Cyrus specifically, the closest to a contemporary image I could find is this bas-relief found at Pasargadae. I think the best we can really draw from it is that he most likely had a beard. There isn't really any other racially identifying characteristics, and its monochrome so you can't really guess at the hair or skin color that is being portrayed.

As for the ancient Iranians, our first record of them moving into their ancestral homeland is around 800 BC. At that point they likely physically resembled other early Indo-Europeans. The question is what that was.

It is surprisingly difficult to find references to studies of physical appearance outside of sketchy sites pushing racial agendas. What I did dig up tended to agree that skin and hair color appears to have undergone a surprising amount of selection pressure, meaning that these would be among the absolute first features to evolve to match what works best at the latitude a people are living. So skin color is actually about the worst thing to look at to ascertain relations between peoples.

The best I was able to dig up was this Science story. I could be misinterpreting, but it appears to be saying that the PIE people who moved into Europe carried multiple light-skin traits, one of which nearly disappeared in central Europe, but later came back into prominence amongst those that proceeded into northern Europe. The PIE people also appeared to have a tendency to be a bit taller.

Exactly how fast this process evolves I'm not sure. However, Cyrus was only about 2 centuries removed from the Iranian descent into their homeland, so I'd think it fairly likely he was a bit fairer than your typical human being living in the subtropics. But we really don't know.


Cyrus II, better known as Cyrus the Great, was a Persian ruler who established the official Persian Empire. Here is a short backstory:

The Assyrian Empire fell in 612 BC and was split in half between the Babylonians and the Medes. Achaemenes was the first ruler of what later became Persia. Followed by Teispes, Cyrus the first, and Cambyses the first. According to Herodotus (a Greek Historian), Cambyses had a dream and then wanted to prevent his son from taking the throne. Cyrus II survived, however, and was later in life recognized by his grandfather, the king of Media and took over the throne in 559 BC.

At first, Cyrus submitted to the Medes, who governed most of the small kingdoms. But in 553 BC, he led a revolt against Media and captured it’s capital, Ecbatana. The Median Empire was ended in 549 BC. Cyrus now claimed lordship over all the Median and Persian kingdom . After Cyrus the Great conquered the Lydians, he occupied all of Asia Minor. The conquests of Lydia and Asia Minor were completed in 542 BC.

Cyrus Declaration Stamp

Cyrus the Great is also mentioned in the Bible. In 538 BC, he issued a decree that the Jews could return back to their homeland. This event was very important to the Jews they even had “Cyrus Declaration Stamps” in 2015!

This Achaemenid Empire, as it is called, was the largest single empire the world had seen to this point, and the Dynasty lasted for 200 years until Alexander the Great conquered it.


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