Orator gives lecture on Persian ruler

by W. Winston Skinner

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This 15th century painting by Jean Fouquet depicts Cyrus the Great receiving a delegation of Hebrews. 

Cyrus is described as God's anointed in the Old Testament and seen as a ancient pattern for a modern- day Iranian monarchy.

The real Cyrus was much more typical than he is sometimes envisioned, according to Dr. Michael Kozuh. Kozuh, associate professor of history at Auburn University, spoke Nov. 4 at the Carnegie Library, delivering the last lecture in the Lasting Legacies of the Past series sponsored by the Newnan Carnegie Library Foundation.

Kozuh looked at the Sunday school version of the Persian monarch and at Cyrus' iconic use by the shah of Iran and his followers during the lecture. His topic was 'Ancient Sources, Modern Politics: Cyrus the Great through Contemporary Eyes.'

About 70 people attended the program.

Kozuh 'travels to Iran frequently,' said Lauren Jones, who introduced him. Kozuh was part of the first archaeological team in Iran following the revolution.

Kozuh began his talk by focusing on the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient relic currently on display in Los Angeles. The clay cylinder features writing in cuneiform describing 'how Cyrus incorporated Babylonina into his empire,' Kozuh said.

'We're not sure exactly where the Cyrus Cylinder was found,' he said. Kozuh explained that in the late 1800s, 'the British were antiquities mad.' Train lines in Iran would pull up to ancient site, and people would gather old material, 'shipping it off to London and not keeping good records about what they were finding,' he said.

The cylinder was probably found in 1879. 'It was almost certainly found in the city of Babylon itself. It was found in one piece and broke on the way to London,' Kozuh said. The bulk of the cylinder became part of the British Museum's collection. A smaller piece ended up at Yale.

From 1850-1950, the cylinder 'really only interested experts in the field' and some Bible scholars and theologians became of parallels with Old Testament passages.

'It didn't raise a lot of fanfare until the 1950s,' Kozuh said.

In Iran in 1953, 'there was a major political development,' Kozuh said. Two years earlier, Mohammad Mosaddegh had been elected president. He made plans to nationalize Iran's oil industry.

'Words like nationalize made people nervous in Washington' in part because the Soviet Union 'shared a long border with Iran,' Kozuh said. A coup was engineered, and the democratically-elected Mosaddegh was ousted.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah, became the ruling power in Iran. Kozuh said the shah's position was elevated by western powers with three goals - keeping communism out of the region, keeping oil flowing to the west and controlling radical Islam.

The shah 'was pro-western. He wanted to implement western reforms,' Kozuh said. The veil was outlawed, and the shah took other actions which 'made enemies in Iran,' he said, particularly among religious conservatives.

In seeking a platform for a modern Iran - without a central role for Islam - the shah looked back to 559 BC when Cyrus the Great began ruling.

'How can one man rule an empire this big?' was a question of interest to ancient Greeks who wrote books about Cyrus' leadership. They were mostly 'historical fiction,' according to Kozuh.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah referred to Cyrus as 'God's anointed.' That is a status roughly equivalent to the Messiah - 'about as high as one can be regarded in the Old Testament,' Kozuh said.

'He is very highly regarded, particularly for someone who is not a Jew,' Kozuh said.

From 1953-1972, there was an ongoing celebration of Cyrus in Iran. His capital city and his home city were both excavated.

There was a 'very, very public celebration of Cyrus' in 1972, Kozuh said, for the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. People from all over world were invited to Iran 'to … celebrate Cyrus,' Kozuh said. The highlight of the event was a two-week party catered by Maxim's.

'The shah wanted to connect himself to Cyrus as a wise, fair-minded, benevolent ruler,' Kozuh said. The image of Cyrus was burnished in a way to bolster the modern kingship of the shah.

In several instances, Cyrus was depicted as advocating stances not to come for centuries.

'Human r ights i s a very, very modern concept.' Kozuh said - one that really grew out of the inhumane horror of World War II. That did not stop the shah from inviting people from all over the globe to the Internal Conference on Human Rights in 1969 in Teheran.

A focal point of that meeting was the shah with a copy of the Cyrus Cylinder, which he proclaimed the first human rights document.

A decade later, the shah was removed from power and a 'pretty rough 10 years for the Irainans' followed, Kozuh said. 'Interest in the Cyrus Cyliner died. The ayatollah was not interested in promoting a king … (particularly) a pre-Islamic king,' he explained.

'So what about the cylinder?' Kozuh asked. 'What's the hubbub?'

Cyrus came to power in Persia, how Iran, and shared power in the region with the Medes. He overcame the Medea, then probably 'incorporated what is now Turkey into his empire,' Kozuh said. 'Then he turned his attention to the city of Babylon -- to try to incorporate that empire' into his domain, Kozuh said.

Nabonidus, the Babylonian kind, 'was a usurper,' Kozuh said. 'He took the throne by violence. … He built and a administrative center for his empire outside Babylon.'

At his royal seat in Teima, Nabonidus, 'would collect tribute,' Kozuh said. 'He would make decisions without having to deal with the politics of Babylon.'

Many in Babylon were unhappy with the changes and note was made of their king's being away during festivals. Cyrus 'sees this discontent and he seizes on it,' Kozuh said.

Cyrus seized Babylon in 539 BC and became king without a fight. Nabonidus was sent into exile. While he got rid of the king, Cyrus kept the next level of leaders in place.

The Cyrus Cylinder was Cyrus' effort to explain why he should rightfully be the king in Babylon. The cylinder followers in a tradition that started with 'some of the first royal writing we have' on Sumerian foundation pegs - followed by 'barrels or cylinders,' Kozuh said.

The intention was not for the cylinders to be read, but for them to be buried in a wall or in the earth - to be retrieved in the future to show a king's power and glory. 'It really was supposed to wait around to be dug up,' Kozuh explained.

The essential messages of the cylinder are:

• a vilification of Nabonidus.

• an explanation that Marduk, chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, was angry with Nabonidus and looking for a replacement.

Kozuh described that portion as 'a pretty standard condemnation' and a 'boilerplate critique' of the former king.

• M arduk f inds C yrus a s a replacement for Nabonidus. 'Again, this is fairly standard,' Kozuh said. He said there are some interesting parallels between the wording on the cylinder and praise of Cyrus found in Isaiah.

'Everybody else's god is taking credit for Cyrus, but we don't know which god Cyrus would actually worship,' Kozuh said.

• Cyrus come in peace, welcomed by the Babylonians, to reverse what Nabonidus did. 'This is where modern people who talk about the Cyrus tend to focus,' Kozuh said.

Kozuh said 'godnapping' was a typical part of military forays in the ancient world. An invading army would go to the temple and take statues of the deities. In the ancient world, religious activity 'revolved around worshipping the statue of the god,' he said. 'The statue was the god.'

The temple was the god's house. Food was often provided for the god.

'When you godnap a statue, you don't melt it down,' Kozuh said. Rather, the statues were used as a bargaining chip. Statues from other places 'sometimes could sit in a capital city for centuries,' he said. 'They're the diplomatic tools of the time.'

Cyrus returned several statues to cities from which they had been taken. Some modern analysts have seen this as Cyrus promoting religious freedom, but Kozuh said those conclusions are overstated.

'At this point in history, no one has disallowed people from worshipping their own gods,' he said. Temples might be looted and statues taken, but people were allowed to worship their deities of choice.

Kozuh also talked about the role of Cyrus in the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, as recorded in the book of Ezra. 'Why does Cyrus want an ally down here?' he asked. In all likelihood, it was to have a stage to invade Egypt.

Actions taken by Cyrus are 'perfectly in line with what we know' about other monarchs of the period, Kozuh said.

'The idea that the Cyrus Cylinder represents anything more is quite a stretch. Everyone he does is in line with what other kings did before,' Kozuh said.

In 2006, Kozuh found the entry on the cylinder in Wikipedia included a fake translation of the cylinder that has Cyrus abolishing slavery, granting religious freedom and refusing to impose his military or political will on unwilling vassals. Kozuh emphasized to the Carnegie audience that the translation was not a bad one - but rather a false one.

Later National Geographic quoted the same false translation. So did Iranian lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi when she accepted the Novel Peace Prize in 2003.

Kozuh also noted the false translation is featured in a bronze sculpture at the Iranian Cultural Center in San Diego. He speculated the false translation is kept alive by supporters of the shah's regime.

'What you're reading here is nice. I wish it were true,' Kozuh said. 'The fake version is a lot more heart-warming than the real one.'

He expressed some disappointment with scholarly organizations not willing to call the translation the falsehood it is. 'Historians can have a real debate about Cyrus. What we're debating is simple facts,' he said.



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