Friday, June 13, 2014

Good Guy Cyrus (Cyrus the Neglected, Conclusion)

"Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him that their gates be closed no more: I will go before you leveling the heights. I will shatter the bronze gateways, smash the iron bars. I will give you the hidden treasures, the secret hoards, that you may know that I am the Lord." (Isaiah 45:1-3)

On October 7th, 540BCE—47 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of her people to Babylon—king Nabonidus, Nebuchadnezzar's son-in-law and  ruler of the Neo-Babylonian empire, was having a pretty terrible day. Cyrus the Great had just dealt his army a resounding defeat at the strategic city of Opis and now, the city of Sippar--Nabonidus' home away from home--was surrendering to the Persian king without a fight.

The citizens welcomed Cyrus as their liberator, and rightfully so. As Joseph Campbell wrote in Myths to Live By:
"[Cyrus'] idea for the government of an empire was neither to massacre nor to uproot, but to return peoples to their places, restoring them to their gods and governing them through subordinate kings of their own races and traditions."
When put in this light, it's easy to see why the people he conquered were so eager to overthrow their tyrannical rulers in favor of Cyrus' extremely progressive form of government.

Poor Nabonidus. Historians aren't sure whether he was actually a scumbag or just the victim of a posthumous smear job. What we do know is that he pissed off the priests of Marduk, the national god, by exclusively worshiping the moon goddess Sin. Whether that was enough to turn his people against him is anyone's guess.

Did I mention that Nabonidus was actually in Sippar when the city surrendered to Cyrus? He basically had to sneak out the backdoor while his own people cheered celebrated Persian liberation. Forced to flee, Nabonidus went to the safest place he could think of, the greatest city of the classical world, Babylon.

Due to its thick walls and strategic location on the Euphrates river, Babylon had long been considered impregnable. Attacking it directly would mean a lengthy and bloody siege for most commanders.

Clearly, Cyrus wasn't "most" commanders.

Instead of attacking the city in full force, Cyrus sent a small group of soldiers to redirect the Euphrates river just north of Babylon. This caused the waterway to sink to about waist-height, allowing the Persians to sneak into the city by way of its canals and bypassing her walls altogether.

Like Sippar, Babylon fell without a fight and on October 29th--which is celebrated in Iran as Cyrus Day--the Persian king entered the city in triumph and deposed of Nabonidus. 

The statues confiscated by Nabonidus were returned to their rightful places and all displaced peoples were allowed to return home. This included the captive Jews who were even given money to rebuild their holiest of holies, Solomon's Temple. With these acts of kindness and generosity, Cyrus earned a special place in Jewish history. In fact, he is the only gentile in the entire Bible to be called the anointed of God

Clever, wise, kind, and generous: these are not the qualities one typically attributes to a world-famous conqueror. Here is more proof that Cyrus was, and remains to be, one of the finest rulers our world has ever seen.

But we still haven't really gotten to the heart of the matter: Cyrus' motives. Why go to all the trouble of overthrowing oppressive rulers in Media and Babylon, subduing Asia Minor, liberating captives, showing respect to foreign gods and restoring their temples and shrines, and penning what some historians claim is the first declaration of human rights? Why give his new subjects liberty when the norm at the time was to enslave, massacre, and/or displace?

The answer--shockingly--is religion. Or more precisely, the religion of Persia during Cyrus' time.

You probably haven't heard of Zoroastrianism. With only 190,000 Zoroastrians worldwide at the moment, you could say it's long been on the endangered religion list. But in Cyrus' day Zoroastrianism was extremely influential, helping to shape and mold the beliefs of people far and wide and leaving a mark so profound that it can be seen even today.

The basic tenets of Zoroastrianism are simple: humans are caught up in the throes of a cosmic conflict between the forces of light and truth as embodied by the creator god Ahura Mazda, and the forces of darkness and deception as embodied by Angra Mainyu.

To the Persians, this conflict was bigger than race, tribe, and culture. All people, whether knowingly or not, were active participants in the war between light and dark. By thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds (Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta), people supported Ahura Mazda; by doing the opposite, they furthered Angra Mainyu's cause. 

This helps explain Cyrus' tolerance of other religions. What did it matter who his new subjects thought they were worshiping? So long as they lived peacefully in Cyrus' empire, they were reinforcing Ahura Mazda's cause, and that was all that mattered.

Cyrus saw himself as a pawn in this great cosmic showdown between light and dark. His conquests were not a shallow attempt to garner fame; rather, they were his attempts to unify the human race beneath the banner of truth and goodness. The Persian empire reflected his intentions: it was, during his lifetime, at least, a bastion of freedom and peace.

After Cyrus died, his empire did not flounder; instead, it expanded even further, taking Egypt--the only other "empire" in the area--and afterward turning its sights toward the city-states of Greece. And we all know how that ended.

At its height, the Persian empire encompassed 8 million square kilometers. It stood uncontested until 330BCE--a whopping 220 year--until the Macedonian Kid himself, Alexander the Great, swept in and took over.


So what can we learn from Cyrus' life?

Cyrus' military victories, while impressive, are of little interest to us. The world no longer needs conquering. What is pertinent is the man's beliefs and how they shaped his actions.

We need not believe in actual gods in order to see the basic truth in the Zoroastrian mythos. Each one of us is composed of two opposing impulses. We're bipolar apes, remember? Capable of empathy, love, generosity, bravery, as well as tribalism, hatred, rape, and genocide. Regardless of race, culture, or belief, we must all decide whether we will follow our savage impulses or our noble ones.

We must decide what will guide our actions: truth, goodness, and love, or deception, selfishness, and hate. Cyrus was motivated by the first three while Alexander was motivated by and large by selfishness.

Compare the fruits of each man's labor and you can decide for yourself what best fuels meaningful action.

Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds: cultivate these whenever possible and you too will have contributed to the cosmic conflict, of which we are all a part.

/rant over

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