By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
As a people, the Persians came from the other side of history. They originally lived in the mountains. They were conquered first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. After a while, however, they decided that it was enough. So, their king Cyrus—a remarkable chap by all accounts—decided to attack Babylon. And, against all the odds. he succeeded—and freed all the people who had been subjugated by the Babylonians.
Cyrus and the Liberation of Babylonian Subjects
Cyrus was the first person we know of to acknowledge that even the subjects deserved to be treated fairly. It’s he who drew up what has sometimes been described as “the first charter of human rights,” even though the title is something of a misnomer.
The document in question was written on a clay cylinder, called the Cyrus Cylinder inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform. The Cyrus Cylinder is permanently housed in the British Museum. However, you don’t have to travel to London to see what it looks like. There’s a replica on display in the United Nations building in New York. It’s intended to remind us that the struggle for human rights has a very long history, even though Cyrus would hardly have understood the modern concept of human rights. He merely wanted to represent himself to the world as merciful in victory.
In the cylinder the “king of the world,” as Cyrus pompously called himself, describes how he conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.—without a fight, or so he alleges—and then took its king, Nabonidus, prisoner, all with the aid of Marduk. Marduk, who had the title Bel or Baal, meaning “lord,” was the most important Babylonian god.
Cyrus claimed that Marduk deserted the Babylonians because Nabonidus had reduced the citizenry to servile status. To learn that their chief god had deserted them was no doubt very bad news for the Babylonians.
Cyrus also claimed that he showed mercy both to the Babylonians themselves and to all the peoples who had been victims of Babylonian injustice. He said that he didn’t allow his troops to commit any atrocities when he took the city. We can’t of course know whether Cyrus’ assertions are true.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Cyrus and the Mesopotamian Gods
Even so, it’s highly significant that he thought it important to promote himself as an enlightened despot to the world at large. Cyrus also tells us that he returned all the statues of the gods, which Nabonidus had filched from other cities in Mesopotamia, to their rightful temples—“to the places that make them happy,” as he touchingly expresses it.
So imagine you’re one of those Mesopotamians, formerly subject to the Babylonians, who are now receiving back your gods. Because statues of the gods were the gods—that’s what lies behind the phrase “to the places that make them happy”—“them” being the gods; the gods themselves are now happy to be home.
And, of course, they will make their happiness known by bestowing favors on you. So your excitement, your joy, and your gratitude at the prospect of receiving your ancestral gods back into the city know no bounds.
There’s more good news to come. Just before the inscription breaks off, Cyrus tells us that he permitted all the peoples deported by the Babylonians to return to their homelands. He doesn’t mention any of these peoples by name, but we know from the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible that this included the Jews.
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II had deported the Jews to Babylon in 587, nearly half a century earlier. For good measure, Nebuchadnezzar had also put out the eyes of their king Zedekiah and destroyed Jerusalem.
Learn more about the creation of wider political institutions in ancient Mesopotamia.
The Jews of Babylon
So let’s now leave the Persians for a moment and suppose you’re a Jew living in Babylon. How do you react to the offer to return to your homeland? Well, the truth is that you’ve grown rather accustomed to the soft life. Babylon is a spectacular and bustling city.
Visitors enter through the famous Ishtar Gate—Ishtar was the goddess of sex, war, fertility, as well as the moon, you name it. It’s made of stunning blue glazed tiles decorated with alternating rows of dragons and aurochs. Aurochs were the ancestors of our modern cattle.
Then there are the famous Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, of which no trace has ever been found. Babylon has a seven-story ziggurat dedicated to Marduk—we met ziggurats in the lecture on being Mesopotamian, they resemble step or terraced pyramids—this one is known as Etemenanki, “The Foundation of Heaven and Earth.”
It may have been the inspiration for the story about the Tower of Babel. Babylon is a very international city, because merchants and tourists throng to it from all around. As far as you’re concerned, it’s the center of the world. That’s how it appears on contemporary maps made on clay tablets.
Besides you’ve managed to preserve your Jewish religion and your Jewish traditions, and things can only get better now that the Persians are in charge—right? And 48 years—the length of your captivity in Babylon—is a long time. So you’re probably among the majority of Jews who said to Cyrus, “Thanks, but no thanks.” and chose to stay put.
Learn more about Akkadian Empire arts and gods.
Cyrus and the Jews
But a few Jews did answer a higher calling—a few did feel it was their solemn duty to return to the Promised Land. And if you had been one of them—one of the few who did “return” you would no doubt have felt extremely emotional, particularly if you had been one of the very few original Jewish exiles who were still alive after 48 years.
Over time a small community began to settle in the ruins of the holy city and began to rebuild the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed, which Cyrus permitted them to do.
So, in sum the Persian Empire was anything but hostile to its Jewish population, and the Jews for their part have never forgotten Cyrus’ generosity. When in 1917 the British Government committed itself to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Jews living in Eastern Europe displayed images of Cyrus the Great alongside those of the British king George V.
The Rise of the Persian Empire
Even so, what we are calling the other side of history—the defeated and the subjugated—are now placed under the protection of a great king. Cyrus later went on to attack Egypt but died on the way there. His son Cambyses, however, succeeded in taking it. So that was the end of the Egyptian empire, and the beginning of the Persian supremacy.
Common Questions About Being A Subject of the Persian Empire
After overthrowing Nabonidus, Cyrus returned all the statues of the gods which Nabonidus had filched from other cities in Mesopotamia to their rightful temples—“to the places that make them happy,” as he touchingly expresses it.
After overthrowing the Babylonian king, Cyrus permitted all the peoples deported by the Babylonians to return to their homelands, including the Jews of Babylon. A small community began to settle in the ruins of Jerusalem and began to rebuild the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed, which Cyrus permitted them to do.
Cyrus describes how he conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.—without a fight, or so he alleges—and then took its king, Nabonidus, prisoner, all with the aid of Marduk, the most important Babylonian god.
Cyrus claims that Marduk deserted the Babylonians because Nabonidus had reduced the citizenry to servile status.
The Cyrus Cylinder has sometimes been described as “the first charter of human rights,” even though the title is something of a misnomer.