Here’s why Cyrus was so great

Author Reza Zarghamee said King Cyrus II of Persia was something of a soft touch with his conquered peoples, allowing local customs and religions to remain. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Liberating the Jews from Babylonian captivity and helping to rebuild Jerusalem means Cyrus II of Persia is a familiar figure in Jewish history.

But, in name recognition and contemporary cultural heft, he’s no Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, despite being known as Cyrus the Great, said Reza Zarghamee, author of “Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World.”

“Cyrus is the first and earliest of the three, but the least well-known. Why is it there is so little attention paid to this history?”

Zarghamee, who spoke to about 100 people on May 8 at the Biblical Archaeology Forum talk at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, had answers to his own question.

First, he said, the ancient Persians were not consistent in writing down their history — instead, they relied on a robust oral tradition. Second, academia has long focused on Persia’s rivals, the Greek and Roman civilizations.

“There has always been a tendency in Western scholarship to identify with the Athenians,” he said.

Cyrus was born around 600 B.C.E. He inherited the throne of the city-state Ashan, and went on to conquer the Median, Lydian and Neo-Babylonian empires to create the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It extended from modern day India in the east, down into northern Egypt and as far west as Greece.

Zarghamee called Cyrus’ the first “universal” empire. It operated as a global society and gave birth to principles like multiculturalism. Cyrus was something of a soft touch with his conquered peoples, allowing local customs and religions to remain. This made him popular among conquered peoples, Zarghamee said.

Cyrus the Great, in a recreation of a relief from Cyrus’ palace

“Cyrus pursued a new paradigm of statecraft,” he added. He was inclusive, pragmatic and kept his promises.

It was after conquering the Babylonian empire, that Cyrus crossed paths with the Jews. He freed them from their captivity in Babylonia and sent them back to Jerusalem with an edict to rebuild the temple.

And this fact was all that Gerry Ehrenstein, a longtime Biblical Archaeology Forum attendee, knew about Cyrus.

“But exactly what he did and how he did it was totally unknown to me,” he said. “It was a fascinating story.”

The society, which is predominantly Jewish, was formed about 30 years ago. It meets monthly at the Bender JCC.

There’s a sister group, Biblical Archaeology Society of Northern Virginia. Together, they provide scholarships to help send students to archaeological digs.

Cyrus died as befits a warrior king — in battle. His place in Jewish history is already secure, but Zarghamee hopes to bring him broader recognition.

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