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The Truth Behind Spiegel's Article


By Cyrus Kar


In two recent articles, titled "UN Treasure Honors Persian Despot" and "Cyrus cylinder's ancient bill of rights 'is just propaganda'," Germany's 'Spiegel' and U.K.'s 'Telegraph' magazines criticize the United Nations for recognizing an ancient artifact believed by many to be the world's first declaration of human rights.  The "Persian Despot" of course is Cyrus The Great, the author of the doctrine inscribed on the outer surface of a clay cylinder housed at the British Museum in London where it's simply known as the "Cyrus Cylinder."


Cyrus Cylinder: Considered as History's First Declaration of Human Rights
in Ancient Times is today displayed at the British Museum

In the 1970s, the Cyrus Cylinder has been described as the world's first charter of human rights. It was translated into all six official U.N. languages in 1971. A replica of the cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in the second floor hallway, between the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council chambers (source: Wikipedia)


When this cylinder was discovered in 1879, amid the ruins of Babylon, it made huge headlines in the Christian West.  It was the first time a biblical story had been confirmed through archaeology.  But the euphoria quickly wore off.  The democratic age had no room for a celebrated monarch.


Before the age of democracy, most of the world had been ruled by monarchs.  Since good monarchs were few and far between, Cyrus came to symbolize everything a good king should be, through two of the West's most popular books:  The Old Testament and, in more intellectual circles, the Cyropaedia, which literally means the Education of Cyrus, written by the 4th century BCE Greek author Xenophon.


But at the height of democratic fervor, in the mid 19th century, Xenophon was virtually blacklisted, fewer people were reading the Bible and Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek writer, who pits Persia's monarchy against Greece's democracy, was suddenly hailed as the "Father of History."


By 1960, Herodotus' 300 Spartans had replaced Cyrus as champions of western polity transforming Persia from hero to villain virtually overnight.  A century later, an earnest search for the truth is a noble and worthy cause.  But there's little truth to be found in Spiegel's article.  The sheer number of mistakes, assumptions and half truths leave one wondering whether any attempt at objective reporting was made.


The crux of Spiegel's article boils down to the following argument:  Since Cyrus was "no humanist" ergo "The notion that Cyrus introduced concepts of human rights is nonsense."


If this premise holds true, then the French 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,' which is recognized as one of the great human-rights doctrines, should also be considered "nonsense" since few would describe 1789 French Revolutionaries as "humanists."


But then again, this article is not about France.  It is about ancient Persia, or today's Iran, a country left without a steward to protect its history from the likes of Spiegel - a state of affairs not entirely lost on its author.  Citing the Ayatollah Khomeini as an authority on human rights, the article quotes him as saying, "The crimes committed by Iranian kings have blackened the pages of history books."




According to the article, Cyrus blackened the pages of history by starting "a 30-year war that consumed the Orient and forced millions to pay heavy taxes.  Anyone who refused stood to have his nose and ears cut off.  Those sentenced to death were buried up to their heads in sand, left to be finished off by the sun."


It may come as a shock to people who have come to trust reputable news organizations like Spiegel to learn that not a single word in this statement is true.  We know it's not true because there are only a finite number of sources to draw from.  In fact, all of our data on Cyrus The Great come from two primary sources, the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle and four secondary, less reliable sources including the Old Testament and three classical Greek authors namely Herodotus, Xenophon and Ctesias.


Not one of these sources mentions anything about Cyrus cutting off someone's nose or ears, nor do they mention him burying anyone up to their heads in sand.  But how could Spiegel have gotten it so wrong? 


The German magazine saw fit to stake its reputation on the findings of Dr. Matthias Schulz.  But don't let the "Dr." title fool you.  Mr. Schulz is no expert in Persian or even Near Eastern Studies.  In fact, his official title posted on Vanderbilt University's website reads: "Visiting Associate Professor, and Director, Center for European and German Studies."


Mr. Schulz's lack of knowledge on the subject is immediately clear when he describes how Cyrus died.  "A spear punctured his thigh," he claims, and Cyrus "died three days later."  Anyone writing an article for Spiegel should know that it was Cambyses - not Cyrus - who is described by Herodotus as having died of a leg injury:


"as he (Cambyses) was springing into the saddle, the cap fell off the sheath of his sword, exposing the blade, which pierced his thigh . . . Shortly afterwards gangrene and mortification of the thigh set in, and Cambyses died"

 (Herodotus 3:64-66)


Equally reckless is Mr. Schulz's allegation that Cyrus "was responsible for a 30-year war."  According to both primary and secondary sources, Cyrus was not responsible for any war except Babylon which lasted 19 days, not 30 years.  The Nabonidus Chronicle emphatically states that his first war was instigated by the Median king, Astyages:


"Astyages mustered his army and marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, for conquest."

(Nabonidus Chronicle Column II: Line 1)


His second war was started by the Lydian king, Croesus, who, according to Herodotus, wanted to punish Cyrus for defeating Astyages.


"Croesus had a craving to extend his territories, but there were two other reasons for his attack on Cappadocia: namely his trust in the oracle and his desire to punish Cyrus."

 (Herodotus 1:73)


Half Truths


Mr. Schulz seems to add his own biased spin to otherwise benign words such as "heavy taxes."  Yes, like all governments, Cyrus collected taxes from his citizens.  But were they "heavy?"  Perhaps it's safe to say that all taxes are "heavy" in the eyes of those who have to pay them.  But even Cyrus's taxation was revolutionary.  Before Cyrus, taxes were little more than extortion money.  You paid the government not to kill you or enslave you.  But for the first time in imperial history, Cyrus's subjects got representation for their taxation such as security, a postal system and roads that according to Dr. David Stronach were once described as being so safe from bandits "that a virgin could move from one end of the empire to the other with a pot of gold on her head and never be touched."


The Persian empire also provided its citizens with a justice system so impartial that the Old Testament describes it as follows:


"the law[s] of the Medes and Persians, . . . altereth not."

 (Daniel 6:8)


Some of Mr. Schulz's charges sound almost desperate.  One of his "experts" complains that Cyrus, "demanded that his subjects kiss his feet."  This is yet another half truth.  Yes, there is evidence that Cyrus's subjects kissed his feet, but there is no evidence that he "demanded" anyone to do so.  In fact, Xenophon describes one of Cyrus's Generals, Tigranes, as choosing not to kiss his hands, let alone his feet.




In some cases, Mr. Schulz seems to allege the exact opposite of what the sources tell us.  For example, in his cylinder, Cyrus tells us:


[24] while my extensive troops marched peacefully through Babylon.  In the whole land of Sumer and Akkad I did not allow any troublemaker to arise.  [25] His city of Babylon and all his cult-centres I maintained in prosperity.

 (Cyrus Cylinder: Line 24-25)


But Mr. Schulz, in his infinite wisdom, claims that Cyrus's "army ransacked residential neighborhoods and holy sites."


By the same token, Cyrus tells us:


"I gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their houses."

 (Cyrus Cylinder: Line 32)


Mr. Schultz, on the other hand, accuses Cyrus of "deporting" urban elites.  The falsehoods in this article are so numerous that citing the evidence seems useless.  But then, Mr. Schulz isn't really interested in the facts.  He and his motley crew of "experts" have dismissed all these sources as "propaganda."  So what is the basis for his theory?  The answer lies in a single verse of the Nabonidus Chronicle.


Cyrus's King-Arthur-like image was shattered in 1965 when a post-graduate student by the name of A.K. Grayson retranslated the Nabonidus Chronicle for his doctoral thesis.  His interpretation revealed a bloody massacre by Cyrus of the entire civilian population at the city of Opis (near today's Baghdad).  The following passage is what cynics like Mr. Schultz and his experts have zeroed in on for the last 40+ years:


"In the month of Tishri when Cyrus(II) did battle at Opis on the [bank of] the Tigris against the army of Akkad, the people of Akkad retreated.  He carried off the plunder (and) slaughtered the people."


The naysayers finally had their red meat.  The Herodotian East/West divide was secure.  But unbeknownst to Mr. Schulz, this passage was corrected last year by none other than A. K. Grayson's former professor, W. G. Lambert and published in the 2007 issue of the French journal N.A.B.U..  The amended translation reads as follows:


In Tishri, when Cyrus did battle with the army of Akkad at Opis, on the [bank] of the Tigris, the soldiers of Akkad withdrew.  He (Cyrus) took plunder and defeated the soldiers (of Akkad).


Cyrus did not "slaughter the people," he "defeated the soldiers."  Two words can change history, which is why it's so incumbent on Spiegel to get the facts straight before setting out to revise it.  This revelation reduces Mr. Schulz's article to little more than speculation and conjecture.


Mr. Schulz may see himself as an iconoclast out to "debunk" a long-standing tradition.  But it is, in fact, Mr. Schultz's position that is cliché.  Persia's role as an evil villain has become such an integral part of Western folklore that only a handful of scholars such as Tom Holland have dared step out of the Euro-centric box to side with the evidence.


Pax Persica


The United Nations, which does not share Mr. Schulz's Western bias, is the main target of his wrath.  He mocks the UN for not sharing his anti-Persian bias, when he writes, "Suddenly even the UN secretary-general was insisting that Cyrus wanted peace, and that the Persian king had shown the wisdom to respect other civilizations."


Actually yes; the U.N. got it right.  The quest for peace was a well-known policy of the Persian empire.  Revolts disrupted commerce, and disrupted commerce meant disrupted taxes.  So to avoid revolts, Persian kings granted their subjects certain God-given rights in order to maintain peace throughout the empire.  Had Mr. Schulz done the slightest bit of research, he would have found that there is even a name for this policy.  It's called "Pax Persica" and it is described by Dr. Maria Brosius as follows:


"The politics of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire is referred to as the politics of Pax Persica, which means the Persian Peace, and what the Persian kings propagated was the idea of an empire at peace and the way that they tried to achieve that was through tolerance of other people's cultures, religion, languages and administration."

 (Dr. Maria Brosius, University of New Castle)


Whether such tolerance was intended to prevent revolts or whether it was part of their Zoroastrian culture is a matter of debate.  But there is no debate over whether such freedoms existed.  These rights were first laid out by Persia's patriarch, Cyrus The Great, and the clay cylinder, which Mr. Schulz calls "a hoax," is a rare snapshot of Cyrus bestowing these very rights on the people of Babylon after conquering it in 539 BCE.


The cylinder is groundbreaking in many ways.  It records the first instance of a conqueror paying homage to the foreign God of his conquered subjects.  It orders all idol statues, which had been confiscated by previous Babylonian kings, returned to their "rightful abodes."  But the act that would immortalize Cyrus forever is captured in lines 25 and 26:


"The [. . .] people of Babylon, who, against the will of the gods [...] (had suffered) a yoke unsuitable for them [through that man (Nabonidus)], [26] I offered relief from their exhaustion and ended their servitude."

 (Cyrus Cylinder: Line 25-26)


Among those who were relieved from their exhaustion and servitude were over 100,000 Jews who chronicled the events that led to their captivity in the Old Testament.  They describe a horrifying scene of destruction, murder and torture carried out by the infamous Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, on the Jewish people and their capital city, Jerusalem.


"Nebuchadnezzar took those (Jews) who weren't executed to Babylon to be slaves for him and his sons.  They remained captives until the Persian empire began to rule . . . The lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put in writing. . . . This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: . . . May the Lord be with all of you who are his people.  You may go.

Chronicles II (35:20-23)


Here we have two completely independent sources corroborating each other.  Is this all propaganda?  No previous victor seems to have found it necessary to ingratiate himself to his vanquished subjects.  In fact, reigning through terror sustained the Assyrian empire for over half a millennium.  Sustaining his empire through a strategy of peace and tolerance was an enormous risk to Cyrus.


Yet despite the risks, freedom of religion, freedom from servitude and the right to live where one chooses were guaranteed for the first time in writing.  They may not be as well defined as the U.S. Bill Of Rights or the Magna Carta, but after six centuries of Assyrian and Babylonian rule, the decrees enshrined on this cylinder were no less groundbreaking.


Mr. Schulz considers those who appreciate Cyrus's impact on world history as belonging to "the Cyrus cult."  But this cult boasts an impressive roster.  Some of history's greatest leaders, from Julius Caesar to Thomas Jefferson, studied Cyrus.  In fact Cyrus may well be the inspiration behind the Western concept of 'separation between church and state.'


Dr. Richard Frye, the foremost expert on ancient Persia believes, that Cyrus's tolerant policies could have only taken root in the world's first secular government:


"The most important thing about Cyrus and the Achaemenid empire was the spread of secular law all over the empire.  Before this time, law was based on religion, local religion of the Babylonians, or the Hebrews, or the Egyptians.  But now, for the first time in history, you have secular law.  In my opinion, the continuation of Roman law is based upon Achaemenid law."

 (Dr. Richard Frye, Harvard University)


In fairness to Mr. Schulz, he got one thing right.  Cyrus was no humanist.  He was a conqueror.  But he was a humane conqueror - an oxymoron best explained by the world's leading expert on Cyrus The Great, Dr. David Stronach:


"For the first time, on a very wide scale, Cyrus used great force to protect, not degrade, the human condition."

 (Dr. David Stronach, U.C. Berkeley)


Cyrus influenced heads of state as recently as 1948 when President Harry Truman based his decision to support the state of Israel in large part on his emulation of Cyrus.  When introduced once as "the man who helped create the state of Israel," Truman is said to have quipped, "What do you mean 'helped create'?  I am Cyrus!  I am Cyrus!


By publishing Mr. Schulz's article, Spiegel Magazine showed a flagrant disregard for the basic standards of responsible journalism.  Spiegel owes its readers truth in reporting.  Instead it passed off an uninformed opinion as news.  The truth is owed a retraction or at the very least an impartial follow-up article based on evidence and qualified experts.


Mr. Schulz's article closes with the following proverb:  "A fool may throw a stone into a well which a hundred wise men cannot pull out."  It seems that the only one throwing stones, is Mr. Schulz.


He is Awake: Close Up on Cyrus Kar


Related Web Site

Spenta Productions | In Search of Cyrus the Great

Spenta Productions was founded by Cyrus Kar with one simple mission: to shed light on history's most pivotal moments, which, for whatever reason, have gone untold or mistold. We believe that an accurate account of history will lead to a better understanding of the present.


The name 'Spenta' was derived from the old Indo-European language of Avestan, which literally means, "to expand." At Spenta Productions we seek to "expand" the horizon of our viewers by producing historical films about events and characters, which have gone largely untold or misrepresented.


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A glorious past inspires a conflicted nation
By Marguerite Del Giudice; photograph by Newsha Tavakolian - National Geographic

Iranian woman visiting PersepolisWhat's so striking about the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was burned down after being conquered by Alexander the Great, is the absence of violent imagery on what's left of its stone walls. Among the carvings there are soldiers, but they're not fighting; there are weapons, but they're not drawn. Mainly you see emblems suggesting that something humane went on here instead-people of different nations gathering peace­fully, bearing gifts, draping their hands amiably on one another's shoulders. In an era noted for its barbarity, Persepolis, it seems, was a relatively cosmopolitan place-and for many Iranians today its ruins are a breathtaking reminder of who their Persian ancestors were and what they did. (more)

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