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One and Three Perfect Days with the Cyrus Cylinder

By A.J. Cave

We keep time by talking numbers. There are (fractions of) seconds and hours and days and months and years. A day is not exactly 24 hours long, and a year is a little more than 365 days. A good day is too short and a bad day stretches to infinity and beyond.

Numbers are useful things. They help us keep scores in the game of life and in the games of leisure. In a tennis match, zero is love. But when it comes to writing down numbers in English-or in any language-all sorts of rules kick in.

The way the ancient Near Eastern scribes wrote numbers was complicated too. Before the development of the cuneiform script, special symbols were used as numbers.

In the third millennium BCE the Sumerians came up with the sexagesimal numeral system, using 60 as the base for counting and almost figured out a sign for zero, writing it as “not”.

Babylonians advanced the Sumerian numeral system and formulated the fundamental laws of mathematics by 2000 BCE. They gave numbers a value depending on their position in a sequence. Writing numbers depended on: 1) which cuneiform script (Sumerian, Akkadian, Elamite, Old Persian) they were using, 2) where and when (Assyrian or Babylonian, Second millennium or First millennium), and 3) what was being counted (area, weight, or volume). They also used units, like tens, hundreds, thousands. Number eleven (11) was written as unit of ten and number one (the sign for 1 next to the sign for 10).

There was no love lost between the warring Assyrians and the Babylonians. But when the Assyrian King Esarhaddon (Akkadian: Assur-aha-iddina, 680-669 BCE) decided to appease Marduk, the chief great god of Babylon and restore and rebuilt the holy city his father had into a wasteland, the political loophole was found in numbers. Babylon was to remain in ruins for 70 years. However, in the Babylonian sexagesimal numeral system, the cuneiform signs for 70 (60 and 10) were read 11 when turned upside down and rotated on the right axis (10 and 1). So the king ordered restoration of Babylon after 11 years by divine order (of numbers). Marduk returned. The king was happy and the people were merry.

The popular Arabian Nights, arguably rooted in the vanished Persian Book Hazâr Afsânah, meaning A Thousand Stories, was Alf Laylah wa Laylah in Arabic, literally meaning: A Thousand Nights and one night.

There is (was) romance attached to odd numbers and they are thought to be more magical. Shakespeare wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“This is the third time, I hope luck lies in odd numbers... there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death.”

Since I used number three (3) as my base unit of goodness when I started writing about the Cyrus Cylinder 2013 U.S. Tour-“Good Things Come in Threes”-I thought I should conclude by adding a one to my base unit-one and three=four-four perfect days spent with the Cyrus Cylinder in Los Angeles-not counting the seven days in San Francisco!

Beverly Hills, October 26th.-Saturday.

I met a small group of (the University of Chicago’s) Oriental Institute members and supporters, slightly jet-lagged, but otherwise in good shape, at the lobby of the hotel-on the posh Avenue of the Stars-in the morning. After the exchange of pleasantries among strangers, we all became fast friends and made small talk while waiting for the shuttle to arrive to take us on our interplanetary expedition.

The Cyrus Cylinder Tour in the U.S. has had 2 stops on the East Coast, 2 stops on the West Coast with one stop in between, and Chicago had been bypassed in favor of Houston. So the good folks at the Oriental Institute (OI) of the University of Chicago had organized a special tour to Los Angeles around the upcoming lecture of Dr. Matthew Stolper at the Getty Villa on October 27th. Dr. Stolper is the head of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project (PFAP) at the Oriental Institute and a renowned specialist-although it is hard to exactly pinpoint his specialty. He knows a lot about the way numbers were written.

Tracy Tajbl, the charming Director of Development at the Oriental Institute, had planned a full day of cultural and social activities, starting with a trip to the Getty Villa, followed by a reception hosted by the president of the University of Chicago’s Alumni Association in Los Angeles, followed by another full day at the J. Paul Getty Museum, hopping from the Getty Center in Los Angeles to the Getty Villa down the road in Pacific Palisades.

The driver of the shuttle-a laid-back surfer dude-had confused the far-away Getty Villa with the nearby Getty Center. Welcome to the City of Angeles. As they say: “There are no maps, the drivers are blind, the brakes don’t work, and the doors don’t have handles.”

The conversation between Tracy and the surfer dude went something like this:

“You are late.”

“Ah, sorry. But no worries. Getty is right up the road.”

“We are going to the Getty Villa.”

“Ah, OK. I thought you are going to the Getty. Eh, where is his villa?”

“In Pacific Palisades.”

“Ah, OK. Eh, is that in Malibu?”


Fortunately Tracy had come prepared with printed driving directions, and we arrived at the Getty Villa way ahead of the rest of the museum’s weekend crowd.

Nothing is perfect and my four perfect days came with less than perfect sunny weather. Those who think the sun always shines in Southern California are sorely disappointed when the cold and foggy marine layer, so familiar to the coastal residents, stubbornly hugs the coast and refuses to give ground to the sun-god.

Unlike other museums, visiting the Getty Villa is like visiting the lovely home of a wealthy relative. You expect to be seated on a sprawling spread under the cool shade of fruit trees, treated to fragrant cardamom-infused Persian tea, and nibble on sugar-soaked sweets while leisurely trading the latest family gossip like a deck of collectable baseball cards.

The sense of the other-worldliness of the Villa is heightened by the spotty mobile network coverage. Just imagine a whole day without your smart phone.

We crossed the murmuring Roman garden-no doubt influenced by the famous Persian gardens started by Cyrus the Great (Persian: Kûrus) at Pasargadae-and followed the tall banner for the Cyrus Cylinder exhibit to the second floor of the Villa.

The exhibit spanned two spacious rooms, painted a dark royal blue for dramatic effect. The glass-enclosed Cyrus Cylinder rested comfortably under spotlight in the center of the first room, like a reigning king granting audience to adoring subjects. The latest English translation of the celebrated cylinder-originally written in the late Babylonian dialect of the Akkadian language-was written in yellow on blue walls, like golden stars sparkling in the night skies. They reminded me of Anausa, the legendary Ten-Thousand Immortals, the elite Persian royal guards, protecting their beloved king who had made them masters of Asia.

All the other objects of the exhibition were displayed in the equally spacious second room, with one of the walls covered with a floor-to-ceiling picture from Persepolis (Pârsa).

In a small room off the second room, a handful of photographs of Pasargadae and Persepolis, as well as Tehran of the Qajar Dynasty, from the Italian officer Luigi Pesce’s Album Fotografico della Persia (Photographic Album of Persia, 1860), were on display.

Dr. Stolper gave an engaging talk about Cyrus the Great, the imperial Achaemenids, and the time-honored ancient Near Eastern scribal tradition, stretching over 3,000 years back to the Sumerians, which fell to the Persians with the conquest of Babylon. He is among the handful of philologists who can read Akkadian, Elamite and Old Persian cuneiform scripts. He is known for saying, “(If you know Akkadian) you can learn [Old] Persian in an hour,” meaning the cuneiform script not the language, and one day I hope to test that assertion.

The hotel was in the throes of a fancy wedding, with a beautiful bride, a photographer, an army of black tuxedos, colorful gowns, and glittering jewels moving hither and thither, when we returned in the mid-afternoon. I don’t remember the groom. But surely he must have been in the mix somewhere.

We were greeted by Dr. Marilyn Lundberg, Associate Director of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California (USC), patiently waiting for Dr. Stolper to talk shop about new PFA (tablet) pictures for InscriptiFact image bank.

We talked database interoperability, running out of grant money (a recurring theme), and best practices during the happy hour while watching the happy wedding crowd.

Around 5:30 pm we were back in the shuttle heading upward to the border of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles for the reception. Our affable hosts lived somewhere in the hills and among their celebrated neighbors were Darioush Khaledi of the famed Darioush Winery in Napa Valley and an Arab princess building a small castle on top of the hill, complete with an elevator.

We talked Persians, politics, Chicago, leaning in, checking out, and of course the movies.

Beverly Hills, October 27th.-Sunday.

I shamelessly abandoned my OI comrades in the morning and headed to the Getty Villa with Dr. Stolper for a day-long (totally sold-out) symposium: Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire: Perspectives from Antiquity to Today.

It was foggy and we left a little early, since I am notorious for getting lost and arriving late, especially driving in and around L.A. But the gods (or the Gettys) had decreed otherwise and we arrived at the Getty Villa just as they were opening the main gates. I said we had tickets for the symposium, and the palace gate-keepers waved us through like royalty.

But we weren’t the first to arrive. Dr. Irving Finkel from the British Museum-who looks more like a pied piper than an Assyriologist with bushy long white hair and full beard and a voice that easily carries a mile to Malibu, and Dr. Timothy Potts, the Director of the Getty Museum-who looks more like a movie star than a specialist in ancient Near Eastern art-had beaten us to it. The friendly meet and greet was like the backstage reunion of an old rock & roll band-and I was with the band: a cross between a groupie and a roadie. Smile.

Inside the auditorium, name badges, coffee, tea and fresh fig scones were waiting for us.

According to the biography of the Achaemenid Great King, Artaxerxes II (Persian: Rtaxsacâ, 405-358 BCE), by the Boeotian historian and biographer Plutarch (lived around 50-150 CE), the Achaemenid crown princes (royal sons) trekked to Pasargadae, the City of Cyrus, for their royal accession ceremony. They shed their royal clothes and put on the ancient robe of Cyrus. They ate pistachios, fig cakes, and drank sour goat milk to remember their humble nomadic past.

As the symposium guests started to converge and indulge in the modern version of ancient fig cakes, I started to think about dark clouds and silver linings.

2013 Cyrus Cylinder tour in U.S. = silver lining

The dark cloud = 300 (Zack Snyder: Warner Bros., 2007), the movie version of a graphic novel by Frank Miller (1998), with an echo in a distorted article in the German Magazine Der Spiegel (Matthias Schulz, “Falling for Ancient Propaganda: UN Treasure Honors Persian Despot”, 15 July 2008).

The “Persians” of the movie were masked and deformed creatures out to destroy democracy defended by nearly naked and totally buff Spartans, and the “Persian Despot” of the article was none other than Cyrus the Great.

In a letter to the editors of Der Spiegel dated 31 July 2008, I wrote:

“The former Shah of Iran did not invent the ‘rumor’ of Cyrus or the Cyrus Cylinder; he merely took the opportunity to promote the rightful place of a modern nation based on ancient glories. How much was spent on the 2500-year celebration of the Persian monarchy or what Ayatollah Khomeini thought of the festivities is irrelevant to the value of the Cyrus Cylinder. Whether or not Cyrus promoted ‘human rights’ as we know it in the 21st Century, the place of Cyrus the Great in the world history, and the immense value of the Cyrus Cylinder in the context of Iran’s ancient heritage should not be diminished.”

My letter fell on deaf editorial ears. There was no “like”, “dislike”, “join the conversation”, or “comment” back then-or even any fact-checking to make use of the latest advances in Achaemenid scholarship. Just their way or the (highway) autobahn.

As the Getty auditorium slowly started to fill up with scholars and students, Iranians, Persian history enthusiasts and biblical aficionados, and the foodies who had come for free food, I thought how it would have been hard to imagine all of this back in 2008.

And reflecting on it with a clarity enabled only by fig scones, it was actually thanks to that movie and that article that many Iranian-Americans decided to step up and speak out in defense of their long history and heritage, warts and all-among them, Dr. Fredun Hojabri, the tireless advocate of Iranian academia, scholars and students, and former vice-chancellor of the Aryamehr University of Technology (in Tehran), now renamed the Sharif University.

Dr. Hojabri had contacted his close allies, colleagues, and friends at the UK-based Iran Heritage Foundation and had urged them to spring into action in defense of our Cyrus the Great. And they did. And we were now reaping the harvest of what was sown back then. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “The future depends on what you do today.” And this day was the tomorrow of yesterday.

During the lavish reception after the symposium, Dr. Finkel finally agreed to sign his new book, The Cyrus Cylinder: The King of Persia’s Proclamation from Ancient Babylon for me, after mumbling and grumbling that he didn’t like signing books.

I bid farewell to the OI friends who were heading back to Chicago the following day.

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), October 28th.-Monday.

I arrived way too early for the first day of the two-day international conference at UCLA: Cyrus the Great: Life and Lore, fearing getting stuck in the traffic mess created by I-405 construction around the area and getting hopelessly lost in the sprawling UCLA campus maze.

There were no signs of the conference organizers-or bleary-eyed students rushing to early morning classes-but there was mobile network coverage, and I read my neglected emails.

With the good hosts came tea and a tray full of chocolate chip cookies-an auspicious sign.

Among the conference attendees were familiar friends, friends in the making, and friends to be. It is futile to name names. I am bound to miss a few and end up in the dog-house. But kudos to the Getty gang-Timothy Potts and David Saunders-for their genuine interest in Cyrus and his celebrity cylinder. Renee Dreyfus, the Curator in charge of Ancient Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the head of the Ancient Art Council, diligently filled up a notebook with all her conference notes. And, of course, David Stronach.

There was also a constant wave of UCLA graduate and under-graduate students flowing in and out of the small conference room in-between or instead of classes, as well as interested students from other area colleges and universities. Another auspicious sign.

I tagged along with the tribe from UC Santa Barbara during the lunch break, with Dr. John Lee navigating the supplied map of the fast-food eateries on the UCLA campus like a pro. Dr. Lee is a part of the two-man tag-team (the other one being Dr. Touraj Daryaee of UC Irvine) who have created the new proposal for the revision of ancient Persian history in the textbooks used in California’s Middle Schools. Ancient Persian history is now taught in the sixth grade as a part of Greek history-or more accurately, all that is now covered about the Persians is the infamous Graeco-Persian wars from the Hellenic perspective.

The California Board of Education is focusing on new proposals for STEM (Science, Technology, English and Math) topics this year and social sciences like history have been pushed to next year. Once available, the public will have a chance to review the guideline proposals and all the interested parties will have their say. Then the textbook publishers will hand over the approved guidelines to their teams of educators to create the content for the Middle School textbooks.

During the afternoon session someone asked: “How are we [the public] to consume all of this [history]?” Fortified with more chocolate-chip cookies, I thought about suggesting picketing the Warner Bros. Pictures that is planning to release the sequel to the movie 300. But who knows what would be the silver lining of that dark cloud? Someone might take a shine to my novel about Cyrus the Great and make a movie called: “The King & I”.

I got back to the hotel just in time to meet my cousin who had driven an hour and a half from the other side of L.A. to treat me to dinner and talk about taking his kids to see Cyrus on the Iranian Community Day at the Getty Villa (October 7th).

UCLA, October 29th.-Tuesday.

More chocolate-chip cookies. Dr. Matt Waters of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, confidently assured me that his new book on Achaemenid history is not an urban myth and that he would send me a link to the publisher’s website when he got home (and he did).

I skipped the final afternoon session of the conference and made a beeline dash to the Getty Center to see the great Canterbury Exhibit. Then, on the road again for the long drive back to the Bay Area, listening to Pirate Radio 104.1 from a little south of Santa Barbara to a little north of Salinas.

I stopped at my sister’s on the way home and she treated me to cardamom-infused Persian tea-a heady mix of Darjeeling, Earl Grey, and Orange Pekoe-and (dark) chocolate-covered mangoes. If the small army of ancient Persian bakers, cooks, and candy-makers at the service of the Persian Great Kings had known about mango and chocolate, they would have naturally invented chocolate-covered mangoes to serve at the opulent royal tables before the gourmet Great Kings and courts.

We talked Cyrus Cylinder exhibit banners in Beverly Hills, traffic-jams in Santa Monica, crowds at the Getty Villa, construction along Highway 101, and cooking for Thanksgiving.

And on that note my four perfect days of riding with the King ended.

About the author:
A. J. Cave is a San Francisco Bay-Area Iranian-American writer. Her first novel, Roxana Romance: Roshanak Nameh [Book of Roshanak] was published in 2008 followed by a novel about Cyrus the Great: Cyrus 0.9: Highlander, published in 2013.

Related Articles:

Who broke the Cyrus Cylinder?

- Just one look at the Cyrus Cylinder (normally on display at the British Museum, on tour in the United States during 2013), and it is obvious that the celebrated cylinder was badly broken at one point during its existence and pieced together, with roughly one-third of it missing. -A.J. Cave - 9/9/13

Catching up with the Cyrus Cylinder - Following in the footsteps of the Cyrus Cylinder trekking through five museums in the United States, we have reached the mid-point in Manhattan. So let's pause for a commercial break and see how far this iconic object has come, as we eagerly await its arrival on the West Coast. -A.J. Cave 7/19/13


... Payvand News - 12/02/13 ... --

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