Amid the turmoil and bloodshed in the Middle East, we may forget that historically, many countries of this region were blessed with men and women of extraordinary wisdom, courage and compassion. One such character is Cyrus II, commonly called Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
Path to Greatness
Toward the end of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (modern-day Iraq), the Persians began to rise as a powerful force. Under Cyrus the Great, the Median Empire centered in northwestern Iran was conquered in 549 BC. and was combined with the empire of the Persians to form Medo-Persia. The combined strength of the Persians and the Medes then led to the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, with the resulting extension of their empire over much of the Middle East until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 331 BC, a period of over two hundred years. This new empire was the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. The Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering a total of 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles) from the Balkans and Egypt in the west to Central Asia and the Indus Valley in the east.
Born in 600 BC, Cyrus the Great was the son of a Persian king and a Median princess. Cyrus ruled from Elam, a key city in southwestern Iran. Elam was at the time a powerhouse of technology and advancement and it was because of this that the Achaemenid Empire was able to grow so large. It was Cyrus, under the banner of the Persians, who was able to unite many of the Iranian peoples that we now know today, including the Medians, the Parthians, the Ayra in Afghanistan, and other important tribes such as the Bactrians, the Sogdians and others whose descendants form the rich ethnic fabric of modern Iran.
The Messianic King
An important thing to note about Cyrus was his incredible tolerance. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem—along with the sacred relics the Babylonians had stolen—and he encouraged them to rebuild the temple King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed. For this reason, he was the only non-Jewish person the Bible refers to as a “messiah.” (recorded in the book of Ezra 1:1-4). And through his satrapy system, Cyrus allowed each region in Iran to exercise administrative control and a degree of autonomy, including the freedom to practice their own religions. We can see this tolerance reflected in the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, an archaeological find of monumental importance. Etched on the clay cylinder are early cuneiform script whose declarations are a remarkable precursor to the universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Here is a portion of the Cyrus Cylinder translated into English:
The tolerance of Cyrus the Great for cultural diversity is further exemplified in the reliefs of Persepolis where you see both Persians and Medians holding hands in unity.
The result of this cultural and political fusion, coupled with Cyrus’ visionary leadership was unparalleled in ancient history, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can appreciate that the success of the Achaemenid Empire wasn’t due to its vast size or military power but also because of its enlightened governance and its embrace of diversity.
Watch: A video documentary on the Cyrus Cylinder