Human right. A term everyone is familiar with and actively pursues. However, do you know who came up with the concept and executed it for the first time? Lean back — I will tell you a story today, the origin of which is traced back to more than five centuries before Christ.
Once upon a time, Astergyes I, King of Media, had a dream. In his dream, he saw a torrent of water bursting from his pregnant daughter’s womb, destroying his empire, which was at the time a significant part of Asia. As a result, he married his daughter, Mandane, to an Anshan monarch to ensure that any child born would not endanger his reign. Astergyes soon had another nightmare in which vines sprouted from Mandane’s womb and covered the world. His dream interpreters and counselors warned him, and he turned against his newborn grandson. So, he commanded one of his generals, Harpagus, to kill the newborn, but he could not do so, thus he delegated the job to his servant. The servant took the infant home. He was not a murderer, and his wife had recently given birth to a still-born child. So, they agreed to take the baby and keep the secret buried for the rest of their lives.
They adopted the child and named him Agradates, but his regal appeal quickly became apparent. While playing with his friends, he was chosen to be a king and sentenced a wayward youngster to punishment. At the time, the youngster was the son of another general. So the general protested to Astergyes and, overcome with rage, revealed that the child had beaten his son whom Harpagus was ordered to murder years ago. Astergyes arranged a feast and invited Harpagus to thank him for his services. He was, however, served a dinner made from his son’s flesh. This heinous deed sowed the seeds of enmity and vengeance in Harpagus’s heart.
Cyrus — Agradates’ Persian name and the Greek version of the Old-Persian kūruš or Khūrvaš, meaning ‘sun-like,’1 grew up and returned to his motherland. He steadily extended Persian territory as a superb conqueror and united the Medians and Persians under a single monarchy with Harpagus’s aid. Then he attacked Greece, causing the Greek Empire to succumb. Later on, he turned his attention to another significant territory: the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This new kingdom, ruled by Nabonidus, was nowhere near as majestic or peaceful as it was in the past. Nabonidus was a ruthless emperor whose oppression had worn down his subjects and religious figures. There was no prosperity, enslavement and calamity were ubiquitous; happiness had no place in those regions, and the new year of their great God, Marduk, was no longer celebrated. It had nothing in common with the ancient Babylonian Empire. A monarch who ignores his people and his nation is obviously destined to fail.
Considering Nabonidus’s army was large, and a fight would result in massive fatalities and carnage, Cyrus and his counselors relied on their intellect and wit to vanquish them. They devised an ingenious scheme. According to Xenophon,2 Babylon was encircled by the Euphrates River, which was as deep as the height of two men and made invading them difficult. Cyrus and his men decreased the river’s depth by diverting water elsewhere, allowing soldiers to walk across it easily. They struck at night when the troops’ visibility was limited, and they were confident in the security of their castle and the strength of their defense. Babylon fell in a matter of only a few hours, with hardly any bloodshed. When Nabonidus surrendered, he was not executed but was instead exiled to a location that maintained his dignity and comfort as a previous monarch.
Cyrus arrived at Babylon after more than two weeks and was welcomed by the Babylonians as “the liberator and Marduk’s chosen one.” Unlike many other invaders, he and his men arrived peacefully.3 Soldiers were strictly prohibited from annihilating or damaging property.4 No one was harmed, and there was no looting or violence. Cyrus was devastated when he saw Babylon’s suffering and internal condition. Slaves were liberated and returned home immediately. Houses and temples that had been destroyed were renovated. Despite his probable belief in Ahura Mazda,5 Cyrus ordered that the Gods of different religions be returned to their sanctuaries, visited those temples on occasions, and respected minority rituals. He put a halt to the agony of the Babylonians and worked to restore peace to the once flourishing kingdom.
Moreover, 40,000 Jews who had been held captive for years were returned to their motherland.6 Cyrus proclaimed the Torah to be the Jews’ holy book and restored their temple in Jerusalem. He is renowned as the only foreigner to be titled Messiah because of his benevolence and love towards Jews.
On the 29th October, 539 BCE, Cyrus established the Achaemenids’ magnificent dynasty, the Persian Empire, the first kingdom of Greater Iran. Pasargadae was later designated as the capital city. He also inscribed a record of his immense attempts and achievements in forty-five cuneiform lines on a clay cylinder. Iran’s last king, Mohammad Reza Shah, referred to it as “the world’s first declaration of Human Rights.” This unique manuscript is now on display at the British Museum. In the 2,500th year of the Imperial State of Persia’s foundation, a magnificent festival was held in Iran in 1971, with the presence of queens, kings, politicians, and diplomats from all over the world. The United Nations released a translation of the Cyrus Cylinder in all of the UN’s official languages the same year, and a replica of the cylinder was displayed at the UN. The translation of the lines related to Cyrus and conquering Babylon (lines 20-43) is as follows:
I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world… the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel (Marduk)and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. When I went as [a] harbinger of peace into Babylon. I founded my sovereign residence within the palace amid celebration and rejoicing. Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe. My vast troops were marching peaceably in Babylon, and the whole of [Sumer] and Akkad had nothing to fear. I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon... who as if without divine intention had endured a yoke not decreed for them. I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds(?). Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at [my good] deeds, and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me, Cyrus, the king who fears him, and over Cambyses, the son [my] issue, [and over] my all my troops, that we might live happily in his presence, in well-being. At his exalted command, all kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit remote districts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna and kissed my feet. From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti — the sanctuaries across the river Tigris — whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements... I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses, his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”7
Cyrus has been adored and respected from his time to the present, not only for his conquests and victories as a king or warrior, but also for his prolonged and mighty political infrastructure, tolerance for different races and religions, respect for people, generosity, and compassion. “Diversity in advice, unity in leadership,” as he claimed, exemplifies his political philosophy. From the inception of the Achaemenid empire, he has been referred to as the “Father” and has served as an inspiration to numerous leaders and statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Alexander the Great, and David Ben-Gurion.8 His annual remembrance is commemorated on 29th October throughout Iran and among true Persians who still revere him as their Father. Even though Alexander the Great’s invasion turned Pasargadae to ruins, he left Cyrus’ tomb intact after reading Cyrus’s words on his gravestone:
O man, whomever you are, and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.9
1 H.C. Avery, “Herodotus’ Picture of Cyrus,” American Journal of Philology 93/4, 1972, pp. 529-46.
2 Hedrick L., Xenophon's Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War, 2007.
3 Translation of the Cyrus Cylinder.
4 Iranica Online - Cyrus.
5 There is no evidence to show his real religious tendency.
6 H.C. Avery, “Herodotus’ Picture of Cyrus,” American Journal of Philology 93/4, 1972, pp. 529-46.
7 British Museum.
8 Cyrus the Great Legacy.
9 Epitaph of Cyrus, as quoted in Life of Alexander, in Plutarch: The Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott Kilvert (1973), p.326.