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Cyrus the Great and Persian control of the Middle East

Cyrus’ empire is the first known multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious state. Wisely, he respected local cultural, religious and administrative practices, which gained him considerable support from the subjects of his vast domain

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Cyrus the Great with General Harpagus in the 18th century tapestry The Defeat of Astyages designed by Maximilien de Haese and woven by Jac. van der Borght (1771-1775).

Designed by Maximilien de Haese, Woven by Jac. van der Borght (1771-1775) (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Bible, Cyrus of Persia permitted the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity and rebuild their temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-11; 3:7; Isaiah 44:28).

Little is known about the parentage or youth of Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great (in Persian, Kurush). He burst onto the scene somewhere between 553 B.C. and 550 B.C. when he overthrew the Empire of the Medes, seizing its capital city of Ecbatana, capturing its ruler, Astyages, and becoming the first king of the Achaemenid Empire.

Somewhat surprisingly by ancient standards, Cyrus spared the life of Astyages, married his daughter, and, some sources say, even adopted the deposed king as a father. 

Soon thereafter, Cyrus founded the city of Pasargadae on the site of one of his most significant battles. Pasargadae served as ceremonial capital of the early Achaemenid Empire — it was never actually designed for a large residential population — until later in the sixth century B.C., when Cyrus’ successor Darius built the city of Persepolis, about 50 miles away. Today, both are Iranian UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran, on June 22, 2019.

Shutterstock

But Cyrus’ conquests were only beginning. Croesus, the legendarily wealthy king of Lydia — the western half of modern Turkey — consulted the famous Greek oracle at Delphi to find out whether he should challenge Persia’s rising power. The oracle replied rather ambiguously, predicting that if he went to war against Cyrus, he would destroy a great empire. By 546 B.C., Croesus had learned that the empire to be destroyed was his own. Again, though, it seems that Cyrus spared him and even appointed him an adviser in his court.

Cyrus conquered Armenia around the same time and then, facing very little resistance, conquered Babylon and its empire about 539 B.C.. The Babylonian king, Nabonidus, was permitted to go into exile.

Cyrus now controlled not only the Iranian plateau but both the fertile river area of Iraq or Mesopotamia and the rich Mediterranean coast. By the time of his death in 530 B.C., he ruled everything from the Aegean Sea, bathing Greece’s eastern shore, to the Iaxartes River in Central Asia, having established Persian sovereignty over much of the Middle East. Cyrus’ empire is the first known multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious state. Wisely, he respected local cultural, religious and administrative practices, which gained him considerable support from the subjects of his vast domain.

In 1879, excavators discovered the famous “Cyrus Cylinder,” an inscribed barrel-shaped object of baked clay deposited beneath Babylon’s principal temple. (It’s now preserved in the British Museum.) The Cylinder’s text explains to Cyrus’ new Babylonian subjects that he had been chosen by their god Marduk to free them from Nabonidus, whom it portrays as incompetent, oppressive and irreligious. It praises Cyrus as a benefactor to Babylonia’s people, someone who had not only bettered their lives but repatriated displaced peoples and restored ruined temples throughout Mesopotamia and elsewhere — precisely as the Bible says he did for the deported Jews and their temple in Jerusalem.

Little is known about Cyrus’ death, which probably occurred during a military campaign in Central Asia when he was around 70 years old. A prominent and well-preserved limestone structure in Pasargadae is almost certainly his tomb. He was succeeded by his son, who ruled as Cambyses II.

According to Isaiah 45 in the Old Testament, God chose Cyrus to build the enormous empire that he created, even referring to him as an “anointed one” (literally, a “messiah”) — the only non-Hebrew person on whom the Bible bestows that title:

“Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;

“I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:

“And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.

“For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me” (Isaiah 45:1-5).

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.