U.N.’s Cyrus Cylinder under challenge?-II

Continued from yesterday

By Elara’s time, the Achaemenid rule had ended but a new dynasty of the Parthians was ruling over a vast empire. Unlike the Achaemenids who were not a sea-going people (Herodotus) but commanded the navies of the Phoenicians, Arabs and Ionians and others, the Parthians were spreading their maritime activities all around the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. A coin of their ruler Mithradates I has been discovered in Sri Lanka.

Almost following on the heels of Cyrus, Siidhartha Gautama was spreading even a stronger message of compassion, tolerance and peace in the Gangetic valley and three centuries later, Emperor Asoka surprised everyone after he had reached the pinnacle of political power in India by eschewing war (dig-vijaya) in preference to the message of peace (dhamma-vijaya). As he himself says in his Edicts, the transformation came after seeing the massacre of human beings and beasts in the war against Kalinga. In our own land, King Elara (2nd century B.C.) was known for his sense of justice and his adversary, Dutugemunu, not only gave the fallen king a hero’s cremation but ordained that princes in the future shall stop their music and alight from their litter when passing the monument built in his honour. The tradition was observed up to British times. This was a rare act of chivalry not matched anywhere in the world except by Cyrus who is the subject of our discussion who retained his foe, the Median ruler Astyges (his father-in-law), in his court as an honoured guest despite the latter having held the Persians under subjugation and servility. Dutugemunu was later tormented by the thought of the death of millions in the wars he fought. Not every one in the West who is steeped in a different tradition may understand the circumstances which bring about psychological situations in the eastern mind like this. Hence Prof. Wieshoffer’s reliance on Hellenistic writings to discredit the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder and Tom Holland’s cynicism of the ancient tradition of justice in the lands of Persia as sheer "nonsense, absolute nonsense", can emanate only in prejudicial western minds.

It is true that the Persian empire under Cyrus and other Achaemenids, built up the largest armed force then on earth and its march instilled fear in the neighbouring nations, most of whom readily submitted. The empire was built largely on the willingness of the other to acknowledge the over-lordship of the king of kings and be part of his ‘Satrapy’ system. This was the vitality that the new rulers from Central Asia with their mobility introduced. They also brought with them a culture which was no second to their military prowess which cannot be measured by those which existed in the Near- East or in the Greeco-Roman West and which blossomed later in the form of many cultural manifestations, like the rich Persian language, poetry, architecture and sculpture and above all in the refined nature of its peoples.

The Persian empire consisted of 20 such Satrapies, including that of India, whose tribute bearers are seen bringing gold (the richest province) and monkeys. That's besides smaller tribal groups. According to Herodotus, Cyrus last declared war on the Massagaetae, an Asian (Scythian?) tribe which was then ruled by a widowed queen named Tomyris. She was asked to surrender but stood her ground and accused Cyrus of being "blood-thirsty" but the king decided to give battle and fell and died during fighting. Arabs never submitted to the Achaemenids but they placed their navy under the emperor’s command.


The impression one gets at Persepolis, which place I visited a dozen times, is of a ceremonial Capital where the tribute paying Satraps were received with full honour and complete protocol – a different concept of an empire from what this region had seen earlier. Richard Frye observed that unlike past empires where the god of Ashur had conquered the gods of other cities and states, the Achaemenids supported the doctrine of separateness in various kingdoms but under the Universal Ruler, the king of kings. ….The Satrapal courts were small copies of the splendour of the central government. After the fall of the empire, the Satrapal system continued to flourish in provincial centres. Under the Selucids, a double culture existed in Iran, the old Achaemenid and new Greek. The former was not just Iranian but cosmopolitan, for example, with Aramaic, not old Persian, as the lingua franca of the empire.

The arguments of the recent German and British scholars seek to discredit the authority of the Cyrus Cylinder on the ground that the monarch was every bit as despotic as any other land-grabbing leader; or "not more or less brutal than other ancient kings of the Near- East like Xerexes…"; and he ordered the execution of the Cylinder to show that he was being ‘righteous.’ That argument cannot be ground for the claims made by Holland giving credit to Western Democratic Socialism in Sweden as the forerunners of modern thought of human rights. The arguments used to downgrade the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder is as bad as reasons for rejection of present day claims for flagging human rights and social justice by western nations by recalling their own past. One could argue on the analogy used against the Cyrus Cylinder that since human rights violations historically could run in the very veins of these western nations, their claims to be the flag-bearers of human rights is a mere façade and should be rejected. That would be, as the historians I have mentioned have done, to throw the baby with the bath water.

(The writer is the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France, UNESCO, Vatican and Iran)


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