Cyrus: An Archaeological Biography

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In our series of bioarchaeographies, we’ve used archaeology to explore the lives of the great Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, and the great Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II.  It seems fitting that we should look at a king from the next dominate empire in history: the Persian king, Cyrus the Great.  Cyrus II was the founder of the Persian empire and the most prominent of the Achaemenid kings, often referred to simply as Cyrus the Great.1

Cyrus in Literary Sources

Cyrus Relief
A relief of Cyrus the Great from Pasargadae. Photo: Nasser-sadeghi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

It is telling that, in ancient Greek sources, he is generally portrayed favorably, especially in light of the fact that the Greeks and the Persians were bitter enemies.  The historian, Herodotus, says that the Persians called Cyrus their father, while later Achaemenid kings were not thought of as highly.2  Aeschylus, a Greek soldier and author, wrote in his play, The Persians, that “Cyrus the Fortunate was third, who, while he governed, blessed the land with peace…he incurred no anger of the gods, because he was wise.”3  In his idealized biography of Cyrus the Great, Greek historian, Xenophon, wrote, “He honored his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children; and they, on their part, reverenced Cyrus as a father.”4

Cyrus_the_Great's_private_palace_at_Pasargadae,_Iran,_05-31-2008
The remains of the palace of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. Photo: dynamosquito / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Cyrus II began his kingship as a vassal to the Medes, but eventually defeated them near Pasargadae, where he built his palace.  Strabo records, “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Astyages the Mede in his last battle, transferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial of his victory.”5

Cyrus in Archaeology

Pasargadae was the first capital of the Persian empire, and it’s remains include numerous monuments and inscriptions, examples of early Persian art and architecture, as well as the tomb of Cyrus II.  There are three short, trilingual inscriptions from Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.  They read:

  • “I am Cyrus the King, and Achaemenian.” (CMa)
  • “Cyrus the Great King, son of Cambyses the King, and Achaemenian. He says: When…made..” (Cmb)
  • “Cyrus the Great King, an Achaemenian.” (CMc)6
Cyrus Inscription Pasargadae
This trilingual inscription at Pasargadae declares Cyrus as King in Old Persian, Elamite and ‌Akkadian. Photo: Truth Seeker (fawiki) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to the remains of the palaces, a relief of Cyrus, depicted as a four-winged figure, was found at the site.

Cyrus Brick
This clay brick is inscribed in Babylonian Cyrus’ name and titles and the statement that he established peace in the land Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Since the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great stretched from modern-day Turkey in the west to India in the east, several inscriptions attributed to the Persian king have been discovered in far away lands.  A fired, clay brick found at Ur bears the Babylonian inscription, “Cyrus, king of the world, king of Anshan, son of Cambyses, king of Anshan. The great gods delivered all the lands into my hand, and I made this land to dwell in peace”7  Another stamped brick reads, “Cyrus, the rebuilder of Esagila and Ezida, the son of Cambyses, the mighty king am I.”8  Cyrus is also mentioned in the Behistun Inscription, in which his lineage is described, as well as in the Nabonidus Chronicle and the famous Cyrus Cylinder (see below).

Cyrus in Scripture

King Cyrus is mentioned some 20 times in Scripture.  The prophet, Daniel, was still in Babylon when Cyrus conquered the city (Dan. 5:31).   We read in Dan. 6:28, “So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”  The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7) describes Cyrus’ capture of the city of Babylon: “The army of Cyrus, without battle, they entered Babylon. Afterwards, after Nabonidus retreated, he was captured in Babylon….. On the third day of the month Arahsamna, Cyrus entered Babylon. The harû-vessels were filled before him. There was peace in the city while Cyrus, (his) greeting to Babylon in its entirety spoke.” (iii. 15-20)9

From a biblical perspective, Cyrus is most famous for his decree to allow the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem from exile and rebuild the Temple, as prophesied by Isaiah (44:28) and recorded in 2 Chronicles (Ch. 36) and Ezra (Ch. 1).  In 1879 the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam.  This baked clay cylinder, measuring 22.5cm by 10cm, is inscribed in cuneiform script in Akkadian, and affirms public policy of Cyrus, as described in the Bible.  In it, Cyrus states:

“I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, the son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anšan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anšan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anšan … From [Babylon]… as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.,, May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily Bêl and Nâbu that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare.”10

cyrus_cylinder_front small
The Cyrus Cylinder contains a declaration by Cyrus the Great allowing people captured by the Babylonians to return to their homelands and rebuild the temples to their gods. Photo Credit: Prioryman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Rather than retaining the gods of captured people, Cyrus sought to placate the gods of captured people by returning their cultic articles to them.  The inscription confirms Cyrus’ general policy of returning exiles to their “dwellings” and allowing them to take their gods with them and rebuild their “sanctuaries.”  Dr. Bryan Wood writes, “In the case of the Jews, however, since they had no idols, the gold and silver articles taken from the Temple were returned. The specific proclamation pertaining to the Jews is documented in Ezra”11

“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:1-3)

Ezra further records that “Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (1:7).

Summary

CyrusTomb Mohammad  CC4point0
The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. Photo: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

19th century skeptics once scoffed at the biblical claim that an ancient king would allow captured people to return to their homes and rebuild their temples. The Cyrus Cylinder confirms the account in Scripture of the Persian king allowing the Jewish people who had been captured by the Babylonians to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. In fact, many now hail the Cyrus Cylinder as the first declaration of human rights and a copy of it resides in the headquarters of the United Nations.  This is consistent with the generally positive view of Cyrus the Great that is found in the Bible, as well as in other ancient writings.

One More Interesting Item

Here is a video of the Cyrus Cylinder being read in its original Akkadian language.

 

Title Photo of Cyrus Cylinder:  Prioryman / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Endnotes:

1 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 72.

2 Richard N. Frye, “Cyrus the Great.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nov. 13, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-the-Great (Accessed Nov. 21, 2019).

3 Aeschylus, Prometheus and Other Plays, transl. P. Vellacott (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 144.

4 Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.8.1. Online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Cyrop.%208.8&lang=original (Accessed Nov. 19, 2019).

5 Strabo 15.3.8. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/15C*.html (Accessed Nov. 21, 2019).

6 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 76.

7 “Brick,” British Museum Online Collection. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=367121&page=1&partId=1&peoA=23720-1-8&people=23720 (Accessed Nov. 22, 2019).

8 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 76.

9 “ABC 7 (Nabonidus Chronicle).” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-7-nabonidus-chronicle/ (Accessed Nov. 20, 2019).

10 “Cyrus Cylinder Translation.” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/sources/content/cyrus-cylinder/cyrus-cylinder-translation/ (Accessed Nov. 22, 2019).

11 Bryan G. Wood, “The Ongoing Saga of the Cyrus Cylinder: The Internationally-Famous Grande Dame of Ancient Texts.” Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/divided-kingdom/2877-the-ongoing-saga-of-the-cyrus-cylinder-the-internationallyfamous-grande-dame-of-ancient-texts (Accessed Nov. 20, 2019).

 

 

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