In a recent TED lecture that is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular in a distinguished series, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, narrated the fascinating history of a 2,600-year-old clay object known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The ancient artifact is unremarkable in appearance. It resembles thousands of cuneiform-inscribed tablets and objects from Mesopotamia housed in museums all over the world.
So why is a replica of this object displayed prominently at the U.N. Headquarters in New York? Why did more than a million people come out to catch a glimpse of the Cylinder when the British Museum loaned it for a three-month exhibit last year in Tehran? And why does the Cylinder continue to arouse so much excitement in the media?
MacGregor's captivating TED lecture seeks to identify the reason. The Cylinder bears one of the "great declarations of a human aspiration," comparable to the American Constitution and Magna Carta. Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire he established (ca. 550-330 B.C.E.) bequeathed to history "a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together."
We can applaud McGregor's eloquent appreciation of the religious and cultural tolerance that the Cyrus Cylinder symbolizes. But did Cyrus and his court that produced this impressive artifact really share the dream MacGregor ascribes to them? Can we rightfully call the empire promoted by the Cylinder a model of "a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society"?
As most historians who specialize in early Persian history would readily point out, the chief objective of Cyrus and his successors was no different than that of other imperial powers: to maintain control of their vast empire and to exploit the wealth of its subjects. Palace reliefs at Persepolis and Susa express this "vision of peace" in dramatic visual form: Delegations from various peoples are shown solemnly bearing precious gifts up to the enthroned king.
Cyrus conquered Babylon and thereby inherited a world empire that owes its earliest contours to Assyria. Yet he did not dismantle this empire and restore sovereignty to the various kingdoms that had once existed. Instead he and his heirs expanded it. And in the process, they also reorganized it for the purpose of greater control, exploitation and expansion.
Influenced in great measure by the biblical image of Jews returning to their homeland under Persian hegemony, many assume that the rule of Persian kings was much more tolerant than that of the Assyrians. But recent research has demonstrated the significant lines of continuity between these two empires. The Persians engaged in the same mass deportations and harsh punishment of rebels for which the Assyrians are famous. The extent to which the Persian court involved itself in the affairs of its subject peoples was determined by concerns for the king's prosperity. In order to ensure that wealth flowed from the provinces into the imperial coffers, rulers sometimes practiced the politics of benefaction, granting favors to representative groups in return for loyalty and compliance.
The point is illustrated by the Cyrus Cylinder. Written long after the conquest of Babylon, it presents the Persian conqueror and his vast army peacefully marching into Babylon, without mentioning the bloody battles that they fought. By depicting Cyrus as one who rebuilt temples and sought the welfare of the population, it reflects the sectarian interests of the Babylonian priests of the god Marduk, whom the former king of Babylon, Nabonidus, had offended through his patronage of a different god named Su'en. Yet even while seeking to promote Cyrus as a benevolent liberator, the inscription does not go so far as to claim that he granted political sovereignty to its inhabitants. To the contrary. We are told that all bowed before him and kissed his feet, while the kings of the lands brought him "heavy tribute."
Given these and many other considerations brought forward by historians, it would be mistaken to identify the empire Cyrus built as a model for a peaceful Middle East and multicultural society. Likewise, it would be wrong to call the Cyrus Cylinder a charter for human rights or a paradigm of religious liberties. The fact that such noble aspirations have firmly fastened themselves to this ancient artifact, and that millions wait in line to view it, witnesses to the human need to anchor our highest ideals in objects that are physical and concrete, objects that have been retrieved from the ruins of a past civilization and that we can touch and see. Ironically, the attribution of these ideals to the Cylinder is due in large part to the Hebrew Bible: When the British Museum archeological team uncovered the artifact in 1879, the public in Europe could not help but viewing it, with wild enthusiasm, against the backdrop of the biblical books of Isaiah and Ezra, which portray this conqueror as a great liberator of the Jewish exiles.
The Persian Empire undeniably did accomplish many things of great consequence and enduring value for political thought. In addition to developing sophisticated systems of administration and creating a rich cosmopolitan cultural legacy, it forced its subjects and opponents to confront and reflect upon the nature of expansionistic, exploitative imperial power.
The impact of such reflections can be discerned first in the Classical literature of Greece. The Persian advance not only prompted the independent Greek city-states to unite for collective resistance but also elicited some of the most profound works of history, drama and philosophy that Western authors ever produced. Much of this Classical literature from fifth century B.C.E. Athens treats the problem of hubris, overstepping boundaries and laying claim to the territory of others. (Eventually, however, the Greek world would produce its own invincible conqueror -- one who supposedly developed his plans for world domination at the feet of notable Athenian philosopher.)
Meanwhile, in the small and relatively insignificant town of Jerusalem, authors were creating, under the auspices of the Persian Empire, what became biblical texts. These texts present a generally favorable image of the Persian kings. It was, after all, during their rule that the Temple in Jerusalem and the city itself were rebuilt, much of the Hebrew Bible was written and many of the most enduring institutions and practices of Jewish life emerged. But the biblical authors also reveal the dark underbelly of the Persian Empire. In several places we hear of the hardships endured by the community. For example, the Persian-appointed governor Nehemiah reports the complaints of people who lost their homes and children in order to pay imperial taxes. In a lengthy collective prayer, the community declares that they are slaves in their own land due to the oppressive tribute they owe the imperial government. And in response to the imperialist vision that Persia inherited from Assyria, the biblical authors articulate norms prohibiting Israel from expanding beyond its borders. The vision of national coexistence they set forth stands over against a Middle East controlled by a single power.
The values of tolerance that the Cyrus Cylinder has come to represent today must be held high. Yet in doing so, we must also heed the voices of those who opposed Persia's imperial reach. Otherwise, we lose sight of the danger posed by any power that would organize the world primarily for the purpose of greater control, exploitation and expansion.
Follow Jacob L. Wright on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JacobLWright