05/01/2013 04:32 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Ancient Cyrus Cylinder Stirs Modern Passion and Debate

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What should we do with knowledge that undermines a force for good? I attended the Cyrus Cylinder symposium at D.C.'s Freer Sackler Gallery, the artifact's first stop on a U.S. tour. It was a sunny Saturday morning, yet the hall was packed, and no one was snoozing. Rightly so, as the presenters are among the world's "A team" scholars of ancient Persia.

But from the start, things did not go as many had hoped. For the scholarship presented complicates our widely accepted and most popular images of Cyrus the Great as a uniquely benevolent ruler who instituted policies of peace and tolerance such as the world had never seen before.

As it turns out, Cyrus' declaration as articulated in the famous Cyrus Cylinder was not itself revolutionary. It conformed to the speech and vision expected from Mesopotamia's conquering rulers. Cyrus was not the first to express religious tolerance or to claim to have liberated his subjects from the wrong-headed and oppressive rule of his predecessor. Such statements, the scholarship shows, were par for the course, the expected norm from a conquering king.

What do we do with such knowledge? For it would seem to sever a golden filament of hope for common ground between modern Iranians and Americans, a position from which to express mutual respect and even goals toward which we could strive together. At a time when Iranians feel misunderstood, victims of ignorant prejudices and hateful associations, at a time when we yearn for something on which to agree, along comes the Cyrus Cylinder, an object that would seem to show that justice and human rights has been the desire of the Iranian people from their inception, and the acceptance of religious diversity, too. Along comes Cyrus, "the author of the first declaration of human rights," called messiah in the Bible, the benevolent ruler of a huge and prosperous empire.

It was no surprise, then, that faced with competing evidence, some people at the symposium felt betrayed. One man actually said to the panel that they seemed a well-orchestrated congress of anti-Iranian sentiment. Many attendees expected customary laud but heard something else. For some, the foundation on which they had built an image of Cyrus that informed exciting and admirable ideas about Iran had been shaken.

I am one who was first attracted to studying Cyrus and the ancient Persian empire for all the wonderful qualities that I listed above. But as I began to dig deeper, to read the available scholarship including the work of those who spoke at the Freer Sackler, to examine the sources for myself, and to compare what I learned in one place with what I heard in another, my image of Cyrus grew more troubled and then more complex. In short, he became human.

I am reminded of the effect that biblical scholarship can have. When people learn that the Bible developed over a long period of time, that we do not have an original version but only copies of copies and those don't all agree, when people learn that Paul didn't write all the letters attributed to him, or that the final author of Daniel lived during a time of Greek (not Persian) rule, some people think they must reject it entirely.

The logic goes, how can the Bible be God's Word if it has such a checkered history? But who says that God's Word had to come in one great chunk out of nowhere, make perfect sense, and endure as that original autograph? Why can't it be dynamic and earthy, complicated, contradictory and as challenging as it is comforting?

Once I allowed for Cyrus' humanity, he became extraordinary again. For Cyrus did indeed grow an empire larger than the world had ever seen before in which native leaders continued to wield power and diverse peoples enjoyed autonomy in worship. Cyrus wisely conformed to expectations that were themselves enlightened, that ensured the least chaotic and least bloody transfer of power, and that honored the traditions he inherited. What's more, the memory of Cyrus that we have inherited today is a profound legacy of leadership, justice and peace -- no matter who exactly he was or how exactly he ruled. That such a legacy is embraced by Iranians and Americans as well as many others is reason to celebrate indeed.

Finally, I am confident that it is better to adopt whatever knowledge an open-minded investigation of the past may yield than to turn our backs on it. If our hopes and expectations must adjust in light of new knowledge, then let them adjust. The onus is on us to find ways to bring any such knowledge to bear on our common quest for justice, for human rights and for peace.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article pointed to Joel Osteen's purported loss of faith as an example. It appears now that that was a hoax. The author apologizes for her error.

The Cyrus Cylinder