What would Cyrus do?

Tolerant governments produce societal harmony by winning people’s hearts and minds. Cyrus recognized this 25 centuries ago.

An Iraqi man carrying a Koran and a cross attends mass at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad on July 20 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Iraqi man carrying a Koran and a cross attends mass at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad on July 20
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Across Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group Islamic State continues to brutalize those whose convictions and culture differ from its own, including vulnerable religious minorities.
IS’s barbarism recalls similar abuses by ancient conquerors. In what is now Iraq, the Babylonians enslaved conquered peoples they had exiled, as did the Assyrians.
An Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, described his own IS-like atrocities: “[I] flayed [those] who had revolted....
Some I impaled.... on stakes...
and I cut off the limbs of [those] who had rebelled.”
But there was at least one shining exception to this horrifying norm – Cyrus the Great of Persia. Entering Babylon, south of today’s Baghdad, on October 29, 539 BCE, he inaugurated a policy of tolerance and freedom, producing stability and security for his multi-religious, multicultural empire which spanned the Middle East and beyond. Today’s world, including the Middle East, should heed his example.
Cyrus’s enlightened approach is seen through the discovery in 1878 of an artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder. Many call it history’s first human rights document.
Here in part is a translation by its custodian, the British Museum: “I am Cyrus, ...king of Babylon, ...Sumer, ...Akkad, [and] the four quarters of the world....
“I went as [a] harbinger of peace into Babylon... amid... rejoicing...my... troops marched peaceably... I sought the welfare of... Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for [its] population, ...I soothed their weariness, I freed them from their bonds...
I sent back to their places, to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad...[and]... the sanctuaries across the...Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them.
“I collected together... their people and returned them to their [homelands].”
One of the proclamation’s many paraphrases includes this excerpt: “I ordered that all shall be free to worship their gods without harm... [and] places of worship...to be reopened.”
At least two extraordinary things separate Cyrus’ utterances from those of his contemporaries.
First, they contain plenty of carrot but no visible stick. Cyrus makes no fear-inducing references to horrors inflicted on enemies. He rejects IS-like tactics implicitly.
Second, the Cyrus Cylinder affirms human rights and champions religious tolerance.
Of course, it contains Cyrus’ own words about himself.
Did he follow them? The evidence suggests he did.
Cyrus’ description of his treatment of the Babylonians mirrors the Bible’s depiction of how he treated the Jews, whom the Babylonians had conquered and deported to Babylon. Upon capturing Babylon, Cyrus released the Jews and repatriated those desiring to return to their homeland. Cyrus also supported rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Bible assigns to Cyrus a special Hebrew word – “moshiach,” meaning “anointed one,” and “messiah” in anglicized form: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed [moshiach], to Cyrus...
I will go before you and will level the mountains... I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor” (Isaiah 45:1-4).
No other Gentile ever received this title, which was reserved for monarchs descended from King David and ultimately for a coming Messiah.
In the past century, Cyrus was associated repeatedly with the modern Jewish return from exile.
In 1917, Britain’s King George V spotlighted Cyrus while approving the Balfour Declaration, after which European Jews displayed images of Cyrus alongside pictures of King George. In 1948, US President Harry Truman is said to have exclaimed, “I am Cyrus” when recognizing the state of Israel.
There is one final bit of evidence that validates Cyrus’ words: Non-Jewish writers of antiquity, including Herodotus and Xenophon, also laud his rule.
According to Xenophon: “[T] hose who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while [they]... respected Cyrus as their ‘Father’... What other man...
after having overturned an empire, ever died with the title of ‘The Father’ from the people whom he had brought under his power?” This verdict is stunning when we consider that both men were Greeks, ancient rivals of the Persians.
In later centuries, some Greeks preferred the vision of a coercive monoculture to Cyrus’ vision of toleration. When the villain of Hanukka, Antiochus of Syria, tried to impose this on the Jews, the Maccabees defeated him. But the quest for a monoculture did not end. It continued in Europe and remains even in modern times through radical strains of secularism. It continues in the Middle East with violent religious extremists like IS.
Today, researchers are confirming the obvious: Tolerant governments produce societal harmony by winning people’s hearts and minds. Cyrus recognized this 25 centuries ago. The result was security and peace. IS and other brutal tyrants do not acknowledge this, and the result is insecurity and strife. Cyrus and his vision will endure. IS will not. It’s destined for the ash heap, the final home for tyranny of every kind.
The author is president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice.