When the Assyrians were carving out the world’s first true ‘super empire’ from the period of 10th century to 7th century BC, a wave of pastoral tribes from north of the Caspian Sea was busy settling in the eastern side of Zagros Mountains, in an expansive plateau that stretched all the way to western India. These were the semi-nomadic Indo-Iranian people who flocked to settled lands and even started out their own religious institutions with the ‘universal’ principles. One of such principles pertains to the prophet Zoroaster and his nigh monotheistic approach to religion – with the ‘head god’ attribution given to the supreme being of Ahura Mazda. Such evolving yet unrestricted religious maxims clearly contrasted with the Babylonian system where each city seemingly had an exclusive patron god with his/her own set of ‘godly’ powers.
Guided by these newer religious conventions (that seemed to favor order, truth and the law or logic) and semi-nomadic cultural background, the tribes of Iran (still relatively independent from each other) did identify themselves as a separate super-entity who were different from the Babylonians settled in the resource-rich regions of Mesopotamia. And in the south of this land of Iran emerged a confederation of around 10 or 15 tribes, who collectively named their realm as Persia. The leading tribe among this burgeoning league was the Pasargadae – and their king always came from the Achaemenid clan. In 559 BC, a new leader was chosen: Cyrus II (‘the Great’); also known as Kurosh-e Bozorg (or Cyrus the Elder) in New Persian, the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
1. Cyrus the Great and the drafting of the ‘human rights’ cylinder
The emergence of Cyrus II to power only came after he subdued the Medes, a super-tribe from Northern Iran that was initially stronger than its Persian counterpart. And after taking control of the entire realm of Iran (which will be called Persia from now), he declared himself the ‘Shah’ (or simply King) of Persia. Historically, this proved to be an incredibly momentous event in the region, which till then was a secondary realm to the likes of the fabulously rich Babylonians and the rigorously tough Assyrians. To that end, spurred by his recent successes, the ever-ambitious Cyrus consequently invested himself and his newly founded kingdom in ‘world’ conquering endeavors – with the first target being the Lydian Empire based in Asia Minor.
Ruled by the legendary King Croesus (who was supposedly the richest man in the contemporary world, and also credited with issuing the first true gold coins), the Lydians controlled all of Anatolia west of the River Halys, except Lycia. In spite of such intimidating credentials, Croesus was defeated by carefully-crafted planning and ruses that seemingly went against the established military protocols of the ancient world. This was epitomized by an incident that followed an indecisive battle near the Halys. As per customs and the existing situation, after the strenuous battle, Croesus retired to his capital Sardis – in a bid to solidly his position and continue the fight next spring. But Cyrus took a gamble of a lifetime, and followed Croesus all the way to Sardis. This audacious move was mirrored by the unusual battlefield tactic of using Arabian camels (dromedaries) – both of which took the Lydian king and his cavalry forces by surprise. Subsequently, the citadel of Sardis fell to the invading Persians.
In any case, Croesus’ life was probably spared – a political and psychological ploy that became the personal trademark of Cyrus the Great. As a matter of fact, the victorious king developed a magnanimous reputation for sparing conquered rulers so that he could supposedly use their advice on how to govern their lands. This was complimented by Cyrus’ progressive attitude (or at least his ‘pretense’ of generosity) towards foreign cultures and religions, a crucial personality aspect that aided the Persians when they next faced the Babylonians. After defeating the Babylonian army in a few engagements, the Persian army made its triumphant yet bloodless entry into the jewel of the ancient world, the city of Babylon – a task made easy by the enemy tyrant Nabonidus, who fled the capital.
This incredible event was epitomized by the Cyrus cylinder, a Persian charter (made in 539 BC by Cyrus’ orders) that ‘sort of’ upheld the rights of the downtrodden – so much so that it is sometimes considered as the oldest known charter or symbol of universal human rights; though some scholars oppose this view – given how most ancients were unaware of the very concept of a ‘human right’. In any case, consisting of a baked clay tablet with inscriptions in the Akkadian language using a cuneiform script (pictured above), the contents of the charter tend to conform to three major points. These premises include – tolerance for all races, religions and languages which is to be supervised by the ruling political entity; the allowance for slaves and deported people to return to their homelands; and the restoration of destroyed temples and religious buildings as causatum of religious freedom. Simply put, the often unfairly depicted Persians (especially in Hollywood) were the ones who came with such humanitarian (if not human rights) declarations, as opposed to the Ancient Greeks.