a benevolent empire -- 3/08/18

Today's encore selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus of Persia (now Iran) created the largest empire the world had yet seen. He did it in no small part because, instead of humiliating and deporting his new subjects as the Assyrians and Babylonians before him had done, he allowed those he conquered to keep their religions and customs:

"In 559 BCE Cyrus, a minor member of the Persian Achaemenid family, became king of Anshan in southern Iran. Twenty years later, after a series of spectacular victories in Media, Anatolia, and Asia Minor, he invaded the Babylonian empire and astonishingly, without fighting a single battle, was greeted by the population as a liberator. Cyrus was now the master of the largest empire the world had yet seen. At its fullest extent, it would control the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, from what is now Libya and Turkey in the west to Afghanistan in the east. For centuries to come, any ruler who aspired to world rule would try to replicate Cyrus's achievement. But he was not only a pivotal figure in the politics of the region: he also modeled a more benign form of empire.

Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown

"Cyrus's victory proclamation claimed that when he arrived in Baby­lonia, 'all the people ... of Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship, and their faces shone.' Why such enthusiasm for a foreign invader? ...

"Cyrus's vast multilingual and multicultural empire needed a differ­ent mode of government, one that respected the traditional rights of the conquered peoples and their religious and cultural traditions. Instead of humiliating and deporting his new subjects, and tearing down their temples and desecrating the effigies of their gods as the Assyrians and Babylonians had done, Cyrus announced a wholly new policy, preserved in the Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum. Cyrus, it claimed, had arrived in Babylonia as the harbinger of peace rather than of war; he had abolished the corvée, repatriated all the peoples who had been deported by Nebuchadnezzar, and promised to rebuild their national temples.

"An anonymous Judean exile in Babylonia therefore hailed Cyrus as the messhiah, the man 'anointed' by Yahweh to end Israel's exile.This prophet, of course, was convinced that it was not Marduk but Yah­weh who had taken Cyrus by the hand and shattered the bronze gates of Babylon. 'It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel, my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, conferring a title, though you do not know me,' Yahweh had told Cyrus. A new era was at hand, in which the earth would be restored to its primal perfection. 'Let every valley be filled in, every mountain laid low,' cried the prophet, clearly influ­enced by the Zoroastrian traditions of his Persian messiah, 'let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley.' "

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Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Anchor A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 by Karen Armstrong


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