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Cyrus, Ahmadinejad, and the Politics of Purim

Cyrus Cylinder postage stamp (Iran).

Anyone who deplores the politicization of the past should have been apoplectic in September 2010 at the sight of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receiving the loan of the "Cyrus Cylinder" from officials of the British Museum. Often touted as the "world's oldest human-rights charter," this clay object, about nine inches long and shaped like a cork, contains in tiny cuneiform writing a royal inscription of the great Persian king. It dates to about 530 B.C.E.

Relevant Links
The Cyrus Cylinder  British Museum. An illustrated introduction to a prize object in the British Museum; as the English translation shows, the king addresses himself to his own accomplishments, not the rights of his subjects.
Ghosts of Purim Past  Jeffrey Goldberg, New York Times. A report on a 2003 visit to Iran and on close encounters with Islamic anti-Semitism.   

The Iranian press had long demanded that the Cyrus Cylinder be returned "home" from London, and the Tehran regime had gone so far as to threaten to sever all cultural relations with Britain if a loan were not forthcoming. So the British officials who finally agreed to relinquish the object had ample reason to be nervous about the transaction, and Ahmadinejad's behavior at the solemn handing-over ceremony in Tehran could only have added to their anxiety. There, making his own connection between past and present, the Iranian president ostentatiously draped a Palestinian keffiyeh on an actor dressed as Cyrus. By December, Iran was requesting that the loan be extended for three months.

The ironies here are grimly multiform. The Cyrus Cylinder was found in 1879 by British archeologists digging in Babylon—that is, in southern Iraq, not in Iran. The inscription, praising Cyrus and denigrating his defeated Babylonian adversary Nabonidus, is written in the Mesopotamian, not the Persian, language and script. Intended as a foundation deposit, the cylinder was to be buried forever in a temple to a Mesopotamian god that had been reconstructed by Cyrus to demonstrate his piety to a local cult.

There is more. In the fashion of other Mesopotamian royal inscriptions, this one shamelessly misrepresents the achievements and virtue of the king. Far from being the world's first human-rights charter, it is another royal attempt to lie to the gods and, by chance, to posterity. The tradition is a universal one—although, again, first attested not in Persia but in Mesopotamia. In sum, modern Iranians may legitimately take pride in the achievements of Cyrus and others among their Persian ancestors, but the Cyrus Cylinder was at "home" in Babylon first and in London second.

To be sure, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the first to manipulate the past in the name of Persian nationalism. The Shah set the bar high with a gaudy 1971 celebration at Persepolis on the "2,500th anniversary of the Persian empire," where $100 million was poured into new roads, air-conditioned tents, and roast peacock and champagne for guests from 69 countries. But present-day Iran displays an altogether different attitude to the pre-Islamic past. In fact, the regime has long derided that past—a past that is everywhere visible in Iran, that forms a strong thread in modern Iranian identity, and that notably appealed to the Shah. Reports suggest that pre-Islamic archeological sites across Iran have been destroyed or allowed to be flooded by dam projects.

Whence, then, the regime's determination to "recover" the Cyrus Cylinder? Ahmadinejad's stunt provided the key, introducing a newly sinister element into historical revisionism by twisting Cyrus himself into a prototype of anti-Zionism. This was a breathtakingly meretricious act. In the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in other Jewish sources, Cyrus is a liberator and a frankly heroic figure: it was his edict that allowed the Jews exiled in Babylon to leave their captivity and return to their homeland.

Is it necessary to add that none of these various instances of lying about the Iranian past have been commented upon by scholars? They, after all, have their interests to protect. For, even as the regime in Tehran condemns and periodically obliterates the pre-Islamic past, archeology continues in Iran, and continues to reveal an immensely long and rich heritage. Western archeologists and other scholars, cloaking their endeavors in the language of cultural understanding, or under the slogan that culture rises above politics, eagerly work in the country, turning a blind eye not only to the periodic hangings of gay Iranian teenagers but to the descent of the regime into ever cruder manipulations and conspiracy mongering.

This is especially the case where Jews are concerned. The most recent example concerns a site in the city of Hamadan known as the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai the Jews. The two figures are, of course, the key protagonists in the story of Purim, a holiday commemorating the triumph of the Jews of ancient Persia, led by Queen Esther and her cousin, the wise Mordechai, over the genocidal plans of the evil royal vizier Haman and his followers. The biblical book of Esther claims that 75,000 of the Jews' enemies were killed in the resultant battle—although, as with the story as a whole, and unlike in the case of Hanukkah, there is no contemporary outside version to support either the narrative or its locale. Indeed, Jewish tradition regards Haman as a kind of generic representation of the enemy, and places no particular emphasis on the Persian setting.

As for the tomb, long an official holy site and place of veneration, Iran formally downgraded its status in January. According to the state news agency, the tomb was in actuality to be seen as an arm of Israeli imperialism, and its name should be wiped away in order to teach Iranian children to "beware of the crimes of the Jews." Instead, the site should be turned into "a Holocaust memorial" to the "Iranian victims of Esther and Mordechai" and be placed under the supervision of the state religious-endowments authority.  Reports indicate that Iran has now renamed Purim itself as a Jewish "Festival of the Massacre of the Iranians."

As the scheduled return to Britain of the Cyrus Cylinder draws near, and as Purim approaches, this latest Iranian excrescence, reaching into the far distant past to weave together historical fabrication, manufactured chauvinism, and incendiary anti-Semitism, takes its place as yet another episode in a saga of mendacity and malevolence with no end in sight.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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Ron Broxted on February 1, 2011 at 10:35 am (Reply)
It is a bit silly to mention borders in the modern sense when talking of 500BC. Ahmadinejad is not the first to hijack juicy bits of history, nor to assign banal nationalism to his cause.
M on February 1, 2011 at 11:37 am (Reply)
Also read Alex Joffe in today's Wall Street Journal: "Egypt's Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob"
isalwen on February 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Reply)
Ahmadinejad may not be "the first to hijack juicy bits of history, nor to assign banal nationalism to his cause." So should we refrain from condemning him because others in the past have been equally guilty?
Ron Broxted on February 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm (Reply)
Isalwen, if he is reading this it is just reification "See what I said, those nasty Jews".
Justin Beere on February 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm (Reply)
Ha, I got to
the Cylinder in October of last year and the irony definitely wasn't lost on me. I wish there had been pictures of the "handing over" ceremony at the museum...

Todd Collier on March 7, 2012 at 8:44 am (Reply)
We delay and dither while this regime arms itself with the weapons it needs to carry out its grand plan. Our politicians and, sadly, a good number of our citizens close their eyes to recent history and proclaim that all will be well. Arguments ad Hilterum are generally despicable, but there are too many valid points of congruence here to ignore. A megalomaniac who raises nationalism to the level of religious fervor, ignoring all constraints of international law, seeks the most powerful weapons he can find to pursue an open-ended agenda of conquest, starting with the Jews. Folks, history doesn't lie. From time to time, truly evil people arise and attempt to do truly evil things. If they are not opposed, the innocent suffer in large numbers.
aspacia on March 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm (Reply)
There has been a huge amount of Air Force manuevers around Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, for the last week. Remember, this is an election year, and Obama needs the Jewish vote. Regardless of who is elected, Iran is going to be in a world of hurt.

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