Cyrus, Ahmadinejad, and the Politics of Purim

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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.

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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