Cyrus the Great and Persian control of the Middle East

According to the Bible, Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity and rebuild their temple (2 Chronicles 36: 22-23; Ezra 1: 1-11; 3: 7; Isaiah 44:28).

Little is known about the parentage or youth of Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great (in Persian, Kurush). He burst onto the scene somewhere between 553 BC. and 550 BC. when he overthrew the Medes empire, seizing its capital, Ecbatana, capturing its sovereign, Astyages, and becoming the first king of the Achaemenid empire.

Somewhat surprising by ancient standards, Cyrus spared Astyages’ life, married his daughter and, according to some sources, even adopted the fallen king as father.

Shortly after, Cyrus founded the city of Pasargades on the site of one of his most important battles. Pasargades was the ceremonial capital of the start of the Achaemenid Empire – it was never designed for a large residential population – until later in the sixth century BC, when Cyrus’ successor, Darius, built the city of Persepolis, about 80 kilometers away. Today, both are Iranian UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargades, Shiraz, Fars province, Iran, June 22, 2019.

But Cyrus’ conquests were just beginning. Croesus, the legendary wealthy king of Lydia – the western half of modern Turkey – consulted the famous Greek oracle of Delphi to find out if he should challenge the rising power of Persia. The Oracle answered quite ambiguously, predicting that if he went to war against Cyrus, he would destroy a great empire. In 546 BC, Croesus learned that the empire to destroy was his. Again, however, it appears that Cyrus spared him and even appointed him counselor of his court.

Cyrus conquered Armenia around the same time and, faced with very little resistance, conquered Babylon and its empire around 539 BC. The Babylonian king, Nabonidus, was allowed to go into exile.

Cyrus now controlled not only the Iranian plateau, but also the fertile region of the Iraq or Mesopotamia river and the rich Mediterranean coast. At the time of his death in 530 BC, he ruled everything from the Aegean Sea, bathing the eastern shore of Greece, to the Iaxartes river in Central Asia, after establishing Persian sovereignty over much of the Middle East. The empire of Cyrus is the first multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious state known. Wisely, he respected local cultural, religious and administrative practices, which earned him considerable support from the subjects of his vast domain.

In 1879, excavators discovered the famous “Cyrus Cylinder”, a barrel-shaped object inscribed with baked clay deposited under the main temple of Babylon. (It is now kept in the British Museum.) The text of the Cylinder explains to the new Babylonian subjects of Cyrus that he had been chosen by their god Marduk to free them from Nabonidus, whom he described as incompetent, oppressive and irreligious. He praises Cyrus as benefactor of the people of Babylonia, someone who not only improved their lives, but repatriated displaced people and restored ruined temples throughout Mesopotamia and elsewhere – precisely as the Bible says that he did it for the deported Jews and their temple in Jerusalem.

Little is known about the death of Cyrus, who probably happened during a military campaign in Central Asia when he was around 70 years old. A prominent and well-preserved limestone structure in Pasargades is almost certainly his grave. He was succeeded by his son, who reigned as Cambyses II.

According to Isaiah 45 in the Old Testament, God chose Cyrus to build the huge empire he created, even referring to him as an “anointed” (literally, a “messiah”) – the only non-Hebrew person on which the Bible gives this title:

“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have, to subject the nations before him; and I will untie the loins of kings, to open before him the two swinging doors; and the doors will not be closed;

“I will go before you, and I will smooth out the crooked places: I will break the brass doors, and I will cut the iron bars into pieces:

“And I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by name, I am the God of Israel.

“For the love of Jacob, my servant and of Israel, my chosen ones, I even called you by name: I called you, although you did not know me.

“I am the Lord, and there is no one else, there is no God beside me: I have girded you, even if you did not know me” (Isaiah 45: 1-5).

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic, founded BYU’s Middle East Text Initiative, runs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.