Cyrus of Medo-Persia

12 May 2015
Cyrus of Medo-Persia

Cyrus the great was the military genius who carved out the Medo-Persian Empire which stretched from Egypt to India. In Hebrew his name was Koresh. He was born about 600 BC and had rather a humble beginning.

The Medes occupied what is now northern Iran. Their capital was Hamadan, or Achmetha in the Bible (Ezra 6:2). The Persians occupied southern Iran. Their most important city was Persepolis, a Greek word meaning ‘City of the Persians’.

The Greek historian Herodotus relates the origin of  Cyrus. Most scholars regard the account as unhistorical legend, but it makes interesting reading.

Herodotus wrote,
Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled the city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told the dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. ... for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne. To guard against this, Astyages, when Cyrus was born, sent for his kinsman Harpagus … and said to him … “Get hold of Mandane’s child - take it home and kill it. Then bury it how you please”.  (The Histories, 107-108)

But Harpagus was reluctant to take the life of the child, and as his wife had just given birth to a still-born son, the couple decided to adopt the child of Mandane and bury their own dead son, pretending they had buried the son of Mandane.

The ruse went undetected until the live baby turned ten years of age when he was playing military games with other children and it was noticed that by nature he assumed a leading role in the games. Astyages became suspicious and extracted the truth from Harpagus. However, he allowed the child to be restored to his original parents, and Cyrus was destined to become the next king.

In 559 BC his father died and Cyrus acceded to the throne, but he was not the supreme ruler. The Medes were acknowledged as co-rulers. This did not satisfy Cyrus who fought against the Medes and brought them into subjection, but the Medes were too strong to ignore completely and the empire continued to be Medo-Persian.

Cyrus considered it necessary to extend his kingdom into Anatolia. The city of Sardis was perched on a high hill and difficult to conquer. The king of Sardis was the wealthy Croesus who hired several provinces to support him, but in 542 BC Sardis fell. There are conflicting reports of what happened next, but it seems likely that Cyrus dealt leniently with Croesus and allowed him to continue to hold office.

Cyrus returned to his homeland but soon found it necessary to march south and bring Elam under his control. There was no stopping the Medo-Persian armies. Their empire was now the most extensive the world had ever seen. There was just one city that remained to be conquered - Babylon.

Nabonidus was then the nominal king of Babylon but his religious views did not go down well with the Babylonian population. He spent much of his later years in other areas, particularly in Arabia. He crowned his son Belshazzar as coregent in charge of Babylon. When Cyrus’ threat to Babylon became apparent Nabonidus returned and offered strong military defence to the victorious Medo-Persian armies, but he was no match for the invaders.

Cyrus determined to take Babylon. Upstream he diverted the waters of the Euphrates River into a depression, then marched his troops down stream and into the mighty city.

Even this clever tactic would not have succeeded had it not been for the gates fronting the river being left open. It was the occasion of a Babylonian drunken festival. “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old” (Daniel 5:30,31).

It was actually Cyrus who gained the military victory, but he delegated the aged Mede Darius to administer the conquered province of Babylon.

All this had been foretold 150 years earlier when the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had written,
Thus says the Lord to His anointed, To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held -
To subdue nations before him And loose the armor of kings,
To open before him the double doors,  
So that the gates will not be shut.
(Isaiah 45:1)      

Tradition claims that Daniel showed Cyrus the prophecy of Isaiah, and Cyrus chose to fulfil his appointed role.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,  

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me.
And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah.
Who is among you of all His people?
May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel.

(Ezra 1:1-3)

In the temple of Babylon archaeologists unearthed a clay cylinder inscribed with cuneiform writing. One side of the cylinder had been broken off and was never found, but the remaining portion could be read. It said,

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad ... I entered Babylon as a friend ... All the kings of the entire world from the Upper to the Lower Sea, brought their heavy tributes and kissed my feet in Babylon ... I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries which have been ruins for a long time, ... I [also] gathered all their [former] inhabitants and returned [to them] their habitations ... I endeavoured to  repair their dwelling places.
(The Ancient Near East, V1, p 206).

Cyrus was now more than sixty years old, a ripe old age for a warrior of that era, and his days were numbered. There are several accounts of his final war and death, one told by Herodotus claiming he met his death at the hand of a female warrior.

Herodotus told of Cyrus’ war against the Massagetae in Asia who were ruled by a warrior queen named Tomyris. At first the Massagetae defeated the Persians in battle but during their victory celebrations the Persians,

... fell upon them, killed many, and took an even greater number prisoners, among whom was Spargapises, the son of Tomyris the queen and general of the army. 

When news of the defeat of her army and the capture of her son got through to the queen, she sent a message to Cyrus in the following terms: “Glutton as you are for blood, you have 
no cause to be proud of this day’s work which has no smack of soldierly courage. ... Now listen to me and I will advise you for your good: give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact, and be content with your triumph over a third part of the Massagetae. If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink for all your gluttony.”

... Finally however, the Massagetae got the upper hand, the greater part of the Persian army was destroyed where it stood, and Cyrus himself was killed. He had been on the throne for 29 years.

After the battle Tomyris ordered a search to be made amongst Persian dead for the body of Cyrus; and when it was found she pushed his head into a skin which she had filled with human blood, and cried out as she committed this outrage:Though I have conquered you and live, yet you have ruined me by treacherously taking my son. See now - I fulfil my threat: you have your fill of blood.”
(The Histories, 211-214)

Cyrus had established his capital city at a place called Pasargadae, north of Persepolis. It has been well excavated and contains a limestone tomb which is believed to be the tomb in which Cyrus was buried. There are no human remains in the tomb, nor is there an inscription identifying it, but as it is so well preserved and there is no other tomb in the city it is highly likely that this was the final resting place of this great soldier and diplomat. Recently a dam has been created near Pasargadae and some scholars fear that the extra humidity may cause the limestone to crumble, but this may not happen in the immediate future.