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Legend of the
birth and rise of Cyrus


The Historical Account

Cyrus the Great, The Phenomenon


The founder of the Persian monarchy was Hakhamanish or Achaemenes, Prince of the tribe of Pasargadae; his capital was the city bearing the same name, ruins of which still exist, dating from the era of Cyrus the Great. No definite acts can be traced to Achaemenes, after whom the dynasty was named; but the fact that his memory was highly revered tends to prove that he did in truth mold the Persian tribes into a nation before they stepped onto the stage of history. His son Chishpish or Teispes took advantage of the defenceless condition of Elam, after its overthrow by Assurbanipal, and occupied the district of Anshan, assuming the title of "Great King, King of Anshan.". Upon his death one of his sons succeeded to Anshan and the other to Fars.

Table showing the Anshan Line and the Persian Line

As shown in the above table, this division started the double line, a reference made by Darius in the Behistun inscription:

"There are eight of my race who have been kings before me; I am the ninth. In a double line we have been kings".

Cyrus the descendant of a long line of kings should actually be called Cyrus II, because he was named after his grandfather. He looked upon himself as the 'king of Anshan' and belonged to the ruling house of Persia, but Cyrus also had Median connections through his mother, whose father was supposedly Astyages, king of the Medes.

According to Herodotus, the last ruler of Media, Astyages (reigned 585-550 B.C), was defeated by Cyrus in 549 BC. Ecbatana, the royal city, was captured in 550 BC.

The famous tablet of the Annals of Nabonidus tells the story:
"[His troops] he collected, and against Cyrus, king of Anshan,... he marched. As for Astyages, his troops revolted against him and he was seized (and) delivered to Cyrus. Cyrus (marched) to Ecbatana, the royal city. The silver, gold, goods and substance of Ecbatana he took to the land of Anshan..."

Cyrus thus established himself king of the Medes and the Persians.

We are still not sure when Cyrus succeeded to the Persian throne. He may have been asked to accept the throne upon his capture of Ecbatana, which after all was in his family. In any case we know that Hystaspes, father of Darius, never reigned; though he was the son of Arsames.

A few years later Croesus, the king of Lydia (notorious for his vast wealth), saw an opportunity with the change of regime in Iran to expand his kingdom. He crossed the river Halys, previously regarded as the boundary between the Lydians to the west and the Medes and Persians to the east. Cyrus hastened westwards, and after an encounter at Pteria forced Croesus to retire to his capital city of Sardis. In his retreat, Croesus lay waste the countryside to impede the march of the Persian army. He foolishly assumed that Cyrus would not follow as winter was nearing and he was already far from home. But Cyrus followed him, and in an historic battle in 546 BC on the open plains of Hermus defeated the Lydians using the now famous ruse of covering the front of his army with camels, the smell of which terrified Crosus' cavalry and made them unusable.

Croesus then retreated to his 'impregnable' capital Sardis, to wait it out until his allies assembled. Herodotus tells the story of its capture.
"When the city was blockaded for fourteen days, Cyrus offered a rich reward to the first man who entered it. A Mardian soldier saw a member of the garrison descend what looked like from a distance an inaccessible cliff, pick up his lost helmet and return. He noted the track and with a few comrades surprised the careless garrison, and opened the gates to the Persian army..."

Croesus was first taken to Persia as a prisoner but subsequently lived as a great noble at the royal court. That he was not put to death seems probable, for Cyrus also spared the life of Astyages. Croesus and other Ionians were the first of many foreigners, particularly Greeks, to enter the service of the royal household; for the Persians this was of immense practical and cultural benefit. The conquest of Asia Minor had brought them into contact with a civilization totally different from their own, in government, religion and concepts of life.

Cyrus left his general Harpagus behind to consolidate the Persian position, and shortly afterwards Lycia, Caria and even the Greek cities of Asia Minor were added to his newly founded Persian empire. The fact that the Persians encountered little initial resistance was partly due to the Greek merchants wishing to expand their commerce as part of a large empire. Already, much of the trade lay within the empire or in areas about to be conquered.

About this time Cyrus built himself a capital in keeping with a king of his status, at Pasargadae (the name may mean - the Persian settlement) in Fars.

In 540 BC Cyrus turned his attention to Babylon. Nabonidus, who through conspiracy had taken the Babylonian throne, failed to maintain internal union and national security and military affairs had been handed to his son, Belshazzar. Further discontent in Babylonia was provoked by Nabonidus's religious policies, and Cyrus was able to take advantage of this internal division. The fact that Prince Belshazzar was more interested in amusement than in safeguarding his people aided Cryus' entry, which according to Herodotus and Xenophon, was effected by a daring piece of strategy.
"...While Belshazzar had a great feast, the Euphrates, which flowed through Babylon, was diverted by the Persians into a great trench constructed outside the walls. Thus the Persian army, on a night when the Babylonians were engaged in a religious festival, were able to advance along the dry, or at least passable, riverbed..." Owing to the size of the place, states Xenophon, "...the inhabitants of the central parts, long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had changed, but... continued dancing and reveling until they learnt of the capture."

Though there is no justification for rejecting this story the real reason for the weakness in Babylon's defense was probably due to the revolt of Urbaru.

Babylon reportedly surrendered to Cyrus with scarcely a struggle, and if there was no resistance it was because the city was taken completely by surprise. Cyrus, however, legitimized his succession as king by 'taking the hand of the god Bel' and his persuasive propaganda convinced the Babylonians that Marmuk, their supreme deity, had directed his steps towards the city.

Cyrus was now master of an area stretching from the Mediterranean to eastern Iran and from the black sea to the borders of Arabia. It was with some justification, then, that in the so-called 'Cyrus Cylinder' (housed at the British Museum) - a barrel shaped clay cylinder inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform recording the capture of Babylon - Cyrus describes himself as the 'ruler of the world.' Cyrus also relates how he repatriated various peoples and restored the 'images' (of the gods) to their shrines. The Jews are not mentioned by name, but it is clear from the Book of Ezra (I, I-3) that the captives deported by Nebuchadnezzar were at this time allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. This document was part of the doctrine which Cyrus sought to put into practice with a view to bringing peace to mankind, and later it was hailed as the first Charter of Human Rights. Although sections of the cylinder have been destroyed through time, the principal message of Cyrus' Declaration is readily apparent:

The famous clay cylinder of Cyrus the Great

The famous clay cylinder of Cyrus the Great,
written in Babylonian cuneiform, recording his
capture of Babylon in 539 BC.

"I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Cambyses, ...king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, ...descendant of Teispes, ...progeny of an unending royal line, whose rule Bel and Nabu cherish, whose kingship they desire for their hearts' pleasures.
When I, well-disposed, entered Babylon, I established the seat of government in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. Marduk, the great God, caused the big-hearted inhabitants of Babylon to come to me. I sought daily to worship him. My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon. I did not allow any to terrorize the land of Sumer and Akkad. I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. The citizens of Babylon ...their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes...
...the cities of Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnuna, the cities of Zamban, Meurnu, Der, as far as the region of the land of Gutium, the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to the places and housed them in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored to them their dwellings..."

Throughout his reign, Cyrus was continually preoccupied with his eastern frontiers. Nine years after the conquest of Babylon he was killed in battle, though the circumstances of his death are not clear. Cyrus' body was brought back to Pasargade; his tomb, which still exists, consists of a single chamber built on a foundation course of six steps. According to Arrian (AD c. 96-180), the body was placed in a golden sarcophagus, and the tomb, as Plutarch (AD 46-120) reports bore the inscription:

Tomb of Cyrus the Great

The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.
Photo by Henri Stierlin

"O, man, whoever thou art and whensesoever thou comest, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cryus, and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth which covers my body"


Legend of the birth and rise of Cyrus

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Cyrus the Great, The Phenomenon

Legend of the birth
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The Phenomenon

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