Cyrus, King of Persia

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament Kings

  • Cyrus, the King of Persia, was born about 600 BCE (give or take a few years – some say as late at 576 BCE).
  • Most scholars think “Cyrus” derives from Kuros, meaning “sun.” So his name has been interpreted to mean “like the sun.”
  • His father’s name was Cambyses I. During his reign, the Persians (along with several other tribes) were vassals to the Medes, who were led by Astyages.
  • Cambyses was married to Mandane, the daughter of Astyages, the Median king.
  • Cyrus was their only child and was named after his grandfather.
  • Several legends have circulated regarding his youth. One has it that he was brought up by poor herding people. Another is that he was the son of poor people who worked in the Median court.
  • The best one, though, comes from Herodotus, a Greek historian writing about the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century. He claims that Astyages had a dream one night that his grandson would overthrow him. So he ordered his steward, Harpagus, to kill the child. His steward, however, couldn’t bring himself to do it, so he gave the child to a herdsman. The plan was that the herdsman would kill the child, but instead he raised him as his own. By the time Cyrus was 10, it was obvious that he was of royal birth. Astyages noticed the physical resemblance to the child and got the truth out of his steward (whose son was killed in retribution). For unknown reasons, Astyages was more compassionate towards Cyrus and allowed him to return to his real parents.
  • Cyrus’ own testimony, however, lacks such drama and states simply that he inherited the kingdom from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
  • At the time he was growing up, there were roughly 10-15 Persian tribes. His family was from the Pasargadae and descended from the clan of Achaemenidae.
  • It is believed that Cyrus became leader of the Persian tribe around 559 BCE.
  • After Cyrus had become the leader of the Persian tribe, Astyages sent an army to do battle with them. Unfortunately, the commander of the army defected to the Persians.
  • This led to the capture of Astyages, and Cyrus then ruled both the Persians and the Medes. The Medes accepted Cyrus’ rule because he was part Mede, i.e., grandson of Astyages.
  • The legend by Herodotus, however, continues. When Cyrus’ father died and Cyrus took over, they were still under the Medes. It was Harpagus, the steward, who convinced Cyrus to rebel against their feudal lords. The revolt started in the summer of 553 BCE and lasted until 549 BCE, effectively ending the Median Empire.
  • In 546 BCE, Cyrus officially became the king of Persia.
  • This victory took place at Pasargadae, which became the new capital and the site for Cyrus’ new palace. Scholars think Pasargadae means “the garden of Pars.”
  • Nonetheless, Cyrus was highly instrumental in uniting the Medes and the Persians as well as in taking over all the countries that had been subject to the Medes.
  • Wars against Lydia (another ancient powerhouse) soon followed. Legend has it that Lydia, under Croesus, attacked first. The first battle ended in a draw. Before Croesus was able to garner reinforcements, Cyrus attacked again, using his camels to confuse and scare the Lydian horses. Croesus was captured, and Cyrus occupied his capital at Sardis.
  • Shortly thereafter, with the help of Harpagus, Cyrus conquered Lycia, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. He was able to do this by building earthworks comprised of soil and rock to breach the walls of those cities. By the year 542 BCE, those conquests were complete and he returned home.
  • Scholars think these countries were then run by “satraps,” or vassal kings. Today we might call them “governors.”
  • This allowed many countries to be ruled under a central government. This form of administration would continue for hundreds of years – until the time of the Seleucid dynasty.
  • After he had solidified his power base, Cyrus turned his attention to the main prize –Babylon.
  • At this time, the Babylonians were under Nabonidus, whom they hated. Nabonidus was a poor ruler having been struck with some sort of physical problem. While he was off recovering, his regent, Balshazzar, was in charge of the city.
  • Apparently Nabonidus infuriated most of the Babylonians when he refused to come back for their New Year’s Festival, which was celebrated as the climax of the cultic year. The citizens thought this was very sacrilegious.
  • For these and other reasons, the people turned against him. That is perhaps the main reason why Cyrus’ army was able to walk into Babylon with nary a struggle.
  • On October 10, 539 BCE, the Persians entered Babylon without any resistance. According to Herodotus, the Persians diverted water from the Euphrates into a canal, which basically allowed them to walk through the river bed into the city under the cover of darkness. Needless to say, the Babylonians had quite a surprise in the morning.
  • On October 29 of that year, Cyrus entered the city and made it official. The Babylonians, literally, gave him the city, hailing him as a liberator.
  • After this, Cyrus proclaimed himself king of Babylon and of the four corners of the world.
  • Within a short time, Cyrus also became the ruler of Syria and Palestine.
  • Eventually, he ruled over most of Southwest and Central Asia, from Egypt to the Indus River. This was the largest state the world had ever seen.
  • In addition to his military legacy, Cyrus had a huge impact on both Eastern and Western civilization.
  • He was not a brutal conqueror but, instead, was very tolerant of the traditions and beliefs of the nations he conquered.
  • He maintained an “Edict of Restoration,” which basically allowed conquered peoples to return to their homelands.
  • The statement, “King of Babylon and ruler of the four corners of the world,” has been found in the famous “Cyrus cylinder,” which was an inscription that was placed in the temple of Marduk. Among other things, this inscription accuses Nabonidus of dishonoring Marduk while Cyrus was faithful and pleasing to him.
  • Though a follower of Zoroastrianism, Cyrus was believed to be a worshipper of Marduk. Legend had it that he believed Marduk handed him Babylon without a battle simply because Nabonidus did not honor and worship Marduk.
  • Obviously, Cyrus tried to honor Marduk faithfully. In so doing, he gained the loyalty of the Babylonian people.
  • The cylinder itself was discovered in 1879 by a British archaeologist and is kept at the British Museum in London.
  • The cylinder verifies the biblical accounts whereby Babylon was overthrown and conquered peoples (including the Jews) were able to return to their native lands. This effectively ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews.
  • Additional statements show how Cyrus played a huge role in improving the lives of the Babylonians along with allowing conquered peoples to return to their native lands.
  • Some scholars think the Cyrus cylinder was the beginning of “human rights” reform. Others say it’s a typical inscription laying out the policies of a new administration.
  • It does show, however, that he had genuine respect for others’ religious beliefs and cultural traditions.
  • Because Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, he is held in high honor in Jewish tradition.
  • Jewish people, along with other conquered nations, became great supporters of his rule.
  • According to the prophet Isaiah, God chose Cyrus to be his anointed and to rebuild Jerusalem. This occurred 100 years before Nebuchadnezzar would destroy the city.
  • Through him, God would destroy the Babylonian Empire and bring an end to the decades of exile prophesied by Jeremiah, an exile that was the result of their rebellion against God.
  • Under his rule, the Jews in exile were encouraged to return to Jerusalem. They referred to him as the Messiah – God’s anointed. He is the only Gentile to ever be called “Messiah.”
  • According to the book of Ezra, he officially decreed that the Jews should return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
  • Not only did he give his permission, but he also returned to them the sacred vessels that had been stolen from the temple and gave them a vast amount of money to help with the building project.
  • He did, however, halt work on the temple after being lied to by those who wanted the work stopped.
  • The temple, then, would not be finished until the time of Darius the Great in 516 BCE.
  • Nonetheless, Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, and has been named among the top one hundred influential people throughout history.
  • Because of his system of satraps (governors), some have even credited him with developing the first great postal system.
  • The details of his personal life, though, are sketchy. Some scholars think he was also married to a daughter of Astyages (if that’s true, it would mean that he actually married his aunt).
  • Nor is it clear how many wives Cyrus had. Some say there were at least two. One of the unions brought forth two sons, Cambyses II and Smerdis. Cambyses would be the one to succeed Cyrus. Legend has it that he killed his brother before going off to war to insure there would be no rebellion at home when he returned. Others say Smerdis ruled for a short time after Cambyses died.
  • Though Cyrus never succeeded in conquering Egypt, his son Cambyses II was able to do so.
  • Cyrus also had at least two daughters, Artystone and Atossa. Both would later marry Darius the Great, and Atossa would be the mother of Xerxes I, Darius’ successor.
  • During his lifetime, Cyrus commenced several building projects in Pasargadea beginning as early as 546 BCE. These were never finished due to his untimely death.
  • Cyrus died around 529 BCE and was buried at Pasargadae. Some accounts claim that he died in battle; others say that he died peacefully in his palace.
  • Pasargadae remained the capital until Darius founded the city of Persepolis.
  • Ancient Pasargadae has been identified as a city of ruins located in present-day Fars province in Iran.
  • It is now an archaeological site covering almost a mile square. Cyrus’ tomb was identified in 2006 and is believed to also be the burial site of his son, Cambyses.
  • It is believed that his tomb was looted during the time of Alexander. According to legend, Alexander ordered his commander to enter the monument where he found a golden bed and coffin, many jewels, and an inscription identifying the tomb. No trace of such an inscription remains today.
  • In order to save the tomb from destruction during later Islamic wars, its caretakers convinced the raiders that it was really the tomb of King Solomon’s mother. A new inscription was placed on the tomb, which remains to this day.
  • Architecturally, the city is quite amazing. Scholars have noted that the city was constructed to withstand an earthquake classified as “7” on the Richter scale. Some of these same designs are used today in buildings that must be insulated from seismic activity.
  • No doubt Cyrus’ mark on history was felt long after his death.


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