Panel at Cyrus Cylinder Exhibit Debates King’s Zoroastrian Roots

Three eminent Iranian scholars debated the possible Zoroastrian roots of Persian King Cyrus the Great, at a panel discussion on the opening day exhibit of the Cyrus Cylinder at the Asian Art Museum here Aug. 9.

Author: Sunita Sohrabji Source: India West

SAN FRANCISCO, United States

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The Cyrus Cylinder tour has garnered the interest of the small Parsi Indian American community across the nation, many who believe Cyrus may have been Zoroastrian or led his life according to the tenets of Zoroastrian faith.

The Cylinder – likened to the Magna Carta – was created around 539 and 530 BCE and is considered to be one of the most historically significant assertions of human rights. As he peacefully and without arms conquered large portions of the Middle East over an 11-year period, Cyrus freed the slaves of each region, and declared that they had the right to their own religion.

“Eulogizing Cyrus the Great has lasted to the present day. He was the ideal king,” said John Curtis, keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, which permanently houses the historical piece.

The Cylinder has been on a five-stop tour throughout the U.S., including the Asian Art Museum, which concluded its display Sept. 22. The exhibit will now move on to the Paul J. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it will be housed from Oct. 2 to Dec. 2, until it returns home to the British Museum in London.

“The Cyrus Cylinder holds many of the important concepts of our core beliefs, such as tolerance and acceptance of other people’s faiths and beliefs,” Nazneen Spliedt, president of the Zoroastrian Association of Northern California, told India-West after the panel discussion.

Ferzneen Chhapgar, who also attended the exhibit, told India-West that the Cyrus Cylinder represents a model of how modern societies can function within the midst of turmoil.

The panel discussion brought together Reza Zarghamee, author of “Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World”; Trita Parsi, founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council; and Mitra Ara, founding director of the Persian Studies program at San Francisco State University. The discussion was moderated by Jay Xu, director of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.

Zarghamee said there were three key proofs that Cyrus may have been a Zoroastrian. There was a fire altar in his palace, similar to altars found at the palaces of later kings who were known to be Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians – including Parsis, Zoroastrians with roots in India – worship the fire as a symbol of purity.

Secondly, noted Zarghamee, Cyrus named his first daughter Atossa, a religiously significant name for Zoroastrians. Atossa is the first great female convert to the Zoroastrian religion; Zarghamee likened this to a Christian naming his daughter Mary.

Finally, many references to Cyrus in the Old Testament and the book of Isiah preface remarks about the king with the phrase “God’s creative capacity.” The concept of a single god – promoted by Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda – entered the Bible at around the time of Cyrus, stated Zarghamee.

Zarghamee said that though Cyrus paid lip service to the Babylonian god Marduk, he was familiar with the traditions of Zoroastrianism, and accepted the faith.

Curtis said in his introduction that the Cylinder was found in Babylon in 1879, where it was believed to have been buried in 530 BC, when Cyrus died.

The Cylinder describes how the Babylon god Marduk took Cyrus by the hand and asked him to depose the Babylon king Nabonidus, whom Marduk believed was not performing his duties.