The Zoroastrian All Party Parliamentary Group convened an eminent gathering at Westminster to celebrate “Cyrus the Great Day” and Parsi’s contribution to freedom, as Cyrus entered Babylon on 29 October in the 6th Century BC creating the largest empire ever known.
Dr Rashna Writer — author of Contemporary Zoroastrians — gave a talk juxtaposing for the first time the Magna Carta with the Cyrus Cylinder, separated by 1,700 years and crafted by men of contrasting popularity and vision, both are constitutional documents that still resonate today.
Dr Writer presented Cyrus as a novice king with a clear strategic vision, wanting to place Persia at the centre of a vast empire. He consolidated tribes both Iranian and non-Iranian from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean, incorporated Lydia and got the Asiatic tribes and Greek cities to acquiesce but the surrender of Babylon was his greatest achievement. Dr Writer attributes the acceptance of Cyrus to his mitigating the existing internal conflict, rebuilding a failing administration, ensuring welfare, re-integrating people and resources while respecting the society he had occupied. To paraphrase Dr Writer, Cyrus was acutely aware of the religious concerns of Babylonians and Israelis; he restored dilapidated shrines, increased offerings to divinities as well as returning people to their original settlements. Text and contemporary accounts propagate Cyrus as a saviour, it is surmised that Cyrus was following the teachings of Zarathustra and the Cylinder’s text is not just political propaganda but a record of Cyrus’s adherence to the Zoroastrian creed of “good thought, good works, and good deeds”.
By contrast Dr Writer presented King John (1199-1216) as a treacherous sibling to his brothers and his nephew acquiring the throne via conspiratorial tactics, ultimately he was a weak military leader who lacked strategy and was permanently at odds over taxes with the English and French barons. Disagreements with Pope Innocent III over who should have been Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication from the Church. With King John’s reputation in tatters the barons asked for a written charter confirming the ancient liberties granted by earlier kings of England, after many negotiations King John, against his will, put his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. Dr Writer believes by enshrining the rule of law the Magna Carta set in motion the wider liberties and freedoms enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people in more than a hundred countries today.
Prof. Almut Hinze — Zartoshty Professor of Zoroastrianism at SOAS in London — continued praising Cyrus’ policies of religious freedom, referencing when in 1971 the Shah of Iran celebrated Cyrus locating himself as Cyrus’ natural successor. The Professor explained that even Greek historians and philosophers admire the Persian virtue of telling the truth and the construct of the first multi ethnic empire that allowed each ethnic group to observe their own customs and worship. That Cyrus was tolerant of Jews and that Jews flourished under Persian rule is well documented; Prof Hinze concluded by saying the Cylinder has been referred to as the first declaration of human rights and in 1971 was translated into all the languages of the United Nations.
The afternoon was wrapped up by an informative slide show and narrative by Dr John Curtis OBE FBA and CEO of the Iran Heritage Foundation. Dr Curtis explained some of the Cylinder’s noteworthy significances… in those days it was customary to flatten areas of conquest. Cyrus did not do this, he returned statues of Gods to their places of origin promoting religious tolerance; Cyrus freed the Babylonians from their bonds of forced labour and returned them to their settlements, demonstrating his magnanimity and that he was a defender of liberal and humanitarian values. Both Iran and Israel have stamps bearing the Cyrus Cylinder, Xenophon and Herodotus refer to Cyrus as the model king and when the British Museum exhibited the Cylinder in Tehran in 2010-2011 half a million people queued to see it, many Iranians were so in awe they stepped out of the room backwards. Whilst on display in Washington’s Sackler Gallery the Cylinder generated 1.3 billion media impressions over 400 media outlets.
Cyrus’ legacy lives on, he has been admired by David Ben Gurion, the father of Israeli independence and President Harry Truman compared himself to Cyrus when the USA recognised the news state of Israel in 1948.
British Zoroastrians have numerous reasons to be celebrating their heritage.