A Woman, the Bible, and Babylon, 560 B.C.

These mid-August days, some 2500 years ago, witnessed a violent turn-about in power — regicide followed by a week of king-less days. Imagine for a moment the uncertainty, the chaos. Imagine the mother of the assassinated king. Still alive, for the time being — a foreigner in a court conflicted about its cosmopolitan nature, a court leaning toward xenophobia. She fled.

The overturn of thrones was itself not unusual. But the ripples it sent would wash up against shores for thousands of years to come and as far away as our own. After all, this was Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the texts that would become the Bible were beginning to take shape with the thoughtful care and no doubt spirited debate of exiles far from home, committed to tradition, and dedicated to their God.

Cuisine of Ancient Persia

Persian cuisine elevates rice to high art, but it wasn’t always so. When the ten-year-old Cyrus II sat down for his first meal in the palace of his father, Cambyses I, around 568 B.C. he probably didn’t eat rice.

As I researched the foods available in ancient Anshan (probably Tel el-Malyan in the modern Iranian province of Fars) to compose that scene, I was surprised to learn (mostly from a chapter by M. Nesbitt, et al. in Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History) that there is virtually no archaeobotanical evidence of rice in the ancient Near East before the first century of the common era. That, 373 grains, was discovered beneath a collapsed floor at Susa’s Ville Royale II. I say “virtually no” because a preliminary report noted a single grain of rice discovered in NW Iran in what may date to the Hasanlu period (750-590 BC); but the final published excavation report did not mention it.

Are We Better?

If Americans know anything at all about Cyrus II, it’s usually positive. The founder of the Persian Empire earned praise then and now for inaugurating a new way to rule: with respect — respect for differences of religion, respect for the wisdom of individual communities, respect (i.e. fair pay) for honest work… and all this over 2500 years ago. But digging a little deeper, it wasn’t all revolution and roses throughout the vast empire. Slavery continued to be an acceptable “institution.” People were branded and mutilated, eunuchs made and witches tracked for the crime of a neighbor’s illness. Were Cyrus’s Persians better than the Assyrians and Babylonians before them, who flayed enemies alive (see pic… and a child watching?!), cut off noses and ears, the thumbs of vanquished kings? In many ways, yes. And I am learning more. Yet immersed in this history and excavating especially the lives of women, I’m struck by how far we’ve come, not least by the security and respect that I have simply taken for granted as a basic human right. And I’m less cynical (or pessimistic, as John Horgan might say in his Slate.com article) about the premise of Steven Pinker‘s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Gosh, maybe we are getting better. Now, about that pesky environment thing…

Cyrus the Great Day

Our relationship with Iran has hardly been comfortable in the past decades, even before the latest bizarrities. Yet just when Americans were donning crazy costumes for weekend Halloween parties, and as surprising as was the snow in New York City, the calendar afforded a day for our countries to find common ground. My article in recognition of International Cyrus the Great Day, which appeared in the Huffington Post, found a second home (in both English and Farsi) on the website of the Iranian organization that first proposed October 29 for such a celebration. Savepasargard.com not only works to preserve the geographical site where Cyrus II established a serene palace with formal gardens (from which we get the word “paradise”) and where he was buried. In the spirit of that visionary leader, the organization also seeks to promote human rights and environmental responsibility. But it was Cyrus’ daughter, Atossa, who settled in to the Brooklyn pub booth with me and my friend, Donna, this weekend as we talked about Atossa’s story of 2500 years ago. More on that to come ~

Falconry in Ancient Iran

People hunted with birds in Cyrus the Great’s time and place (6th cent BC, Mesopotamia).* Just another of many things I’ve learned recently while working on my next book. Trying to figure out what bird to give him, I spent the better part of Friday night learning what kinds might have been found in his area. I’ve narrowed my favorites to two: the Saker falcon, “a great favorite with falconers,” (pictured here) which can be almost pure white; or the golden eagle, a huge bird that mates for life and can be used in teams to hunt even large game, and there’s an Iranian subspecies of it. The eagle is more impressive in size, but I’m not sure that it’s as versatile as the Saker falcon. Oh, and the Greater Spotted eagle is pretty cool (loses its spots with age to become quite dark) but seems to need to go north of Cyrus’ Fars province to breed… hmmm, which could add an interesting element to the story. Anyway, I’d love to know which you think would be best, or if there’s another I should be considering!

In the Game of Cultural Background: Iran vs. Israel

Referring to the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad is reported as saying that it represents the kind of foundation on which people can build a highly developed civilization. So far, so good, as it goes. But he reputedly went on to note the relative lack of such a foundation for the “Zionist regime” — meaning Israel?, Judaism? Let’s see… the Bible?! Not that I believe that we should look to the Bible for a modern nation of Israel, but gosh, in the game of cultural background, I’m afraid he’s going to need a new strategy.

The Many Faces of Babylon

Babylon, bab-ilu, Babel, “Gate of the gods” was the Big Apple of its day. Yet we get “the whore of Babylon” and the “Tower of Babel,” Bob Marley’s Babylon site of oppression and reputation for excess. The biblical view of Babylon is no less real in its critique than the grandeur that we know Babylon exhibited, 2500 years ago — different perspectives informed in no small way by theology. As I follow the king of Persia who built an empire surpassing any the world had seen before him and attempt to carve out his story, I’m finding Babylon developing as a character almost as compelling as the man himself.

Cyrus’ Problematic History

I finally broke down and went all junior-high with my research — different colored pens for the different accounts of Cyrus’ taking Babylon. The most ancient records are notoriously problematic. Each one has a either a bone to pick or a bridge to sell, and they simply don’t agree on the facts. Did or did not Cyrus engage in a military encounter? When he arrived at the gates, were the Babylonians settling in for a seige, were they partying their brains out oblivious to this Persian from the north, or did they throw open the gates to welcome this beloved new ruler? Though both Herodotus and Xenophon have lots of great things to say about Cyrus, the Greeks finally aim to portray the Persians as corrupt, depraved, or at best weak. They figure that Cyrus took Babylon by force. One (Berossus, a Babylonian nationalist writing for the Greeks) claims that Cyrus flat out destroyed Babylon’s magnificent walls. The Persian side presents Cyrus as a liberator, excelling all others in moral standing, magnanimity, and grace, setting to right the wrongs of the wayward Babylonian king and beloved of the gods. The Babylonians ushered him in with joy. It’s tough to keep track of these different voices and to winnow for a grain of what really happened. In the meantime, it occurred to me that since junior high, computers have really come a long way. So, I put away the colored pens and have begun a file recording the different accounts in different fonts. Among them, Herodotus gets “Algerian,” Berossus is in “Bradley Hand ITC,” and the Nabonidus Chronicle is in “Arial.” Hopefully, this will help. If nothing else, it sure is pretty.

Cyrus’ Enduring Document

The small clay cylinder, 2500 years old and a bit beat up has quietly moved people all over the world since its very beginnings. Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire produced this declaration of intent for liberty and peace. The National Museum of Iran recently reported that besides Iranian schoolchildren, elites, and not-so, officials from countries far and wide (Brazil, the Philippines, Tajikistan, countries in Africa, the Netherlands…) have come to see it, on loan from the British Museum. How I’d love to overhear their conversations. Just imagine…

Croesus, Cyrus, and Modern Psychotherapy

To hear in a cryptic message whatever our innermost self is inclined to hear, right or wrong is timelessly human, or so it would seem. The “Croesus syndrome, ” is how the Asheville Jung Center refers to it. Croesus was a super wealthy and powerful ancient Greek ruler who consulted an oracle (prophet, of a sort) before confidently engaging in combat with the upstart Cyrus II, five hundred years or so before Jesus. To Croesus’ dismay, he learned that the empire the oracle predicted would fall was actually his own. Beware your interpretations of an inner hunch seems wise not only for ancient kings and modern psychotherapists. Patience in judgment…