One of my clearer childhood memories formed at the age of nine was that of the release of the fifty-two American hostages held by Iran in January of 1981. The jet that carried them from Germany to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland had the word “Freedom” written near its nose, below the pilot’s window.
Why that made such an impression at the time I cannot say, but I have no doubt today that the 444 day hostage crisis went a long way in shaping the average American’s view of one of the earth’s oldest civilizations. What few people know, however, is that the ancient history of Iran contributed significantly to the modern history of the United States.
To understand the importance of the Iranian contribution we must look well past the 237 year history of the United States. The first dynasty in Iran formed in 2,800BC, nearly 5,000 years ago. In 550BC, 2,300 years into its history, a ruler named Cyrus the Great took over the Median empire and founded the Achaemenid empire by unifying other city-states. To give you a feel for how long ago that was, this occurred around the time of the biblical Daniel.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. A friend of mine and subscriber to this blog, Carmen, sent me a fascinating article from the BBC News called: “Cyrus Cylinder: How a Persian monarch inspired Jefferson.” Written on the 2,600 year old football-sized cylinder is what is referred to by scholars as the “first bill on human rights.”
It was written on the orders of Cyrus, who had just taken over the Babylonian empire and it outlined the defeat of the Babylonians, the freeing of their captured peoples and the return of their gods and shrines. According to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, Persia or Iran “was the first state model based on diversity and tolerance of different cultures and religions” and this cylinder explained how he went about creating it.
The Greek historian, philosopher, soldier and mercenary Xenophon (a contemporary of Socrates who lived from 430-354BC) wrote a book about Cyrus called “Cyropaedia.” The book was popular among the political thinkers of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), including the Founding Fathers of the United States, who were, incidentally, generally very well-read on the ancient Greek and Roman socio-political and philosophical texts.
Jefferson, who owned two personal copies of the book, was so intrigued by the book that he encouraged his family to read it and declared it “a mandatory read for statesmen.” I find it fascinating that this cylinder is going on tour in the United States at a time when US-Iranian relations are so strained.
Thirty-two years have passed since that childhood impression left by a jet sitting on the tarmac of a relatively new but powerful nation dedicated to religious tolerance and certain unalienable human rights, but 2,600 years have passed since words sharing similar sentiments – respect and tolerance – were recorded on a clay cylinder by a man with a great vision.
Esteemed readers, my hope is that the current representatives of the great nations of United States and Iran can find a way to appeal to our shared humanity and I cannot think of a better symbol for this than the Cyrus Cylinder.