International Cyrus the Great Day: Common Ground for World Religions?

There is one day each year when a civil conversation between our countries and religions could take place: Oct. 29, a day commemorating the founder of the Persian Empire.
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Imagine Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton raising a glass with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his political opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi in mutual celebration, without anyone losing face. Unlikely? Not so fast.

There is one day each year when it could happen, when a civil conversation between our countries, and even the factions within them, could take place: Oct. 29, a day commemorating the founder of the Persian Empire.

Cyrus II is a hero to many Iranians still today, 2,500 years later, beloved in part for his policies of religious freedom and human rights. Ahmadinejad praised such policies when Tehran received, on loan from the British Museum, the ancient clay document attributed to Cyrus and recognized as the first declaration of human rights. International Cyrus the Great Day affords an opportunity for parties as disparate as Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Iranians to come together for the common good. Cyrus II wrote the first declaration of human rights and established a para daeza, "paradise" in what is now southern Iran. Without him, we may never have had a Bible. The biblical prophet Isaiah calls him a messiah, which means "anointed" in Hebrew, chosen by God for a special purpose of salvation.

On Oct. 29, in 539 B.C., Cyrus II rode into Babylon (about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad), and ancient sources say that its conquered masses threw palm fronds at his feet. Among the people who witnessed his arrival were those who had been taken captive some 50 years earlier when the Babylonian empire swept through the Middle East, destroying nations and dragging captives back to Babylon. They included people from ancient Israel who had witnessed the destruction not only of their nation, Judah, but also of its temple in Jerusalem. "By the rivers of Babylon," a biblical psalm laments, "we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion."

Cyrus allowed those exiles to return home, to rebuild their communities and to reestablish their religious practices. In a document inscribed on a clay cylinder, Cyrus recalled the purpose for which he would be king: relief from oppression and the restoration of exiled peoples to their lands and to their gods. Last year, Ahmadinejad proudly greeted the original's return to Iran (on loan from the British Museum) saying, "the Cylinder reads that everyone is entitled to freedom of thought and choice and all individuals should pay respect to one another." A copy of Cyrus' document is on permanent display in the U.N. building in New York City.

Babylon was not Cyrus' last stop. The vast territory of his empire ultimately included today's Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cyrus pushed to the edges of India when a sheltered Hindu by the name of Siddartha Gautama threw himself into investigating the roots of human suffering. As the Buddha, he realized a mechanism for relief. In China, Confucius promoted social harmony through the ethical action of individuals, and Lao-tzu drew from ancient ideals and nature to find peace in the dynamic balance of opposites characteristic of Taoism. Judaism took shape as a religion, and Iran's own Zoroastrianism developed, with its emphasis on individual freedom to choose what is right and good, influencing biblical literature and later Christianity, too.

How much each of these religious ideas may have influenced the others is a question with intriguing potential. In Cyrus' Persia, scribes and theologians could travel as well as armed military. The Silk Road ran through the empire, and Cyrus established a transportation system so sophisticated that messengers were able to deliver news with unprecedented speed. "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from their appointed rounds," the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said of the Persian roads (The Histories 8.98).

Many biblical scholars think that the Bible's beginnings were in Babylon. Without nation or temple, the exiles turned to stories old and new. The first part of the Bible accepted as religiously authoritative, its first five books, probably did so thanks to the exiles' determination to remember (and to shape) who they were and what they believed. Yet without Cyrus' patronage, those texts may never have survived much less developed into the remarkable collection that is the Bible.

Though populated by diverse peoples, free to exercise their distinct identities and religious beliefs, Cyrus' empire was a dynamic unity. Only later would the world become bifurcated into the Greek West and the Oriental East and be bloodied by competing monotheisms. Our modern relationship with Iran has hardly been comfortable, even before the latest bizarre-ities, so to suggest that we might find common ground on Saturday would seem absurd. Yet on October 29, an Iranian king who predates the quarrels between Islam, Christianity and Judaism and the rift between East and West, whose legacy is defined by the timeless ideals of personal freedom and human dignity gives us a place from which to begin again a conversation for the common good.

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