A Refreshing view of History and the Movie 300

The below YouTube video “Why The Persians Should Be The Good Guys In ‘300’ ” was posted by Cracked on December 27, 2016 and received 70k hits in less than a day. This is a remarkable posting by young western bloggers and writers who question Eurocentrist historical revisionism and place the ancient Greco-Persian wars in a more even-handed perspective. Readers may also find the article “The 300 Movie: Separating Fact from Fiction” of interest (posted in 10 segments below):

  1. Introductory notes — see also: The Notion of Democracy and Human Rights
  2. What really led to War
  3. The Military Conflict: Separating Fact from Fiction
  4. The Error of Xerxes: The Burning of Athens
  5. The “West” battling against the “Mysticism” of “the East”
  6. The Portrayal of Iranians and Greeks
  7. A Note on the Iranian Women in Antiquity
  8. “Good” versus “Evil”
  9. Bibliography
  10. ترجمه مقاله کاوه فرخ به فارسی توسط غزال خاكسارى: فیلم 300: افسانه یا واقعیت

Consult also John Trikeriotis’ article: False depictions of Xerxes and Artemesia in “300: Rise of an Empire”; See also articles under: “کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder

 

 

Pseudo-Scholarship about Iran: Insulting Cyrus the Great

Article below by John Limbert appeared in the LobeLog website on November 3, 2016. Kindly note that none of the pictures and their corresponding captions appeared in the original LobeLog release.

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John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.  He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.

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What is it about Harvard that impels its people to produce pseudo-scholarly non-facts about Iran? Four years ago a presi­den­tial candidate and graduate of the Harvard Business School claimed that Iran needed its alliance with Syria to achieve “access to the sea.” Perhaps they don’t use maps at the Business School. A couple years ago, a former professor and secretary of state who received his Ph.D. from Harvard warned darkly about a newly reconstructed “Persian Empire” that was about to dominate the Middle East.

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The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae where Alexander paid his respects. The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Source: Public Domain).

Such ahistorical nonsense and geographical mishmash never seems to die. In a recent Time article called “The Iran Paradox,” the current dean of Harvard’s (and Tuft’s) Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy continued this unfortunate precedent. About Iran he wrote that “the inheritors of that [i.e. Cyrus the Great’s] imperial tradition are today’s Shi’ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East…will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.”

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The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Of course there once were mighty Persian empires. The Book of Daniel tells of the great “empire of the Medes and Persians whose laws alter not.” In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus created a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire whose organi­zing principle was acceptance and support of local customs and beliefs. About 539-538 BCE, the ruler spelled out that policy in the famous “Cyrus cylinder” of Babylonia, which many Iranians today proudly claim was the world’s first universal declaration of human rights. One can argue about Cyrus’ motives, but no one can argue with the success of his program.

Cyrus Koresh Kourosh street in Jerusalem

When History goes beyond Politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today. There is also an “Iran” street in Israel.

But all that happened over 2,500 years ago. What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the in­vading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipu­lated, and exploited by outside powers.

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Journalism and Academia join to promote Eurocentricism: Matthias Schultz of Spiegel Magazine (July 15, 2008) and Harry de Quetteville of the Daily Telegraph (July 16, 2008) wrote parallel articles attacking the legacy of Cyrus the Great and his ancient legacy; both publications even criticized the people of Iran for appreciating the historical memory of Cyrus. See responses to the Spiegel article and the Daily Telegraph.

Iran today remains home to many monuments and memories of imperial glory, each a veritable Ozymandias. Iran retains only what British historian Michael Axworthy properly calls “the empire of the mind.” From time to time Iranian politicians will recall Iran’s past glories and issue bombast about reconquering territory lost centuries earlier. Such state­ments, however, ignore reality and are nothing but whistling past the graveyard in an attempt to conceal the Islamic Republic’s current weaknesses.

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Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

What our Fletcher colleague calls “Shi’ite Iranians” are in no way the inheritors of Cyrus’ imperial tradition. Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, land­locked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Contrast such ineptitude with the skills of Cyrus and his successors. Such a performance by his compatriots would make Cyrus the Great, if he were alive, turn over in his grave, as Yogi Berra would say.

6-Evil Immortals

Eurocentricism meets Hollywood: cartoon-like portrayal of ancient Iranians in the movie “300” – For more on this topic read here – and for more on Eurocentricism, consult here…

The persistence of such shallow pseudo-scholarship, especially among those associated with one of the world’s greatest universities, is inexplicable—unless perhaps the moon is always full over Cambridge and Somerville. Those presenting such an account of current events are certainly not learned in their subject. Instead, in order to argue for a questionable policy (for example, “a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge”) they repeat the empty phrases (“inheritors of an imperial tradition”) they have heard and that at first blush seemed profound. On closer examination, however, such ideas are only hollow catchphrases with no bases in scholarly history or geography. They also insult the memory of Cyrus the Great.

Professor Muhammad A. Dandamayev: Achaemenid Education System

The article below by  Muhammad A. Dandamayev on the Achaemenid Education System was first published on-line on December 15, 1997 in the Encyclopedia Iranica and Last Updated: December 9, 2011.

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).

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Little is known of the training of children during the Achaemenid period. In two Elamite documents from Persepolis drafted in the 23rd regal year of Darius the Great (499 B.C.E.) “Persian boys (who) are copying texts” are mentioned (Hallock, nos. 871, 1137); the texts in question are records of the issue of grain to twenty-nine individuals and wine to sixteen. It is possible that the boys were learning Persian cuneiform script, which was probably known only to a few scribes, as it was used mainly for royal triumphal inscriptions. Most of nobles and highly placed Persian civil servants were literate, and writing played part in standard Persian education. The Persians also used foreign scribes (writing chiefly in Aramaic) in the state chancery.

Stylus The oldest known “Pen” or Stylus (discovered in Bondul Tepe, Fars province, Iran), dated to the Middle Elamite era (c.1550-1000 BCE). This was used for inscribing mud tablets (Source: CAIS).

Greek sources provide some idea of typical Persian education. According to Herodotus, Persian boys were not allowed into the presence of their fathers until the age of five years; until then they lived among the women. From ages five to twenty years they were trained in horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, and telling the truth (Herodotus, 1.136). Persians regarded lying as the worst of offenses, whereas prowess in arms was the mark of manliness. Xenophon wrote in Cyropaedia that until the age of sixteen or seventeen years the sons of Persian nobles were brought up at the royal court, practicing riding, archery, throwing the spear, and hunting.

cyrus-cylinder-New[Click to Enlarge] The Cyrus Cylinder (The British Museum)

The ancient Persians were also instructed in justice, obedience, endurance, and self-restraint (1.2.2-12, 7.5.86, 8.6.10; cf. idem, Anabasis 1.9.2-6; Strabo, 15.3.18). Clearly, apart from ethical guidance, the aim of Persian education was to produce efficient soldiers. This conclusion is confirmed by the tomb inscription of Darius the Great:

Trained am I both with hands and with feet. As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback. As a spearman I am a good spearman both afoot and on horseback” (DNb 40-45; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 139-40).

In Alcibiades (attributed to Plato, 1.120-23) it is noted that Persian princes were assigned at the age of fourteen years to four eminent Persians, called respectively the “wisest,” “most just,” “most temperate,” and “bravest,” who tutored them in the worship of the gods, government, temperance, and courage respectively. Plutarch (Artaxerxes 3.3) mentioned a priest who taught “the wisdom of the Magi” to Cyrus the Younger (q.v. vi).

cyropaedia-thomas-jefferson-copyThomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

There is practically no information on education in the eastern satrapies of the Achaemenid empire, but the evidence for Babylonia and Egypt, where traditional educational systems continued under Persian rule, is extensive. In both provinces formal education was restricted to boys. Reading and writing, as well as some grammar, mathematics, and astronomy, were taught in scribal schools. In Achaemenid Babylonia literacy also was widespread among the non-Iranian population; scribes were numerous and included the sons of shepherds, fishermen, weavers, and the like. Many school texts have survived from Mesopotamia. They include Sumerian-Babylonian dictionaries, tablets with cuneiform signs, and collections of examples of grammatical usage and exercises (Oppenheim, pp. 244-49). The literacy rate was even higher among the Achaemenid military colonists in Elephantine in Egypt (qq.v.), where witnesses to contracts in Aramaic usually signed their own names (Naveh, p. 22). Darius I ordered the restoration of the medical school at Sais in Egypt. It seems, however, that among the Egyptians education remained the privilege of the nobility: The Egyptian dignitary Ujahorresne declared that there were no children of “nobodies” among the students in this medical school (Posener, pp. 1-2, 22).

Bibliography

Boyce, Zoroastrianism II, pp. 181, 212-13, 261.

R. T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Chicago, 1969.

S. W. Hirsch, The Friendship of the Barbarians. Xenophon and the Persian Empire, Hanover, N.H., 1985, pp. 85-87.

J. Naveh, The Development of the Aramaic Script, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Proceedings 5/1, Jerusalem, 1970.

A. L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia. Portrait of a Dead Civilization, Chicago, 1977.

G. Posener, La premieàre domination perse en Égypte, Cairo, 1936.

Israel Post Issues Cyrus Declaration Stamp

The article below entitled Israel features Cyrus Declaration, several nations honor Magna Carta” appeared in the Linn’s Stamp News and Insights website on May 15, 2015. Kindly note that the pictures and accompanying captions seen below did not appear in the original Linn’s Stamp News and Insights article.

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Recent stamps commemorate two historic charters: the Cyrus Declaration of 538 B.C. and the Magna Carta of A.D. 1215. Israel pictures the Cyrus Declaration, also known as the Cyrus cylinder, on an 8.30-shekel stamp issued April 14.

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The Cyrus Declaration Stamp Sheet (Source: Israel Post).

In announcing this stamp on its website, the Israel Post stated:

In 538 BCE king Cyrus made a public declaration granting the Jews the right to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.”

The biblical book of Ezra begins with the king’s decree. The tab, or label, attached to the stamp includes a portion of Ezra 1:3, “Anyone of you of all His people … and let him go up to Jerusalem.”

Cyrus Koresh Kourosh street in Jerusalem

When History goes beyond Politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today (for more see here…). There is also an “Iran” street in Israel; see also “Iranian Schindler who saved Jews from Nazis“.

The stamp pictures the cylinder, which was discovered by Hormuzd Rassam during a British Museum archaeological excavation in 1879 in Babylon.

The British Museum, in a press release announcing that the cylinder would be displayed in five museums in the United States in 2013, explained its significance:

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. The Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform (cuneiform is the earliest form of writing) on the orders of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) after he captured Babylon in 539 BC. It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands … ”

Iranian Jews 2011

Iranian Jews praying during Hanukkah celebrations on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at the Yousefabad Synagogue, in Tehran, Iran (Source: Wodu). For more see “Professor Jacob Neusner: Persian Elements in Talmud“.

John Palmer: Zoroaster – Forgotten Prophet of the one God

The article below by John Palmer “Zoroaster – forgotten prophet of the one God” first appeared in The Guardian on July 13, 2010.

John-PalmerJohn Palmer is a former European editor of the Guardian and former political director of the European Policy Centre. He is visiting practitioner fellow at Sussex University’s European Institute and a member of the governing council of the Federal Trust (Photo Source: The Guardian).

Kindly note that the embedded photographs and captions below do not appear in the original article in the Guardian; these have been cited in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division, Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, University of Southern California and the University of Yerevan (Iranian Studies Department).

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The tiny world wide communities of Zoroastrians are no doubt pleased to get any mention in Cif belief – even if it is only to provide alphabetical balance to a list starting with the Bahá’ís. Even those who take a close interest in the more exotic or esoteric of religions tend to have a vague grasp on what the followers of the ancient Persian (or maybe Bactrian) prophet, Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) – born around 800 BC – actually believed. This is a great pity since even a non-believer must be impressed with the evidence of how the religious ideas first expressed by Zoroaster were fundamental in shaping what emerged as Judaism after the 5th century BC and thus deeply influenced the other Abrahamic religions – Christianity and Islam.

Zarathustra-Tomb-China-2Archaeologists in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have discovered major Zoroastrian tombs, dated to over 2,500 years ago. (Caption and Photo Source: Chinanews.com). As noted in the China News report: “This is a typical wooden brazier found in the tombs. Zoroastrians would bury a burning brazier with the dead to show their worship of fire. The culture is unique to Zoroastrianism…This polished stoneware found in the tombs is an eyebrow pencil used by ordinary ladies. It does not just show the sophistication of craftsmanship here over 2,500 years ago, but also demonstrates the ancestors’ pursuit of beauty, creativity and better life, not just survival. It shows this place used to be highly civilized”. For more on this topic see: Archaeologists uncover Zoroastrian Links in Northwest China 

Born at a time when the peoples of the Iranian plateau were evolving a settled agriculture, Zoroaster broke with the traditional Aryan religions of the region which closely mirrored those of India, and espoused the idea of a one good God – Ahura Mazda. What became known eventually in the west as Zoroastrianism was also the first to link religious belief with profound attachment to personal morality. In Zoroastrian eschatology there is much which has become familiar from reading the Jewish and Christian testaments: heaven, hell, redemption, the promise of a Sashoyant (Messiah), the existence of an evil spirit Ahriman and – most striking of all – the prospect of a final battle for the salvation of man at “the end of time” between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman leading to the latter’s final defeat.

Baku Fire Temple-UNESCO[Click to Enlarge] The main fire altar at the Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Picture Source: Panoramio). This site is now registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site. For more on these sites see: Zoroastrian and Mithraic sites in the Caucasus

The main contact between westerners and Zoroastrians came in India where they were known as Parsees (Persians), descendants of those who took part in a large scale migration from Persia after the Muslim conquest of that country. Zoroastrians were held (quite wrongly) to worship fire because they kept a permanent flame in their temples. Some even questioned whether they were monotheists at all because Ahriman was referred to as an evil “god”. But all the Abrahamic religions have also struggled to explain “evil” in the world which is why they gave Satan an important role.

The School of Athens by Raphael 1509- Zoroaster left, with star-studded globeA detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy. Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more information see: Dr. Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster – The First Universalist

The first encounter between the ancient peoples who developed historical Judaism and the Persian religious ideas of Zoroastrianism seems to have come either during or shortly after the captivity in Babylon. It was the Persian king of kings, Cyrus, who liberated the Hebrews from Babylon and one of his successors, Darius, who organised and funded the return of some of the captives (probably along with many Persians) to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Nehemiah and Ezra also reorganised the traditional religion of the Judaeans and Israelites. What emerged was a stricter monotheistic version which was consistent with basic beliefs of the Persian imperial religion – Zoroastrianism.

Saint_Augustine_Portrait“St. Augustine of Hippo in his Study” as portrayed in 1480 by Sandro Botticelli (Source: Public Domain). Interestingly, St. Augustine had been a Manichean for 9 years until his conversion to Christianity in the aftermath of Emperor Diolectian’s edict (284-305 CE) condemning the Manicheans. Despite his conversion, it is believed that St. Augustine’s Manichean past influenced his later Christian writings. For more information on Manichean beliefs, see: Mani: Forgotten Prophet of Ancient Persia

Those who might doubt how Persian imperial policy so decisively shaped what we know as Judaism should reflect on the remarkable and first ever declaration of belief in one, universal God by the biblical writer known as “Second Isaiah” during this period. Indeed Isaiah describes King Cyrus as a “Messiah” and the chosen instrument of Yahweh. Interestingly there is evidence that the Persian imperial policy towards the religion of their subject peoples – to allow the traditional name of their gods to be retained but to revise the religions themselves in the image of Zoroastrianism – was also applied in Babylon and Egypt as well as Palestine.

Wailing Wall-JerusalemThe West Wall in Jerusalem. After his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild the Hebrew temple. It is believed that approximately 40,000 did permanently return to Israel. For more discussion on this topic see: Retort to Daily Telegraph article against Cyrus the Great

Some claim that a belief in monotheism in Judea developed a little before the Babylonian conquest and exile. But although there is evidence for a centralisation of the different Canaanite-style cults into the worship of Yahweh in the capital – Jerusalem – over this period the most which can be said was that a form of monolatry, a belief in one God for a particular people had emerged.

5-Tomb of EstherThe tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, northwest Iran. External view (left) and the interior of the tomb (right). For more see: Response to Spiegel Magazine’s attack on the Legacy of Cyrus the Great

The Persian influence on Judaism was powerful and long lasting. Certainly the profound belief in the end of days exhibited by the Dead Sea Scroll communities in the immediately pre-Christian era and indeed the images employed by the Christian evangelist, John, in his Apocalypse, display a clear continuity of influence.

Iranian Jews 2011Iranian Jews praying during Hanukkah celebrations on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at the Yousefabad Synagogue, in Tehran, Iran (Source: Wodu). For more on this topic see: Professor Jacob Neusner: Persian Elements in Talmud

What – at the very least – were the deep affinities between Zoroastrianism and Judaism goes a long way to explain what over the centuries were the close and friendly relations between Persians and Jews. The influence of 20th century religious-political ideologies have poisoned that relationship. Perhaps a greater acknowledgement by Jews, Christians and Muslims of their Persian Zoroastrian inheritance would be a step to improving those relationships.