Posts tagged “Cyrus the Great

“Magi from the East”

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”[1] The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?

The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]

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The Persian Royal Mail

In 500 BC, the Persian Empire was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Its territory stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea and the coast of North Africa. Within its borders, the empire ruled over as much as 20% of the world’s population.

The empire contained dozens of formerly independent states and dozens of languages. Administering this massive realm required new systems of control than anything that had been used before. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians had each controlled a small fraction of the territory now ruled by the Persians. To administer the empire, Cyrus the Great created and Darius I refined the division of the empire into 23 satrapies. Each satrap was a viceroy of the Shahanshah (“king of kings”) who ruled in the capital. The satraps exercised the authority of the king in governing and managing the provinces.

The satraps were not kings or vassal rulers, rather, they served at the pleasure of the Persian monarch. Administering the provinces, therefore, required the ability to send rapid communications between satraps and the capital. The king needed to be kept abreast of the situation in all parts of the empire in order to make well-informed decisions in a timely manner. Conversely, the king needed to be able to rapidly send orders back to different parts of the empire. If the satraps were given too much autonomy to take independent action without waiting for a word from the king, they could develop separatist tendencies and become rebellious. [1]

A typical letter from the late Assyrian Empire with its clay envelope, found at Ziyarat Tepe in Anatolia. This letter dates to around 611 BC.

Previous empires in the ancient Near East had operated messenger systems for official business. The Assyrian mail system dated back to 1800 BC as evidenced by numerous letters found at Karum Kanesh in southeastern Anatolia. The Hittites and Egyptians also operated relay systems of messengers to transmit official business.[2]

The more immediate antecedent, however, was the mail service of the neo-Assyrian empire. The Assyrians had built an empire larger than any that had come before, and therefore faced some of the same communications problems on a smaller scale which the Persians would later face. The Assyrians created a system of stations along major roads, situated about a day’s journey apart from each other where messengers could stop, rest and change horses. This relay system allowed messages to be rapidly carried throughout the empire. It took a courier from Nineveh only a few days to reach the Levant with a message.[3]

First, the Persian Empire needed roads to enable communications. Previous civilizations had built plenty of roads to varying degrees of complexity, but no road network ran the distance of the Persian empire. Cyrus the Great’s solution to this problem was to connect segments of pre-existing roads into a massive highway which ran from Sardis on the Aegean coast of Anatolia to Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire. Constructed in much the same way that smaller highways are expanded and connected to form interstates in the modern United States, the Persian highway was dubbed the Royal Road.[4]

Darius I, who likely completed Cyrus' work on the Royal Road and mail system.

The Royal Road’s route can be traced based on the descriptions of it left by Herodotus as well as remains of ancient roads and bridges. Beginning in Sardis, the first sections were based on an earlier Phrygian road which ran across the central plains of Anatolia. From Phrygia, the road crossed the Halys River into Cappadocia. A “huge guardhouse” and gates were built at the river to control access to the road. The other end of the Cappadocian leg was guarded by two more guardhouses and accompanying gates. From there, the road crossed the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and ran on to the Persian capital of Susa.[5]

There was also a southern route which has been traced but was not mentioned by Herodotus and may have been added at a later date, which ran from Sardis through southern Anatolia, into Cilicia. This route passed through the Cilician Gates, a narrow mountain pass guarded by two massive fortresses. According to Xenophon, who traveled the southern route in 401 BC, “A river, called the Carsus, a hundred feet in breadth, runs between the two fortresses. The whole space between the fortifications was six hundred yards, and it was out of the question to force a way through, since the pass was narrow, and the walls extended to the sea, and above them were sheer cliffs.”[6]

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