The History Iran Forgot

An inspiring look back at when the Islamic Republic’s forefathers were friends and champions of … the Jews

In 1971, Iran threw a party. A big one.

It took 10 years to plan and lasted five days. The Guinness Book of World Records recorded it as the most “well-attended” international gathering in history. More than 600 foreign dignitaries, including some 65 heads of state, abandoned their presidential palaces and braved the Iranian desert—on sand dunes on the outskirts of Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian Empire.

The shah was a gracious host and spared no expense to ensure their comfort. Two hundred and fifty custom-built red Mercedes-Benzes zipped across the desert carrying foreign diplomats. Hairdressers and make-up artists were flown in from Paris; drapes and flowers were imported from Italy. Guests stayed in gigantic air-conditioned tents, constructed in traditional Persian style. They ate the finest food, catered by Maxim’s de Paris, which closed its Paris location for nearly two weeks to prepare for the banquet. Around 150 chefs, bakers and waiters were imported. The world’s master hotelier, a Frenchman, was brought out of retirement to manage the waitstaff. Attendees dined on fine china and drank from goblets made from Baccarat crystal.

There were fireworks displays, performances from some of the world’s finest musicians and spectacularly choreographed parades by Iranian soldiers, all dressed in traditional Persian garb. The price tag of the grand affair, according to the Telegraph, was $100 million.

Why such a spectacular celebration? What was so important that the shah felt compelled to transform the Iranian desert into an exquisite tent city so he could celebrate with hundreds of the world’s most powerful leaders?

It was the 2,500-year anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire!

In the sixth century, King Cyrus the Great displayed unmatched and unique skills of leadership to forge the disparate peoples of Mesopotamia into one of the mightiest civilizations in mankind’s history. In 1971, the shah of Iran celebrated this history with such grandeur in an attempt to “reawaken the people of Iran to their past and reawaken the world to Iran.

The shah had his critics for this giant celebration—but we need to think about the history he was trying to invoke. His desire to showcase the legacy of Cyrus the Great and ancient Persia was praiseworthy. He was absolutely right: Iran boasts one of the most unique and majestic histories of all countries on the planet.

Moreover, the history of King Cyrus and ancient Persia is more vital, more illustrious, more inspiring, more hope-filled, more faith-building than the shah of Iran ever knew! The shah could have spent $2 trillion on his celebration and still not have properly showcased the importance of this history.

The Origins of Persia

Before the 1930s, today’s Iran went by the name Persia. Today the names Iran and Persia remain interchangeable. Historians agree that the Persians are an Indo-European people, meaning they can trace their heritage back to Shem, the Caucasian son of Noah. The Jewish historian Josephus records the Persians as being descendants of Shem’s son Elam (Genesis 10:22).

For about 1,500 years after the Flood, the Persians herded sheep and raised horses on the plains of Mesopotamia, mostly in the region just north of the Tigris River and the sea known today as the Persian Gulf. In the mid-sixth century b.c., however, the Persian lifestyle experienced an upheaval.

Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Persians began conquering surrounding city-states. First, they conquered the Medes, who in defeat accepted an invitation from Cyrus to join forces with the Persian army. Within 10 years, King Cyrus was ruling over a kingdom of then unprecedented proportions, one stretching from Thrace in the west to Egypt in the south to the Indus River in the east.

Politically, the Persians were very different from the Assyrians before them. After Cyrus conquered the gargantuan Assyrian/Babylonian-Chaldean empires and fused the disparate peoples and cultures into a single kingdom, succeeding monarchs managed to keep the kingdom united and strong for some 250 years. It wasn’t till Alexander the Great barreled eastward in 333 b.c. that Persia was knocked from its perch above the civilized world.

Historians agree on and admire the fundamental reason Cyrus and his successors were able to maintain such an enormous kingdom: The Persian monarchs were terrific humanitarians. They had tremendous respect and tolerance for the customs and traditions of the people they ruled over.

“Under the close supervision of his government, [Cyrus] permitted the conquered peoples to retain their own customs and religions and their own forms of government,” explains Stanley Chodorow in The Mainstream of Civilization. As an example, he cites the history of King Cyrus allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem around 535 b.c.

By not forcing his religion or creed on the people he conquered, Cyrus gained their respect and loyalty. The result? Many willingly submitted to Persian rule!

In 1879, British archeologists digging in Iran discovered a barrel-shaped cylinder made out of clay. They called it the Cyrus Cylinder because inscribed on the cylinder in ancient cuneiform is a decree by King Cyrus. In the 40-line decree, the king recalls his defeat of Babylon and outlines a number of policies designed to defend the rights of the conquered. The Cyrus Cylinder confirms King Cyrus’s reputation as a great humanitarian, and is, according to the United Nations, the “world’s first charter of human rights.”

Historians recognize that the governance of Cyrus the Great was profoundly unique. History does not overflow with examples of powerful men mercifully allowing the peoples they conquer to keep their religions, customs and traditions. In fact, it’s full of individuals doing the opposite.

Really, when it came to ruling the people he conquered, Cyrus displayed characteristics that simply don’t spring from the natural human mind, which is inherently selfish (Jeremiah 17:9).

Where did this admirable and heretofore unrepeated character trait come from? Where did Cyrus come from, and why did he suddenly emerge in the sixth century? You won’t find the answers in your encyclopedia or via a Google search. We’ll have to look into the world’s most neglected and underrated history book.

Cyrus the Prophecy

As you might expect, Cyrus is mentioned a lot in the Bible. Chronologically, the first author to discuss Cyrus in the Bible is the Prophet Isaiah. Chapter 44 reveals that God “says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (verse 28, Revised Standard Version).

Here, the Bible recalls the decree by King Cyrus in 539 b.c. commissioning the Jews to leave Babylon and return to Judea. In this decree Cyrus told the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been sacked by the Babylonians about 45 years earlier. Isaiah’s account gels perfectly with archeological evidence such as the Cyrus Cylinder, as well as the works of historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon.

Here’s the thing: Isaiah wrote his book in the latter half of the eighth century b.c.—more than 150 years before King Cyrus commissioned the Jews to return to Jerusalem!

Think on this! Cyrus, Persia’s greatest king, was prophesied by namemore than a hundred years before he was even born!

Not only that, God, through Isaiah, prophesied specifically that He would inspire Cyrus to dispatch the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple! Remember, Isaiah wrote this before Persia existed as an empire, before the Chaldeans had conquered Jerusalem and taken the Jews back to Babylon, and long before King Cyrus ever conquered the Chaldeans and gained control of Mesopotamia.

Surely, among all his terrific accomplishments, Cyrus’s greatest accomplishment was being the living, breathing fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy!

Cyrus the Humanitarian

It is clear that credit for the timing of Cyrus the Great’s emergence belongs to God. But what about his profound and intriguing tolerance and respect for the culture and traditions of other races and peoples?

Let’s pick up the history in Ezra 1: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia …” (verse 1). Ezra here is recording the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 44, where God said He would use Cyrus as a “shepherd” and that through him He would “fulfill my purpose.”

God was working with the mind of this great Persian king!

Ezra also records that under God’s inspiration, Cyrus “made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom … saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel … ” (verses 1-3).

This passage is key to understanding the unique character, as well as the accomplishments, of Cyrus the Great—but you never see it mentioned in history books.

Here, we see that it was the God of the Israelites who “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to display matchless fondness toward the Jews. Historians, and even Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recognize that Cyrus had exemplary respect and tolerance for human values, and for the culture and traditions of all people. Many would agree that this humanitarian tendency was his defining quality.

Ezra 1 reveals its origin: King Cyrus’s respect for humanity—for the Jews certainly, but even for all the people he conquered—was the direct result of a miracle God caused in the king’s mind!

Sure, you have the prerogative to discard that as claptrap. Before you do, read again what Cyrus himself said about God’s presence in his life and work: “The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth.”

Further evidence of God’s hand in the life and work of Cyrus can be found in the book of Daniel, particularly chapter 6. In verse 25, the Persian king promoted Daniel, a Jewish man, to a position of great power within the mighty Persian Empire. During Daniel’s public promotion, the king of Persia issued a decree to “all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth,” demanding “that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.”

Now that is thrilling history! Persia’s greatest king not only recognized God’s presence in his life, but he also encouraged his subjects to “tremble and fear” before the God of Israel!

No wonder the Persian Empire reached the height of its power under Cyrus the Great!

Cyrus the “Zionist”

Historians widely accept that Cyrus issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Judea. But none has ever investigated the depth of his affection for the Jews. When you read the Bible, especially Ezra 1, it’s clear that there were no bounds to the favor Cyrus showed toward the Jews.

In Ezra 1:2, Cyrus says openly that the God of Israel had personally “charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem.” He was king of the mightiest empire on Earth,and one of his driving goals was to help the Jews rebuild Jerusalem!

Verses 3-6 show Cyrus giving the Jews a key to the treasury of the Persian Empire. Whatever the Jews wanted, they got, including gold, silver, precious stones, building utensils, lumber, and animals and crops for food. When they finally started building the temple around 535 b.c., they imported cedar trees from Lebanon and tradesmen from Phoenicia, all thanks to the “grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 3:7).

Verse 7 recounts Cyrus being so thrilled by the building project in Judea, he had his men fetch from the treasury the “vessels of the house of the Lord” that had been taken when the temple was sacked by Babylonians in 585 b.c.

History is clear on this point: King Cyrus of Persia was a patron of the Jews, and a willing facilitator of those of them inhabiting Jerusalem. He was, in a real sense, a wholehearted “Zionist”!

The more you think about this history, the clearer it becomes that outside of the Jews themselves, Cyrus the Great was one of the loudest advocates in history of Jewish statehood in Judea!

This is the reason the Persian Empire thrived as the world’s greatest power during the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.: God used ancient Persia as a tool in His work with the Jews and Jerusalem!

As incredible as Cyrus’s moral and material support for the Jews was, that wasn’t even his greatest gesture. His greatest achievement was institutionalizing his affection for the Jews, and establishing a legacy of pro-Jewish policy within the Persian monarchy.

Study the history of Cyrus’s successors. Ezra 5 and 6 record the work of the Jews in Jerusalem about 20 years after the first wave returned to Judea in 535 b.c. Cyrus was dead and Darius i was king of Persia.

With Cyrus gone, leaders from nearby cities had begun persecuting the Jews in Jerusalem. In response, the Jews sent a letter to Darius reminding him of Cyrus’s decree and asking that he issue a similar mandate. “If it seem good to the king,” they implored, “let there be search made in the king’s treasure house, which is there at Babylon, whether it be so, that a decree was made of Cyrus the king to build this house of God at Jerusalem, and let the king send his pleasure to us concerning this matter” (Ezra 5:17).

Darius initiated a search, found and studied the original decree, then issued one of his own: “Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place” (Ezra 6:7). The legacy of Cyrus lived on!

This God-inspired favor for the Jews was still alive and still shaping Persian policy during the kingship of Artaxerxes i, who reigned from 465-423 b.c. You can read the history in Nehemiah 1 and 2. Here, 20 years into the reign of Artaxerxes (around 445 b.c.), Nehemiah, the king’s Jewish cupbearer, besought the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem and build a wall of defense around the city. Artaxerxes didn’t begrudgingly grant the leave of absence. He issued a royal decree giving official sanction to Nehemiah’s work and installing the prophet as governor of Jerusalem! Beyond the official order, the king provided Nehemiah with materials, as well as an official letter instructing the “keeper of the king’s forest” to give Nehemiah the timber he needed for his wall!

Nearly a century had passed since Cyrus had issued the original decree, and protecting the presence and work of the Jews in Jerusalem remained a key pillar in the foreign policy of the Persian Empire!

Condemned by History

Five years ago, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote, “Some historians believe that the shah’s costly and elaborate anniversary celebration, which overlooked the Islamic religion, was the spark that lit the fire that ended up seeing the country hijacked by radicals in 1979, just a few years later” (Royal Vision, September/October 2005).

Think about that. Iran’s radical Islamists despise their history so vehemently that in 1979 they overthrew the Iranian leader who deeply valued that history, and was engaged in a national—even global—campaign to revive and recreate it.

When you understand the history of King Cyrus of Persia and what he did for the Jews, you can begin to understand the hatred of Iran’s radical Islamists for the shah!

Radical Islam lives to destroy the Jews and conquer Jerusalem. The shah of Iran deeply revered the Persian king who showed deep favor to the Jews, and who devoted his empire to supporting the Jews as they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city and the temple!

Radical Islamists hate this history because it so powerfully condemns them and undermines their fundamental cause!

In Tehran this past October, President Ahmadinejad gave a speech in which he recalled some of the achievements of Cyrus the Great, and stated that Iran today remains committed to “culture, human values, justice, love and sacrifice.” He delivered this speech at a ceremony unveiling the Cyrus Cylinder, which is currently in Tehran on loan from the British Museum.

Politically and ideologically, Iran’s president and King Cyrus are polar opposites. So why would Ahmadinejad invoke the history of ancient Persia and a king whose accomplishments, if he understood them, he would find repulsive? It’s simple. Millions of Iranians today continue to cherish the history of King Cyrus: Ahmadinejad is identifying himself with the upright character and accomplishments of Cyrus the Great in an attempt to cover his own hate-filled fanaticism.

It won’t work—it can’t. The life and accomplishments of Cyrus the Great are bright and radiant, while those of Ahmadinejad are dark and black. Invoking the awesome works of King Cyrus only exposes the evil in his own works all the more.

That is exactly why the Iranian people and the world need to be reminded of Iran’s rich and glorious history!

Our Candelabra

More than 40 years ago, when the shah of Iran was making preparations for his spectacular celebration, he commissioned the construction of two candelabra. During the weeklong celebration, the 7-foot brightly lit giants, each weighing 650 pounds and decked with 802 pieces of Baccarat crystal, stood in the midst of the royal tent where all the world leaders gathered to dine.

Together, these shimmering beauties, and the history of King Cyrus and ancient Persia that they embodied, dazzled the kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers at that royal banquet.

Today, those candelabra stand tall and bright in the grand lobby of Armstrong Auditorium, our breathtaking new concert hall here in Oklahoma.

Just as they did to the world’s royalty and upper echelon nearly 40 years ago, those same candelabra dazzle the concertgoers and artists that enter our auditorium today!

They really are stunning. But as breathtaking as they are in appearance, it’s the story behind them we most cherish. Our candelabra were part of the celebration of the 2,500-year anniversary of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire. The shah intended that these candelabra awaken the Iranian people and the world to Iran’s majestic history!

Sadly, the hope emanating from Iran was extinguished in 1979, when the shah was violently overthrown and Iran’s government was replaced by an Islamic theocracy. Since then, very few people have revisited the history of Cyrus the Great and Persia.

Until now!

These two candelabra standing in Armstrong Auditorium recall that history to us today in a beautiful, majestic way. They remind us of the glorious reign of Cyrus the Great—the Persian king whose life, from beginning to end, was shaped by God.

This was the king who guaranteed the Jews’ presence in Jerusalem, the king whose mind God inspired to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem—a temple designed to point people toward God’s future temple in new Jerusalem!

If you haven’t done so yet, make it a goal to come visit Armstrong Auditorium. When you enter the grand lobby of the auditorium, stop a moment to look at these candelabra. As you do, let your mind hearken back to the glorious and spiritually uplifting history of ancient Persia, of Cyrus the Great, a patron of the Jews—and a man whose life and work prove the existence of an all-powerful God!