Cyrus the Great (Approx. 590-529 B.C.E.)

A Humane Ruler in Ancient Times

Paint of Cyrus the Great

Painting of Cyrus the Great by french artist Jean Fouquet Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Advocacy for religious freedom can be found deep in the annals of history. Perhaps the first advocate of religious freedom was the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus II, more commonly known as Cyrus the Great. He succeeded his father as a vassal Persian king, but then overthrew the ruling Median kingdom, uniting the Medes and Persians. Cyrus then conquered the Babylonian and Lydian empires and other kingdoms until his rule extended from the Indus River in the east, to Central Asia to the north, and to Asia Minor and Judea in the west. It was the largest empire the world had seen to that point. Cyrus was slain in battle in Central Asia in 529.

In an age when rulers were known for their brutality and might Cyrus was known for his humane rule. Even enemies like the Greeks admired Cyrus. The empire he built endured for two hundred years with exceptional internal peace and prosperity. He won people over through his generosity and acceptance of local customs. In particular he supported the various local religions throughout his realm, allowing people to worship their own gods and even to rebuild their ruined temples, which created much enthusiasm and support for his rule even from recently conquered peoples.

One group so favored were the Jews who had been hauled off into captivity by the Babylonians following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Once Cyrus had captured Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem to do so and to rebuild their temple. The book of Ezra in the Hebrew Scriptures tells about Cyrus’ edict. He even took the various silver and gold religious objects that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had confiscated and returned them to the exiled Jewish community to support their rebuilding effort. A Jewish prophet in Isaiah 45 praised Cyrus and called this pagan king the Lord’s anointed.

There is debate as to Cyrus’ personal religious faith. Some believe he was a Zoroastrian, but there is no hard evidence of this. In the Cyrus Cylinder he appeals to the traditional Babylonian gods Marduk, Bel, and Nabu. However, this may indicate his co-opting various local religions to build support for his empire, for his edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem begins, The LORD (Yahweh), the God of heaven, has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem in Judah (Ezra 1.2). Some historians also see the influence of Zarathustra’s teaching on the laws and edicts that shaped Cyrus’ empire.

The Cyrus Cylinder is a small clay cylinder with cuneiform writing that is the oldest physical record of a statement of religious liberty and human rights, though certainly not in the modern developed conceptual framework of human rights. It recognizes the national and religious diversity with which the state must function. The cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the foundation of the Temple of Marduk in Babylon. It denounces the deposed Babylonian king and cites Cyrus’ policies of repatriating displaced people and rebuilding ruined temples and cultic shrines. A replica of the “Cyrus Cylinder” is on display at the United Nations.