Cyrus the Great

The legend of the great King Cyrus, famed not only for his expansion of the Persian Empire but also the magnanimity with which he treated all his subjects, is recorded in history and also mentioned in the Bible. Could he be the Dhu’l Qarnain mentioned in the Holy Qur’an?

There is no doubt that a great King emerged out of Persia by the name of Cyrus and he is mentioned in the Bible. His place in the Bible was secured and preserved by the Jews obviously because he played such a critical role in their freedom from bondage and return to Jerusalem. It was after all Cyrus who allowed them to rebuild their temple on the Mount of Jerusalem. What is more intriguing is the character mentioned in the Holy Qur’an by the name of Dhu’l Qarnain. He is described as a religious and compassionate ruler, and there is detail about his exploits. There has been much debate about the identity of Dhu’l Qarnain. Some scholars con- sidered Dhu’l Qarnain to be a generic person, but the detail in Surah Al-Kahf (Chapter 18) relates to a specific person and specific events and locations. This article examines two candidates, Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great, against the profile of Dhu’l Qarnain to see if we can identify the character mentioned in the Qur’an. The Legend of Cyrus History records the story of a great and tolerant ruler who e m e rged from Persia (modern Iran) to stabilise the Middle East. King Cyrus (c.590 – 529 BCE), 50 The Review of Religions – July 2004 History records the legend of a great King who emerged from Persia called Cyrus. Not only did he rapidly expand the Persian Empire, but the manner in which he did that and then treated his new subjects has left him a great position in history. But he is also mentioned in the Bible, as he had a huge impact on the Middle East and on the fortunes of the Jews. This article takes a closer look at his life, and considers whether he is the Dhu’l Qarnain mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. CYRUS the Great By Fazal Ahmad – UK also referred to as ‘the Great’, was the King of Persia. He was known as the ‘father of his people’ by the Persians. He is remembered for building a great empire with bravery and intelligence, and also for being a fair ruler of all of his people. He was born in 590 BCE to an Achaemenid family in the province of Persis in south- western Iran. He had an imperial background in that he was the grandson of Astyages, the King of the Medes 1. Interestingly, Astyages had dreamt that his grandson would overthrow him, so at the child’s birth, he had ordered one of his officials to oversee his death. However the official did not kill the child, and in the end, a shepherd raised Cyrus as his own son. His philosophy and religious beliefs are thought to be outstanding. He was a pupil of Z a r a t h u s t r a( a s ) (Zoroaster), the inspired prophet of Persia. We will study his achievements and character a little later. Cyrus in the Bible King Cyrus had a great influence in the Middle East and on the Jews of Palestine. Hence, he is mentioned at length in the Old Testament. One such mention is in Isaiah: Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him, and loose the armour of kings. (Isaiah 45:1) In the Bible, Cyrus is associated with the freedom from slavery of the Jews, and as the leader who allowed them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple that they had lost. It had been another Persian, Nebuchadnezzar, who had initially enslaved them. Even Daniel had a dream related to similar events: I saw a ram pushing westward and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him; neither was there any that 51 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great. (Daniel 8:4) So Cyrus was regarded as the ‘anointed of the Lord’ by the Jews, and respected for the freedom he gave to them, and for the way that he ruled over his subjects. His name is mentioned 22 times in the Bible, most notably in Ezra where there is the account of his freeing the Jews in Babylon from slavery and allowing them to re-build their temple. The use of language such as ‘the anointed’ in the Bible to describe Cyrus shows that his status was spiritual as well as temporal, in that only a monotheistic King would have been described in such a way, even if he had shown such favours to the Jews. Dhu’l Qarnain in the Qur’an The Holy Qur’an tells the story of a character called Dhu’l Qarnain in Chapter 18, Surah Al- Kahf. 52 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 Temple of the Double-Headed Eagle, Taxila The Qur’an describes Dhu’l Qarnain as follows: And they ask thee about Dhu’l Qarnain. Say, ‘I will cert a i n l y recite to you something of his s t o ry. We established him in the e a rth and gave him the means to accomplish everything. Then he followed a cert a i n w a y Until when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a pool of murky w a t e r, and near it he found a people. We said, ‘O dhu’l Qarnain, either punish them, or treat them with kindness.’ He said, ‘As for him who does w rong, we shall cert a i n l y punish him; then shall he will be brought back to his Lord , Who will punish him with a d readful punishment.’ But as for him who believes and acts righteously, he will have a good re w a rd, and We shall speak to him easy word s of Our command Then indeed he followed another way. Until, when he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We have made no shelter against it. Thus indeed it was. Ve r i l y, We encompassed with Our knowledge all that was with h i m . Then he followed another way. Until, when he reached the place between the two mountains, he found beneath them a people who would s c a rcely understand a word. They said, ‘O Dhu’l Qarnian, v e r i l y, Gog and Magog ate c reating disorder in the eart h ; shall we then pay thee tribute on condition that thaou set up a barrier between us and t h e m ? He replied, ‘The power with which my Lord has endowed 53 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 me about this is better, but youmay help me with physical s t rength; I will set up between you and them a rampart . ‘Bring me blocks of iro n ’ . They did so till, when he had levelled up the space between the two mountain sides he said, ‘Now blow with your bellows’. They blew with bellows till when he had made it red as fire, he said, ‘Bring me molten copper that I may pour it thereon.’ So they (Gog and Magog) w e re not able to scale it, nor w e re they able to dig thro u g h it. T h e reupon he said, ‘This is a m e rcy from my Lord. But when the promise of my Lord shall come to pass, He will break it into pieces. And the promise of my Lord is certainly true.’ (Ch.18: Vs.84-99) The above verses tell an amazing tale of a great leader. His characteristics are summarised as f o l l o w s : • He was a servant of God, received revelations and was therefore a spiritual man; • He was a great conqueror and also very benevolent; • He marched to the West and conquered much land until he reached a point where the Sun set in a pool of murky water and he then turned East and made huge inroads in a region where there is little shade from the Sun; • In a midway region, he built a defensive wall to prevent the advances of a savage people. H o w e v e r, it is worth noting that for such a significant act as freeing the Jews from bondage and allowing them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Te m p l e , the Qur’an makes no mention of this act in reference to anyone, and definitely not regarding Dhu’l Qarnain. Cyrus’ Empire Cyrus quickly overthrew and united the two great kingdoms of 54 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 the Medes and the Persians and created the great Persian dynasty. His grandfather Astyges was overthrown in 550 BCE. The man who had ordered the baby Cyrus to be killed was not humiliated by Cyrus, but was rather given a new residence in the capital city. Cyrus’ empire soon grew outside the realms of Persia to cover Turkey, Egypt and Mesopotamia in the West, and as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East. The extent of the eastern edges of the empire included the famous settlement of Ta x i l a which later became a hub for Buddhism. The Qur’an describes that ‘when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a pool of murky water’. The term the setting of the sun is an Arabic expression meaning the furthest west point, and so we can interpret this as the first conquest of Dhu’l Qarnain in the West and the murky water would be at the westernmost place where Cyrus’ expedition got to. He would have seen the sun setting in a pool of murky water which could either be a lake, pool or even a sea. Cyrus took his expedition to Asia Minor (modern Turkey) right to modern Istanbul. His troops would have been on the southern shores of the Black Sea which in itself could be described as a murky water and hence its name, the Black Sea. An expedition to the Black Sea looking for signs of the great flood of Noah reported : ‘the remarkable thing about the Black Sea is that the water in its murky depths is toxic, meaning that the organisms ordinarily responsible for destroying wood from wrecked ships or other man- made structures cannot survive, hence the artefacts can be perfectly preserved in the anoxicity (lack of oxygen).’ (National Geographic Magazine – May 2001) So the Black Sea could legitimately be described as 55 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 murky water, although perhaps not a pool of murky water. Along the way, he had taken on Mesopotamia and it was here that the Jews were freed from cities such as Babylon. Having conquered his main adversary Croesus, he gave his enemy the rule of the city of Barene. As with the treatment of his grandfather, this was an intelligent approach not wit- nessed before from a conqueror. His approach to make intelligent alliances rather than seek revenge at every turn won him friends and influence. Having conquered Asia Minor in the west, he then travelled east past Hyrcania and conquered Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana and Bactria. He crossed the Oxus river and travelled as far as the Jaxartes taking in Samarkand and much of modern Uzbekistan. Here he built fortified towns to defend his kingdom from the nomadic tribal hordes of Central Asia. A thousand years later, it was those Mongol hordes that would redefine the whole region. Those hordes were from parts of China and Mongolia which have no protection from the Sun and where, consequently, the people have very slight eyes to protect them from the direct sunlight that they face. The reference in the Qur’an to Cyrus’ eastward march to a place that had no protection from the Sun would hint at the region west of China where the barren flat lands witnessed these tribes with very slight eyes. Prior to his death, he founded a new capital city at Pasargade in Persia, not far from Persepolis. From here, he governed his Kingdom, and after his death, he was followed by his sons. Cyrus’ Character So Cyrus had built up the largest empire in the world at the time, and it would have been very easy for him to become arrogant and heavy-handed. However, the opposite was true. Cyrus was known for his tolerance towards his new subjects. His tolerance encom- 56 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 passed their religion and culture. The Jews were just one of the many communities that benefited under his patronage. In 539 BCE, he allowed more than 40,000 Jews to leave Babylon and return to Palestine. He also allowed them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. When he conquered Babylonia, he established the first Charter of Human Rights known to mankind. While incorporating the various peoples into his empire, he did not force his religion upon them, but rather he gave them dignity and respect and set an example of tolerance for his empire to follow. In Asia Minor, the Greeks that he conquered regarded him as a Law-giver. The Greeks had spent hundreds of years uniting their 57 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 Map of the extent of Cyrus the Great’s Empire – shows the direction of his journeys to extend his empire West into Asia Minor (Turkey), East towards India and Uzbekistan, and in the Central Asian area near the Caspian Sea where he established a barrier to fend off the warring hordes that had been attacking Persia and Asia Minor. country through wars, and then spreading their influence into Turkey through first Troy and then the other regions and cities. They had seen the Persians and Turks as their biggest threat for hundreds of years and as a barbaric enemy. Yet even the Greeks acclaimed Cyrus as a humane and admirable ruler. He presented himself within his empire less as a victorious c o n q u e r o r, but rather as a liberator. He would leave people free to rule themselves within the confines of the Persian Empire of which he was the King. The temple scribes of Marduk gave praise to their King in a preserved cylinder of clay known as the Cylinder of Cyrus (Ref: J Campbell) and ascribe the following to Cyrus himself: ‘I am Cyrus, the great King … when I made my gracious entry into Babylon and, amid rejoicing and delight estab- lished myself in the seat of lordship, the palace of the kings, Marduk, the great Lord, turned the noble heart of the Babylonians towards me, and I gave daily thought to His worship. … I restored the communities to their people, whose habitations I rebuilt. … I allowed the gods to find, unmolested, a dwelling in their sanctuaries for the pleasure of their hearts’ (Cylinder of Cyrus) He is remembered by historians for his high moral and ethical c h a r a c t e r. His ethics were reflected in the constitution and Judicial system that he established to safeguard the rights of all of his people. He ordered his local governors to treat people as if they were their own children and he abolished slavery. When he conquered new areas, he was modest towards his defeated opponents and often allowed them to maintain their local s t a n d i n g . The Barrier of Dhu’l Qarnain So far, we have examined the expansion of Cyrus’ empire and it 58 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 seems in keeping with Dhu’l Qarnain. We have also compared his character to that of Dhu’l Qarnain and there is a good fit. The Qur’an also mentions a barrier of iron and copper. If we could locate this barrier and link it to Cyrus, it would be conclusive p r o o f . The story of Dhu’l Qarnain is linked to the fate of Gog and Magog in the Qur’an, and the episode of the Barrier was to prevent Gog and Magog invading that part of the world, so this part of the story is critical to the importance of Dhu’l Qarnain above and beyond his being a leader with ethics. Some scholars have unimaginatively looked for obvious barriers such as the Great Wall of China, and yet the Qur’ a n provides a detailed description of a barrier incorporating Iron and C o p p e r, while the Great Wall is built of brick alone. A more interesting theory is that there was such a gate near a town called Derbend, around 150 miles southeast of Bukhara. It is now known in Turkish as Buzghol Khana but was formerly known as Bab al Hadid (Iron Gate). It was erected between two mountains to keep out the Mongol hordes and was even witnessed by a Chinese t r a v e l l e r, Hiouen Tsiang, in the 7th Century. There is also an account that the Abbasi Caliph, a l – Wathiq, (842-846 CE) sent a mission to investigate the Iron Gate, and that they found the gate 150 yards wide made of iron and lead. However, this would have been at the Eastern edge of the Empire whereas the Qur’ a n seems to hint at a location in the centre of Cyrus’ Empire. Yet another theory is that the warring people were those of the Central Asian areas near the Caspian Sea from where the Scythians had been attacking Persia and Asia Minor. Here is another place by the name of Derbend near Baku (Azerbaijan) in the region of Daghestan. Again, there was a small pass between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea that had 59 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 been used frequently by marauding hordes to attack Persia and Asia Minor. The local people who had been suffering these attacks would have spoken a Turkic language that would have been hard for Cyrus to understand, but would have definitely sought protection from the invading armies. At Derbend, there is evidence of a huge Iron Wall which was 29 feet high and 10 feet deep, and had several sentry points. There is still evidence of the Caucasian Wall here, and history suggests that after the construction of the barrier, the invaders were forced to use other routes to attack Persia. In later history, the Mongols, Russians and Persians all took their turn holding the pass and the gate. The only slight problem is that the Qur’ a n mentions the barrier location to have been ‘the place between the two mountains’, whereas this Derbend is between a huge mountain and an open sea. If the verse was implying a pass between two obstacles, then Derbend still fits as a location. There is no conclusive proof yet for the location of this barrier, although the two locations called Derbend have many of the characteristics of the barrier we would imagine Dhu’l Qarnain to have built. For many reasons, it would seem more likely that the location near the Caspian Sea would seem to fit. We have focussed on Cyrus the Great, but many theologians have associated Dhu’l Qarnain with the famous Greek General Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great Alexander the Great was a great Greek leader from Macedonia who went on to conquer Asia M i n o r, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and right up to India. He was brought up believing that the Greek culture was superior and that all others were barbarians. As he conquered the ancient world, his army destroyed towns and massacred their people. As a military leader who built a great empire, Alexander is known throughout the world. 60 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 His tactical ability even in the face of greater enemies is now legendary. A l e x a n d e r’s army marched through Tu r k e y, then down through Syria into northern Egypt. Having defeated the Egyptians, he then headed north and East through Iraq, Persia and through the Caspian Gates as far east as India (Taxila), and the cities of Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand. In the extent of his empire, Alexander had emulated Cyrus from two centuries earlier. His army struggled against the climate and disease, and as he was leading them back through Persia, he died in 323 BCE at the tender age of just 33. After his death, his empire fragmented into fiefdoms run by his military generals. On the face of it, Alexander’s empire ended up covering a similar geography to Cyrus’. H o w e v e r, looking at the detail, Alexander marched East first to India (meandering through Egypt on the way) and then turned back west, so this does not fit the story in the Qur’an. Scholars would point to his first conquest west of Macedonia. They refer to the lake of Ochrida where the water is dark and fed by springs of murky w a t e r. This needs further investigation, but given its p r o x i m i t y, is unlikely to be described as a westward journey in the way that Cyrus’ expedition out of Persia into Turkey could b e . On the subject of the Gates of Iron, Alexander is associated with locations such as Derbend and other locations that could be described as Gates. H o w e v e r, Alexander’s ethics and religion would not fit the description of Dhu’l Qarnain. F i r s t l y, Alexander was not a monotheist, and secondly, he was ruthless towards his colleagues and towards the people that he subjugated. He was definitely a charismatic leader with great military tactics, but then other classical leaders such as Achilles and even the Romans could have claimed such characteristics. It is the behaviour and ethics of Cyrus that differentiate him and won 61 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 him plaudits even from his enemies in Greece. In these terms, Alexander has never been described as excep- tional or exemplary. His standing has always come from his knowledge of military tactics and his prowess as a general. C o n c l u s i o n Cyrus was a great world ruler and had the attributes of tolerance and religious purity that make him stand out as a truly great leader of men. He emerged from Persia at a time when Zoroaster ( a s ) w a s starting to spread his religious teachings and it is well understood that Cyrus was influenced by Zoroastrianism. This is attested to by not just his own people, but also those other nations that he liberated or conquered. The way that he is described in the Bible shows the impact that he had upon the Jewish community. So he could claim to be a man of God. As to the true identity of Dhu’l Qarnain, there seems a lot of evidence to point in Cyrus’ favour and away from Alexander the Great. However, there is still the issue of his interaction with the Jews not being mentioned in the Q u r’an that perhaps needs further i n v e s t i g a t i o n . 1 At that time, Persia was divided into two great kingdoms, the Medes and the Persians. References 1. Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Islam International Publications, 1998. 2. The Times Atlas of World History, 14th Edition, London 1995. 3. A History of Religious Ideas – Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Mircea Eliade, The University of Chicago Press 1978. 4. The Masks of God: Occidental M y t h o l o g y, Joseph Campbell, Penguin Books 1964. 5. S h o rter Illustrated History of the Wo r l d, J M Roberts, Helicon Publishing Ltd, Oxford 1993. 6. The Holy Qur ’ a n with English translation and commentary, Volume 3, Islam International Publications 1988. 7. History of the Persian Empire, A. T. Olmstead, The University of Chicago Press, 1959. 62 CYRUS the Great The Review of Religions – July 2004 63The Review of Religions – July 2004 Advertise your business in The Review of Religions and see sales scale to new heights. Existing adverts can be placed and sponsorship on regular features is available in this longest running worldwide Muslim monthly magazine. 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