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Cyrus, an Iranian King, a Savior of Jews

September 30, 2013
Jahanshah Javid
8 min read
Cyrus, an Iranian King, a Savior of Jews
Cyrus, an Iranian King, a Savior of Jews

Cyrus, an Iranian King, a Savior of Jews

King Koresh St. in Tel Aviv

Like most people I knew Cyrus the Great had freed the Jews and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. But that was about it. When I spoke to Dr. Kamran Urshalimi (David Yeroushalmi), a professor at the Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, I realized that for Jews the story is much more serious. Suffice to say they consider the Iranian emperor not just as their savior but have raised him to divine status.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I am Kamran Urshalimi. I was born in Tehran and migrated to Israel when I was around 16-years old. I received my PhD from Colombia University and I am currently at the Middle East section of Tel Aviv University in the Center for Iranian Studies involved with various activities including teaching, writing and research. I teach Persian and Iranian history, particularly the cultural heritage of Persian-speaking Jews.

At what point does Cyrus enter Jewish history?

In 586 B.C. the Babylonian empire led by its powerful leader Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple of Jerusalem, enslaved the Jews and moved them to Babylonia, in today's Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persian army and the regions under their control fell into the hands of Cyrus the Great, including areas inhabited by the Jews. After the fall of the Babylonians, Cyrus issued a declaration in 539 B.C. freeing all the oppressed nations enslaved by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians. The declaration meant two things. First, it meant religious freedom for people living according to their own particular beliefs and faith. Second, Cyrus allowed prisoners of war to go back to their homeland.

One of the peoples who were given permission by the Achaemenid emperors to go back were the Jews. They even received financial, moral and political support to return to Israel, or Palestine. Of course there is a lot of debate on what to call that region but in any case it was the same geographical place where the Jews lived 1300 years before Christ until the destruction the first temple of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Cyrus allowed them to go back and resume their political, social and religious existence.

We have no doubts about this. There is a lot of historical documents, especially in the Torah. The Torah has several historical sections that give us a lot of information. We know exactly what kind of relationship existed between Cyrus, other Achaemenid leaders, and the Jews. We know one of the Jews who received permission to return the Jews to Israel was Ezra. In the Torah we have the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah who are in fact two characters in Jewish history who are considered prophets. They were top associates of Cyrus and later Darius II.

Political associates?

Political and social associates in the administration of the time. Apparently they had close ties with Cyrus. Especially Ezra. When Cyrus issued his declaration in 539 B.C. he not only allowed Ezra to return the Jews to their own land, but also collected the religious symbols that were looted by the Babylonians from the first temple of Jerusalem and gave them to Ezra as a gesture of goodwill from Persia and the Achaemenids and helped them rebuild the second temple of Jerusalem.

How important is Cyrus in Jewish history?

In Jewish holy books which are the basis of the Torah, Cyrus is the only figure who has been explicitly mentioned about 20 times as a savior of the Jewish people and deliverer of God's will. It is very difficult to compare him with Jewish religious figures but he is certainly one of the highest religious personalities, even though he was not a Jew and did not have religious roots. Nevertheless, because of what he did for the Jews, he has the highest historical position.

Is Cyrus remembered in Jewish ceremonies?

None of the Jewish festivals is dedicated to Cyrus. But since his name is often mentioned in the Torah, and with high praise, Jews recall him as a savior when they read the book of prophets in their temples. We come across Cyrus' name much more often in the historical sense, than in religious ceremonies and festivals.

Cyrus has also been mentioned in other Jewish texts, especially the Talmud. And that's no accident. The Talmud was written under the rule of another Persian dynasty, the Sassanids (220 A.D. until the Arab invasion in 634). In the Talmud -- written during that period in Iraq (part of the Persian empire at the time), where many Jews lived and Jewish centers thrived even more than today's Israel -- there are many stories and interpretations about Cyrus. In all of  them there are praiseful references about the role of Cyrus in Jewish history.

Another interesting thing I wanted to mention is that up to this point we have talked about Jews in general. The Persian-speaking Jews at the time could have returned to Israel after Cyrus issued his declaration. But some of them decided to stay and have continued to live in Persia until today. Today there are about 20,000 to 25,000 Jews living in large Iranian cities such as Tehran and Isfahan and to some extent in Yazd, Kermanshah and Hamedan. They were scattered all over Iran and even though some of them migrated after the revolution for various reasons, a large number of them still live there.

This is how much Jewish Iranians love Iran and its history.  The reason I mention this is that other than the role of Cyrus in Jewish history, there are Jewish literary works in Persian in the form of poetry and prose. A lot of these works started to emerge in early 10th century A.D. They were in Persian but in Hebrew alphabet.

What topics did they cover?

They were mostly religious interpretations. But there were also books of poetry similar to the Iranian literary tradition under the influence of Ferdowsi, Nizami and to a great extent the Sufi poets such as Jami and Rumi. One of these poets who was very famous among Jews was Shahin. He is from the 13th century A.D. around the time of the Ilkhanids.  One of the works of this great Jewish poet is called Ardishirnameh, which is about the story of Cyrus and Jewish affairs in Persia.  

One of the very interesting things is that Iranian Jews believe that Cyrus is the son of Esther, the Jewish queen. Shahin reports that Iranian Jews think Cyrus' father was Persian and his mother was Jewish. Of course this has no historical basis but it's very important in terms of Iranian Jewish psychology because it shows how much they loved and respected Cyrus and wanted to make him one of their own. They saw Cyrus as a Jewish-Iranian, which shows that they also identified themselves as Jewish as well as Iranian.

It seems Cyrus is a much more significant figure for Jews than for Iranians.

Cyrus is a very important figure in Iran's long history. But he is not divine. In Iran his importance is as a political leader who founded a great dynasty. But from the Jewish point of view, he is more like a patriotic and religious figure. In iran they are not aware of Cyrus' character and what he did as much as they should. Some 30 years ago, during Pahlavi rule, there was a lot of emphasis on the Achaemenid period. Before the Islamic regime took over, they mentioned Cyrus a lot because they wanted to return Iran to her pre-Islamic roots. It was no accident that they held the 2,500-year celebrations in Cyrus' capital near Shiraz. In school textbooks there were many references  to Cyrus as a great historical figure. But it's true: the Iranian and Jewish perceptions of Cyrus, despite the many similarities, are different.

Is Cyrus studied Israeli schools?

Yes. To get a diploma students must study history, especially Jewish history. And they have to learn about the return of the Jews and the support they received from Cyrus as referred to in Jewish holy books, namely the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Students in Jewish schools have to lean about Cyrus' character, who he was, what was his relationship with the Jews and what role he had in Jewish history.

What about in universities?

Unfortunately Iranian studies in Israeli universities is limited to contemporary times, the 19th and 20th centuries, especially after the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Not enough attention is given to ancient Iranian history. Of course all five universities in Israel offer Persian language courses as well as courses on Iranian history and culture, but as I said, the focus is on contemporary times.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was a pioneer in Iranian studies in Israel. They gave a lot of importance to pre-Islamic Iranian history because you cannot understand post-Islamic Iran without knowing about her pre-Islamic culture, history and religion. So in Jerusalem there was a lot of emphasis on the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid dynasties. But unfortunately in recent years the professors who taught these courses have either stopped working or passed way. Because of financial problems the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has to a large extent shut down a large department which covered Iran, Armenia and India. For this reason pre-Islamic Iran is not studied in Jerusalem or at any other university in Israel. And that's unfortunate.


July 31, 2014

Are there any possibilities that Cyrus the Great was a descendent of King David? If so he is the real Messiah. It is said he was crucified. Wasn't Esthel, Ahasuerus' jewish wife his mother? Are Ahasuerus and Xerxes the same person? What did Ctesias say? I feel Jews make little of Cyrus the Great as well as C