On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commemorated a moment more than 2,500 years ago. “Today in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great entered Babylon and freed the Jewish people from captivity,” Pompeo tweeted. “His respect for human rights and religious freedom inspired America’s founding fathers. The U.S. stands with the Iranian people, who are blocked by the regime from celebrating his legacy.”
Pompeo was referring to a rather famous event in history. According to sources including biblical scripture, Cyrus allowed the Judeans deported and exiled following the ravages of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II to return to their homeland. His conquest of Babylon cemented his dominion over much of the lands we now consider to be the Middle East, an empire that stretched from the Indus River basin to the Mediterranean Sea. Like any other ancient warrior king, he presided over massacres and pillage, including a notorious incident immortalized by the ancient Greek chronicler Herodotus where Cyrus burned a vanquished foe and 14 young boys alive on a funeral pyre.
But Cyrus is memorialized by Iranians (and non-Iranians) as a unifying proto-national hero, an all-powerful emperor who still allowed for toleration and coexistence among different peoples, sects and religions. The Cyrus Cylinder, a barrel-shaped tablet etched in Babylonian cuneiform that was unearthed by archaeologists in the late 19th century, announced his victory and his desire to let his new subjects retain their traditions.
This may not be as unique as it seems; consider the stele inscriptions of the Indian emperor Ashoka a couple of centuries later that urged toleration and the “promotion of the essentials of all religious sects.” But the cylinder, which casts Cyrus as an agent of the Babylonian god Marduk, has come down as possibly one of the first documents codifying “human rights.” A replica of the ancient artifact sits on display in the lobby of the United Nations. America’s Founding Fathers, as Pompeo indicated, were inspired by classical accounts of Cyrus’s perceived virtue.
For the Trump administration, though, the symbolism behind Cyrus goes a bit further. Both Pompeo and Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, have frequently invoked Cyrus as a foil to attack the current theocratic rulers in Tehran. The legacy of the Achaemenid kings — the powerful imperial dynasty Cyrus helped forge — was directly embraced by Iran’s U.S.-backed shah, and therefore viewed with somewhat less enthusiasm by the revolutionary Islamist regime that unseated him. In 2016, a commemoration at Cyrus’s mausoleum in the ancient ruins of Pasargadae in southern Iran saw some people chant anti-regime slogans, prompting Iranian authorities to clamp down on gatherings at the site. The Trump administration has since frequently invoked Cyrus to poke the Islamic Republic in the eye.
In September, Hook cajoled Iran’s rulers at a speech in New York to “lead their nation in the noble tradition of those who came before them” and scolded them for being “nothing like” Cyrus the Great. Last year, a State Department spokeswoman said “the Iranian regime should learn a few lessons from his leadership” and stop persecuting religious minorities in its midst.
But it’s not just about scoring political points against Iran. Some right-wing Christian evangelical supporters of the president have embraced the idea of a “Trump prophecy,” seeing in Trump’s political gifts to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu — including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a glimmer of divine providence.
“Some evangelicals, who support Zionism out of the belief that the Jewish migration to Israel would trigger the Second Coming, have eagerly elevated Trump to the status of a biblical ruler,” Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi noted earlier this year. “He, in turn, has happily obliged and made a number of political concessions to Israel, out of the rather worldly consideration that the evangelical vote could win him re-election next year.”
Trump’s closest Israeli partner is only happy to oblige. Netanyahu has declared Trump to be one of a singular set of non-Jewish heroes “in the long sweep of Jewish history,” linking his deeds with those of the British Lord Balfour, President Harry S. Truman and, yes, Cyrus the Great.
Pompeo, a devout evangelical himself, has entertained other parallels also, citing the Old Testament story of Queen Esther, the Persian Jewish queen who foiled a plot to kill all Jews in the Achaemenid kingdom. Earlier this year while in Jerusalem, Pompeo was asked whether “President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?” He responded: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
On one level, the Trump administration’s fixation with Cyrus is deeply odd. It stands in contrast to Trump’s own rhetoric about the Middle East, which he often casts as a dark place shaped by eternal hatreds and wars. But the implicit religious appeal of the Cyrus story, one that is anchored in a celebration of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic past, is vintage Trumpism.
After all, in his first speech delivered abroad as president, Trump sighed wistfully before a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia about the glories of the region’s antiquity. “Egypt was a thriving center of learning and achievement thousands of years before other parts of the world,” Trump said, extolling “the wonders of Giza, Luxor and Alexandria,” “the ruins of Petra in Jordan,” and Iraq as “the cradle of civilization.”
He then shook his head at the blood-soaked Muslim-dominated present and expressed his belief that “the birthplace of civilization is waiting to begin a new renaissance.”
But the legacy of Cyrus is hardly a coherent launchpad for this renaissance. The conqueror who brought much of the Middle East under his sway isn’t exactly the best exemplar for an Iranian regime whose regional activities Trump wants to curb. Still, the mess and ambiguity of history may not be too much of a problem for Trump’s supporters, wrote Katherine Stewart, an expert on the Christian right. In an op-ed published by the New York Times, she argued that, at a time of political volatility, the Cyrus story offers a simple, welcome departure for Trump’s following.
“The great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules,” wrote Stewart. “They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times.”
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