Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Although it is often assumed that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, there are no contemporary sources that describe him as a follower of Zoroaster or even a worshiper of Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster was an important religious figure in Ancient Persia whose teachings became the foundation of a religious movement that would largely dominate Persia until the rise of Islam in the mid 7th century A.D.
The sources we have available regarding the time period in which Zoroaster lived are truly contradictory. The Avesta, the Persian sacred scriptures of Zoroastrianism, do not contain any reference to any single historically reliable event that could be linked to world chronology. There are, however, a number of items mentioned in the Avesta that seem to be chronologically meaningful, such as genealogical sequences, but the historical accuracy of these is questionable.
The teachings of Zoroaster had a very large impact on the major monotheistic religions which developed after his time, especially Christianity and Islam. Zoroaster's religious insight revolved around the idea of a cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazda, a supreme wise and benevolent deity, and Angra Mainyu, Ahura's evil opponent. Here on Earth, the people could support this struggle by taking sides. Living a virtuous life supports Ahura Mazda and contributes to the triumph of good over evil. Zoroaster encouraged his followers to worship Ahura Mazda, the wise lord, claiming the Old Persian deities were unworthy of worship and should be considered spirits of destruction. He believed that, in the end, Ahura Mazda would overcome his enemy in a final battle, destroy all evil, and restore the order of the cosmos, joining together Heaven and Earth. An important element of this teaching was “Free Will”. Zoroaster emphasized the moral responsibility of the individual and taught that every decision made was an opportunity to serve either good or evil.
The moral case developed by Zoroaster included telling the truth, being charitable and loving to other people, diet moderation, and keeping one's promises. According to the Avesta, the duty of each person had three aspects: to make friends out of one's enemies, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant knowledgeable.
After the rise of Islam in Persia, Zoroastrians were tolerated briefly, but soon persecuted, and their numbers fell as more and more people converted to the Islamic faith.
Zoroastrianism began during the Persian Empire, but it is unknown if Cyrus was a follower. During his time there was no orthodoxy and the Persians adhered to a wide array of loosely associated beliefs and practices. Ahura Mazda was just one among many Iranian gods and Zoroaster was just one prophet who happened to favor Ahura Mazda over all the others. Taking this into account, Cyrus was most likely a polytheist who grew up worshiping the traditional Iranian gods. The Greek historian Xenophon describes him as swearing an oath to Mithra, the Iranian god of oaths, but he may have turned to other gods for other purposes. It should therefore not surprise us that Cyrus offered sacrifices to the Babylonian gods Marduk and Nabu. This was his way of placating the gods of the lands that he conquered.
Cyrus' treatment of the Jews during their exile in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem is reported in the Bible, fully reproduced in the Book of Ezra:
“In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the King issued a decree: 'Concerning the
House of God at Jerusalem, let the Temple, the place where sacrifices are
offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained... and let the cost be paid
from the royal treasury. Also, let the gold and silver utensils of the House of
God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple of Jerusalem and brought
to Babylon, be returned and brought to their place in the Temple in Jerusalem;
and you shall put them in the House of God.'” - Ezra 6:3-5
Cyrus did release the nation of Israel from its exile without compensation or tribute and the Jews honored him as a dignified and righteous king. The Second Temple was eventually completed during the reign of Darius, in 516 B.C.
As with his birth and childhood, not much is known about the last nine years of Cyrus' life. Several early writers claim he died in battle somewhere in Central Asia while trying to expand his influence over the region. From Babylonian letters, it is known that Cyrus died before December 530 B.C. He was buried in his tomb in Pasargadae, along with his cloak, his weapons, and his jewels.
In the end, Cyrus founded the largest empire the world had yet seen. He created an organized army including the famous immortals unit, consisting of 10,000 highly trained soldiers. He also formed an innovative postal system throughout the empire. He accommodated the cultural and religious practices of the lands he conquered, thus winning the respect of his subjects. The empire was held together mostly through personal loyalty to the king.
Over time, the 'imperial structure' of the Achaemenid Empire became more standardized, especially after the reforms of Darius. But it was Cyrus, through his conquests and his ability to inspire loyalty among his subjects, who laid the foundations of the Persian Empire.
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